Grant Lucas

Taylor Ohlson loves being girlie.

The Mountain View freshman concedes that she is “really into makeup and vanity.” In her younger years, Ohlson recalls, her mother liked dolling her up, leading Ohlson to find joy in modeling. But don’t let her appearance fool you. Do not be thrown when the 126-pound wrestler, sporting makeup and with her blond hair peeking out from beneath her headgear, steps onto the mat.

Because Ohlson loves being girlie — but she balances it out with a determined toughness.

A triplet, she has wrestled and boxed against her two brothers, Blake and Beau, also Mountain View freshmen. Taylor prides herself on having beaten up both of them every now and then, though she has lost her share of those sibling scuffles. She has fed off her brothers’ competitiveness. She became driven, finding her way to the gym to work out as much as she could to develop that toughness that has helped her become a standout wrestler.

“I want to be an Olympian,” says Ohlson, who has a record of 11-1 so far this season for the Cougars, wrestling mostly against girls but also against boys at the JV level. “I always felt like I was different, so I wanted to kind of do something different.”

Ohlson has stepped out of the norm by taking to the mats, yet she is part of a wave of high school girls who have done just the same.

In the 2012-13 wrestling season, 131 girls at 59 high schools were certified to compete via the Oregon Wrestling Weight Monitoring Program, numbers that have swelled to 350 girls a 103 schools this season. The rising rate of female participation in wrestling has led the Oregon School Activities Association to institute a girls state tournament, which is overseen by the Oregon Wrestling Association. That tournament, started three years ago, is staged in conjunction with the traditional OSAA boys state championships each at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum.

“What’s happened is that there are many of us who believe that women’s wrestling is going to save men’s wrestling,” explains longtime Mountain View coach Les Combs. “The flip side to it, too, is that dads who are wrestlers that don’t have sons, one of the things they’ve found out, (wrestling) makes for very confident, very physically mature girls who take care of themselves. They’re not afraid. They’re physically confident. The girls who are wrestlers, they stand up for themselves. The benefits of wrestling are amazing.”

“It’s saving college wrestling,” adds Bend High coach Luke Larwin, who wrestled at the University of Oregon. “A reason a lot of the smaller college programs are able to be maintained or even be added is because you can immediately meet Title IX provisions by adding a women’s team at the same time. … It just makes a lot of sense. It’s a good thing. It’s in the Olympics. We’re really far behind other countries in terms of initiating women doing this. It’s a really great thing for the sport.”

Last season, 14 girls were listed on Central Oregon wrestling rosters; this season, the number is 30. They compete and train against boys, against girls, against anyone willing to step onto the mat.

“The thing that motivates us is it’s just a mission to create opportunity,” says Larwin, who believes the Lava Bears to have been the first Central Oregon high school program to create a girls team. “It’s a mission to help young people accomplish their goals, no matter what. We have a wrestler’s creed at Bend High, which is loyalty, integrity and having vision. As a coaching staff, we decided that encouraging women to join our team and become a team within themselves really epitomized the character culture that we’re trying to establish with our high school wrestling program. It exhibits that positivity and that inclusiveness. It’s doing the right thing no matter what to include female athletes and help them accomplish their goals. It’s showing loyalty to everyone in the school. And it’s looking to the future of the sport, being able to help the sport adapt and evolve just like everything else adapts and evolves.”

Last year, Dave Heitzman organized what he believes was Central Oregon’s first all-girls wrestling tournament, which was held in Gilchrist, known as the Tough As Nails, which was canceled this season due to inclement winter weather.

“We were trying to get more interest here,” says Heitzman, the Gilchrist High coach. “The Bend schools, they all had some girls; they have more this year. It’s just a way to get some things fired up. We could basically see (the rise) coming. In talking with the refs and officials and stuff, they go, ‘Hey, this is what’s saving our sport right now.’ The total number of wrestlers is way down. … (There has been) a drop in boys overall numbers, but the girls have brought it up to where they still have things going.”

One of those girls is Kerrilee McMahan, a 132-pound sophomore at Gilchrist who last season won the OWA girls state title at 120 pounds to become her school’s first wrestling state champion, regardless of gender. McMahan, who is 6-2 this season, notes that in several tournaments so far this season, she has been the lone female in the field, though she welcomes the challenge of wrestling the boys. At other tourneys, however, she is far from alone.

“It’s fun going to tournaments and seeing other girl wrestlers. I always appreciate them and thank them,” says McMahan, who earlier this season became a certified wrestling official. She had long desired to become a referee in the sport after meeting a female official when McMahan was in middle school. McMahan says she idolized that official, and now she is determined to leave a similar impression on younger female wrestlers.

“I still want the sport to grow,” McMahan says, “and if I can show everyone that I can get out there and (wrestle), anybody can. … I feel like it’s better, because girls aren’t looked at now as the minority.”

Combs looks back to 10 years ago, when a girl outwrestling a boy would be “devastating” for the boy. He also remembers attending the 2004 women’s wrestling Olympic trials. “Oh, my gosh,” Combs says. “Women’s wrestling has just come leaps and bounds.” And in more ways than one.

“I really think the girls disappear in the room,” the Mountain View coach says. “Not go away. If a girl is in there doing their best, the guys don’t care. All they want is, ‘Whoever’s in the room, do your best.’ They blend in. They fit. … I think, in a room, at a certain point, wrestling is wrestling and kids are kids, and they want to compete. If you’re in there and working as hard as you can, they don’t care who you are.”

Ohlson has heard the questions about her femininity. “Oh, you’re so girlie,” she has heard. “How do you wrestle being so girlie?” That, Ohlson says, is where she has an edge. Opponents look at her and “kind of take me for granted.” More often than not, Ohlson is able to showcase her skills — another way to prove that she is more than just a girl while excelling in the sport about which she has become passionate.

“I really love the sport, so it’s doing what I want to do,” Ohlson says. “But I do feel people really do judge that I’m pretty and I wrestle. I do want to prove that wrong, that I can wrestle, too.”

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