Women's wrestling makes Olympic debut

Don't bother telling Tela O'Donnell any jokes about women wrestlers. After seven years in the sport, she has already heard them all.

"Sometimes they're not too classy with their comments, which is unfortunate,'' the 21-year-old wrestler said. "They always say something about mud-wrestling. Somebody recently said some pretty unnecessary comments and I thought, 'Why would you say that?'"

Let them have their cheap laughs. The final punchline belongs to O'Donnell -- she's going to wrestle in the Olympics. The woman from Homer, Alaska, is going to the land of Homer, along with three other American women wrestlers -- Patricia Miranda, Sara McMann and Toccara Montgomery. The U.S. women stand an excellent chance at medaling -- three of the four Olympians won silver medals at last year's world championships.

While wrestling has been an Olympic sport since Socrates watched from the cheap seats, this is the first time for women's wrestling at the Games. That might come as a surprise to most U.S. fans, who probably weren't even aware women competed in the sport.

"We have a great elite level team but our development team is below other countries,'' U.S. women's coach Terry Steiner said. "Women's wrestling is still not accepted in the high school systems here, while Canada has it in most high schools and 19 colleges. It's generally more accepted than it is here in the U.S. That's where our efforts have to pick up at the grass roots.

"It's a matter of changing attitudes. It's a sport that not only is not accepted in general, it's something that's not even accepted or respected in its own sport. Doing well in the Olympics can be a great catalyst for our sport.''

Like all women wrestlers, O'Donnell, who wrestles in the 65-kilo/121-pound class, knows that only too well. When she first wanted to wrestle in eighth grade ("I wasn't so good at volleyball"), she had to petition the school board for permission. And even then, the board only granted her the right to participate in workouts, not actual tournaments.

"People would ask why I would go to all that trouble and work if I couldn't wrestle in a tournament," O'Donnell said. "And I would say, I just like wrestling.''

O'Donnell's teammate, Patricia Miranda, can appreciate that. She wrestled at Stanford even though the school doesn't have a women's program, wrestling instead on the men's team (she was 1-7 in college-only matches -- her only victory was by forfeit). Then again, it's not like she had a lot of alternatives, though. Only six colleges offer women's wrestling.

Steiner says that many coaches resent women's wrestling out of fear that it will cut funding for the men's programs at the collegiate level, where the sport is already challenged enough.

"Some dislike it from that point. And some think that a women's place isn't on the wrestling mat,'' he said. "Some people ask, 'Why women's wrestling?' I turn it around and ask, 'Why not?' Everyone who's in coaching believes in the sport of wrestling. It gives us experiences, life skills and lessons they can take on to rest of their lives. If we believe in that, why do we want to limit the sport to half the population?

"I ask them, 'Do you have a daughter? What if she wants to follow in your footsteps? Would you want her to go through the same ridicule and harassment these women have?'"

Indeed. Wrestling is a grueling sport, demanding strength, discipline and training rarely matched by other sports. The women not only had to endure all that but also they had to put up with narrow-minded people saying they shouldn't even be on the mat. Compared to that, the Olympics are just another challenge to be conquered.

"It almost makes the women wrestle that much harder and push that much harder,'' O'Donnell said. "And not just because of them, for yourself. You never want to use that excuse, 'I'm a girl, I'm weaker.'

"The girls who take it seriously win their respect.''

And if they perform well in Athens, they could win even more.

"Hopefully, more people will see it and see that women can wrestle, too,'' O'Connell said. "It will give other people the opportunity to wrestle and find that is a good sport for them.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.