Women's Weekly

Women's Weekly: Will Beach Wrestling Be An Olympic Sport?

Women's Weekly: Will Beach Wrestling Be An Olympic Sport?

Beach wrestling is on the rise and so is the Hildebrandt family. And where has Menlo been for two years?

Dec 1, 2021 by Kyle Klingman
Women's Weekly: Will Beach Wrestling Be An Olympic Sport?

The growth of women’s wrestling at the high school and college level is spilling into international wrestling. The Olympics currently offers three different wrestling disciplines: men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle, and men’s Greco-Roman.

That could change by the end of the decade. 

Women’s beach wrestling is on the table for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Men and women would each have two disciplines if this becomes a reality. And that would be just fine with USA Wrestling executive director Rich Bender. 

“As we build women’s participation in the sport, we have to make sure that we’re building a solid foundation,” Bender said. “Anything that we can do to provide the same opportunities for females to participate in the Olympic Games in the sport of wrestling, we need to pursue.

“I think it’s legitimately a desire to have more gender equity in the sport at the Olympic level. I know the international federation believes that (beach wrestling) is a legitimate possibility. I think it’s legit. I think it’s possible.”

This would ultimately change the scope of Bender’s job if beach wrestling became an Olympic sport. USA Wrestling would be responsible for overseeing the new discipline, which would include funding and building a national team. 

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to provide the resources and the opportunity to pursue that pathway,” Bender said. “It’s creating events. It’s creating a national team, ultimately — just like we do with the other three teams. 

“I think the sport needs a little more tweaking to make sure the rules are right and we’re still learning about the best way to present it. You don’t have to look very far to see the impact that beach volleyball has had on volleyball. I think there’s some potential upside.”

Luft Tuff

Lilly Luft — a state champion from Iowa — has already shown interest in the sport as a viable option to make an Olympic team. Luft placed fourth at the Cadet Beach World Championships over the summer when she was asked to compete on the team. 

Beach wrestling consists of one three-minute period and the first wrestler to three points wins the match. There are a few nuances, but, for the most part, it’s all about takedowns and step-outs. 

“I started training for beach wrestling right away even though I had never done it before. The rules are a lot different than what I’m used to,” Luft said. “We have a volleyball court at our local fairgrounds so we practiced there every day. It was a lot of Greco and upper body training.

“I love the aggressiveness of beach wrestling. It’s still the same wrestling. We still do the same things. You see how strong they are in their upper body. It was fun to see where I stood against the best in the world.”

What’s The Hangup In Iowa?

Luft currently competes at Charles City High School even though Iowa has not sanctioned girls wrestling — yet. There is an end-of-the-year state competition hosted by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association (IWCOA) but there isn’t a dedicated yearlong sport just for girls. 

Charles City currently has 14 high school girls on the team with 17 in junior high. Those are good numbers but it’s not like that everywhere in the state. 

“I have friends who are the only girls on the team and a lot of community members don’t support them,” Luft said. “I’m fortunate to be in a community that backs up our girls' wrestling team. 

“There can be hurt feelings with a girl taking away a boy’s spot on the wrestling team. Until we are sanctioned and have our own division, it’s going to be something that a lot of schools are going to be struggling with. Getting sanctioned will help that a lot.”

Where Has Menlo Been?

Menlo may have been the best women’s wrestling team in the country during the 2019-20 college season regardless of division. Then they disappeared. 

The Oaks were a favorite to win the 2020 NAIA Championships before they were canceled due to a global pandemic. Strict COVID protocols in California derailed all of last season for Menlo. Several coaches and athletes left the program when the virus hit — and the wrestling team is still recovering from it. 

Head coach Joey Bareng had to navigate limited practice time and no competition for nearly two years. 

“We just started competing,” Bareng said. “The last couple of weeks was the first time we’ve competed in over 21 months. That was the last time we brought kids in a Menlo singlet to a school and competed. We were the one team that was really affected when you talk about the top teams in the country.

“I think 90 percent of the schools competed last year. They got 30-something matches in — maybe more. I’ve coached a long time and this has been — by far — the hardest thing to overcome for me as a coach.”

Family Tradition

Hildebrandt has become a popular name in wrestling as of late. 

Sarah, 28, won a bronze medal at the Olympics and a silver at the World Championships this year. 

Amy, 25, is the head women’s coach at Trine University in Angola, Indiana. 

Drew, 24, placed fourth at the 2021 NCAA Championships and is looking for more during his senior season. 

Trine added women’s wrestling in 2020 and hired Amy as its inaugural coach. The Thunder had a wrestler reach the Round of 12 at the National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championships in 2021 despite a limited team. 

This year’s roster includes only five wrestlers and no assistant coaches. 

“It’s a lot different building a program than inheriting it,” Amy said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing because you do get to put your own spin on things and you get to build the team and the culture. 

“It’s a brand new program so I really get a chance to develop girls. I get to really put in the time to help my girls understand how to wrestle. I’m working toward getting a bigger team but it is nice as I’m building the program to really get the technique down for what will soon be my upperclassmen.”