MCPHERSON, Kan. — She was awkward at sports that involved rackets, balls or any kind of equipment. And the middle school girls she considered friends picked on her instead.

Finally fed up with being bullied, Mya Kretzer looked for a new crowd in seventh grade and found it in wrestling, a sport that ran through her family like strong winds whip through Kansas.

She loved wrestling’s demands: the discipline and commitment required to control an opponent using only skill, technique and grit. And if she had to practice and compete against sweaty boys, the chance to wrestle was worth it, she decided.

But no matter how much she improved, Kretzer soon realized she would never have a realistic chance to become a state champion.

She could compete and enter any tournament she chose.

But because Kansas did not recognize girls wrestling as an official sport, she would have to beat the best boys in her weight class to win a state title — a virtual impossibility given the greater strength and muscle mass boys tend to develop as they get older.

What girls needed, she believed, was to have a sport of their own. Achieving that goal came to define her high school wrestling career.

“Wrestling gives you what you need to be successful,” Kretzer explained. “It gives you dedication, commitment. It gives you somewhere where you belong. You can be your own self and be a total badass.”

Kretzer’s campaign to make girls’ wrestling an official high school sport in Kansas — as it already was in Oregon, California and 12 other states — began four years ago on a wrestling mat in McPherson, a town of 13,077 in central Kansas. But it speaks more broadly to female athletes’ ongoing struggle everywhere for full-fledged opportunity nearly half a century after the passage of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex at schools that receive federal funds.

There is no question Title IX revolutionized sports participation among girls and women in the United States. Since its passage in 1972, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls participating in high school sports has grown more than elevenfold, from 294,000 in 1971 to 3.4 million last year.

“Without Title IX, we simply would not be here after decades and decades and decades of being told girls weren’t interested in sports or wouldn’t be very good if they played,” said Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “What we have found is that girls and women are deeply interested in playing sports if they are given an opportunity.”

For decades, however, female athletes have had to battle a hostile culture, if not outright bans, for that opportunity. Kretzer was hardly the first to lead the fight.

“Until very recently, females were stigmatized for having an interest in sports — and especially for having an interest in sports that have been closely identified with maleness,” Kane said. “It makes logical sense, given that ideological structure and tradition of sports, that girls, as any minority group, constantly have to fight and re-fight battles for equality. Think about the energy that is expended by them to overcome the barriers put in their place.”

On a mission

Mya Kretzer has no shortage of energy on the topic of wrestling.

In the crowded hallways of a high school, she might seem unremarkable — a girl of average height, at 5 feet 4, with blue-green eyes and a passion for glitter-red nail polish. But Kretzer can squat 200 pounds and bench press 118, just shy of her body weight. She has cultivated her inner warrior since she was 12.

“You can get this negativity loop in your head over trying to be what other people want you to be or trying to impress people. That’s a lot of what young girls think about, instead of being your own self,” said Kretzer, now 18. “Wrestling allows you to find yourself. With your wins and losses, you get to reflect and try to develop yourself into something better. It’s not something you practice a few hours; it’s a 24/7, full commitment. The struggles in wrestling help you with the struggles outside of wrestling.”

Wrestling gives Kretzer purpose, just as it did her father, her two elder brothers and her twin brother, all of whom wrestled for McPherson High. It also gave her the personal motto that is tattooed on her left forearm, “On a mission,” and inspired the clipper-ship tattoo on her left calf that reminds her she is the captain of her own ship.

To that end, she logs her daily fitness routine in the wrestling journals she has kept for years. A recent entry included 150 situps, 100 pushups, 50 ­pullups, 100 bicycle crunches and 200 squats.

Wrestling dictates her meals, daily water consumption and regimen of vitamins C and B12 and CBD oil. It is also a prerequisite for would-be boyfriends. “And they have to be my size, so I can wrestle them,” she said. “And I’m not kidding.”

Her bedroom is filled with wrestling trophies, medals, plaques, posters and her red and white McPherson Bullpups letter jacket covered with patches commemorating her powerlifting records, podium finishes and three victories in an unofficial state championship for girls.

Though plenty of girls in McPherson come from wrestling families and tried the sport as children at a local club, most give it up in adolescence. In Kretzer’s freshman year, she was one of just three girls on McPherson’s wrestling team.

The isolation was tough, at times.

At meets, where she wrestled against boys if there were no girls in her weight class, she would often have to hunt for a closet or vacant referee’s office to use as a changing room because the girls locker room was locked. Stepping onto the mat, she felt every skeptical eye on her. Worse, she could not show the offensive skills she had mastered because all of her strength had to go into defense against boys who wrestled twice as hard against her to avoid being ridiculed for losing to a girl.

In so many ways, she felt this was not fair. It was not fair to girls, who generally could not match the muscle mass of equal-sized boys. And it was not fair to boys, who faced three options: throttle a girl, default if they felt uneasy about wrestling a girl, or get mocked by their peers if they lost.

So as captain of her wrestling ship, Kretzer took on double duty her freshman year, determined to grow girls wrestling at McPherson and prove to the Kansas State High School Activities Association that there was enough interest to make girls wrestling an official sport in the state.

Her father, Doug Kretzer, who continues to juggle his job at an oil refinery with coaching McPherson’s wrestling team, vowed to do all he could to help.

“Until they have the ability to always compete against other females, we’re leaving tons of girls out who aren’t in the sport that otherwise might be,” he said.

With the backing of the school’s athletic director, Shane Backhus, the Kretzers developed a plan to bolster the ranks. They started with a simple idea: Get each girl on the team to recruit one other girl.

Key to their pitch was a promotional video produced by Wrestle Like a Girl, a nonprofit organization founded by sports advocate Sally Roberts, a decorated former wrestler and Army combat veteran.

The video hooked Morgan Jones, who attended a wrestling team meeting at Mya Kretzer’s urging, saw the video and joined the squad. Jones said her confidence was shaky at that point, after she had idled on the bench much of her time on the McPherson’s girls basketball team. Through wrestling, she said, she gained a new sense of her ability. She started speaking up more in class and set her sights on becoming a firefighter.

“If I could wrestle with all these guys and keep up with them, I feel like I can run into a burning building and help people,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, Kretzer did all she could to win a state title — including shedding 20 pounds in her junior year.

She joined her father at high school wrestling coaches seminars around the state. He led breakout sessions on the potential of girls wrestling to grow the sport’s ranks and she followed with a personal appeal, looking each coach in the eye and asking him to promise to work with any girl who wanted to wrestle.

Backhus, McPherson’s athletic director, made a similar pitch to his peers, with a goal of getting 24 Kansas high schools to offer girls wrestling.

“When we sat down and started thinking about it and looked at every other sport, we don’t make the girls run against the boys in the 100-meter dash,” Backhus said. “We don’t make the girls play the boys during tennis season or compete against them in swim meets. It just made perfect sense.”

McPherson went a step further in 2017, hosting an unofficial Kansas state girls wrestling championship in the school’s storied Roundhouse gymnasium. The first year, 56 girls took part. The next year, 135. And last year, more than 220 competed.

The growth mirrored a national trend, according to Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

“What we have found is, typically high school wrestling grows a lot faster when girls are competing against other girls and boys are competing against other boys,” Moyer said. “The challenge is, until you have enough critical mass, there is no alternative to having girls compete with boys. The quicker we can get to critical mass of young girls wrestling in every state, the quicker the growth will be accelerated.”

For Kretzer, making wrestling an official girls high school sport in Kansas seemed an obvious solution — though it would take until this past April, just weeks before her graduation, for the state high school activities association to finally consider doing so.

Mission accomplished

Kretzer was excused early from school to make the two-hour drive to Topeka with her father to attend the vote.

Her own high school wrestling career was over, her postseason cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in a tournament in Oklahoma. She hobbled into the packed boardroom with an ankle-to-thigh brace stabilizing her surgically repaired left knee and took a seat in the section reserved for observers.

All stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a roll call of the school principals, athletic directors, coaches and administrators on the board of directors. With 65 present, 33 votes were needed to pass a proposal, and nearly 30 proposals were on the agenda.

Keeping quiet was not easy. Kretzer clutched her silenced cellphone so she could blast the result to her McPherson teammates back home. And when the wrestling proposal finally came up, two hours into the proceedings, she gritted her teeth.

Doug Kretzer was asked to introduce the motion on girls wrestling, and he reviewed data about its growth in Kansas, as well as in neighboring Missouri, where the number of female wrestlers jumped from 171 to more than 900 after the state sanctioned a high school postseason series for girls.

Debate followed, more about the wording of the resolution rather than its merits, and Kretzer could keep silent no more. She feared the discussion had bogged down in granular details and that the main point — what was fair for girls — was getting lost.

Kretzer had spent her entire high school years working for just this moment — and now the moment felt like years. Finally, they called for a vote.

When those in favor were asked to raise their hands, she looked up and scanned the room. Her face flushed red; her expression contorted.

The room was a sea of raised hands. The proposal passed, 63-2. Her mind went blank, and tears fell.

“Happy tears?” she was asked at a whisper.

She took a breath, suddenly flooded with conflicting emotions.

She had accomplished so much; she was so grateful for the overwhelming support. But she would never benefit. She would never win a state title and have her name listed alongside those of McPherson’s past state champions in the school’s wrestling room. Maybe, she thought, her daughters would one day.

“Hard tears,” she whispered in reply.

Mya Kretzer is now a freshman at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where she is sitting out the 2019-20 wrestling season after undergoing a second knee surgery. She still aspires to qualify for USA Wrestling’s world and Olympic teams.

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