All we’re trying to do is give them a platform where girls can wrestle, a platform where they can grow and empower themselves. —Utah girls wresting director Billy Cox
WASHINGTON TERRACE — The bruises were reminders that some boys would rather hurt her than compete with her.
Instead of deterring Bonneville senior Samantha Bush, however, that reaction energized her.
“Some (wrestlers) would just go real hard to try and hurt or discourage me,” she said after a recent meet at Bonneville High. “You can definitely tell the difference. But it didn’t discourage me. It really just pushed me to work harder so I’d be able to beat them.”
The 120-pound wrestler, who earlier this month became just the second girl in Utah history to sign an academic scholarship that will allow her to wrestle in college, said she experienced three basic reactions her sophomore season — those who’d rather forfeit than wrestle a girl; those who tried to discourage her; and those who just competed against her. In just three years, she said she’s seen a major shift in attitude.
“It’s gotten a lot better, and when it happens, the refs usually call it,” Bush said. “Women’s wrestling is growing in respect.”
Female wrestling is, in fact, one of the country’s fastest growing sports, according to Utah girls wresting director Billy Cox. In fact, this year in Utah, 68 high school girls have taken the hydration test required to compete in UHSAA sanctioned events.
Since 1994, the number of women who wrestle in high school has grown from 804 to 11,496, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Utah's first female high school wrestler to earn a college scholarship was Hillcrest's Zamantha Mulder, who signed with McKendree University in 2015.
Women's wrestling is not yet a sanction Division III sport, but MacMurray State abides by NCAA Division III rules. Therefore, all scholarships are academic, and then coaches extended an offer for Bush to wrestle on the school's women's wrestling team.
Currently, 30 colleges now sponsor a women’s varsity wrestling program. And maybe most helpful to the growth of the sport is that it was sanctioned as an Olympic sport in 2004.
Bush said she’s not sure the Olympics are in her future, but she celebrated signing a scholarship with MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, earlier this month at a post-meet ceremony that included her family, coaches, teammates and even some opponents.
For Bush, the decision to wrestle seems a natural one as her younger siblings — two boys and a girl — all wrestled from a young age.
“I was kind of on the fence about it,” she said of the sport. “I played volleyball and softball because I wanted to do my own thing.”
Her sophomore season, she wrestled after volleyball, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I just fell in love with it,” Bush said smiling. “I felt like I fit in on the wrestling mat.”
In Utah, like most states, if girls want to wrestle in high school, they have to wrestle with and against boys. She shrugs at the idea that it’s controversial because it’s become so common, with eight states offering girls-only state championship meets.
The growth offers women new opportunities to compete at every level.
“The culture is slowly changing,” Cox said. “What you think a girl wrestler is may no longer be the case.” He credits high-profile MMA star Rhonda Rousey for helping shift the perception of female wrestling. Club programs develop female wrestlers at younger ages, similar to the youth programs that have benefited their male counterparts for decades.
At Bush’s signing was Rachael Meyer, the new USA Wrestling Utah Girls National Team coach. She is a new kind of coach for aspiring female athletes in that she was a prep and college athlete who is now coaching.
“She’s teaching the sport to the younger generation,” Cox said, noting there are seven girls wrestling clubs in Utah. “A lot of these girls just want to do something different.” One alluring aspect of the sport is that there are no cuts. Coaches are fond of pointing out that the sport is so grueling, so demanding, it cuts anyone who isn’t serious.
“All we’re trying to do is give them a platform where girls can wrestle,” Cox said, “a platform where they can grow and empower themselves.”
Kelly Janis, who presented Bush with a certificate signed by numerous officials and dignitaries, including Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, said Bush’s success will inspire other young female wrestlers, including her own daughter, who will wrestle at Layton High.
“She is going to set a precedent for girls getting scholarships through wrestling,” Janis said.
One of the reasons Bush loves the sport is because it challenges her. Nothing about it is easy.
“I love that it pushed me,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to wrestle in college. I want to grow as a wrestler, and I want to see the top of the podium at a high level.”
She’s earned two state championships in freestyle at 123 pounds at girls super state meets. She’s also earned podium spots at other national tournaments, including third place at an under-18 national event in Reno.
Bush had to wrestle four other athletes to earn Bonneville’s varsity 120-pound spot.
The oldest of Bethanie and Kasey Bush’s four children, Bush signed her National Letter of Intent after Bonneville’s meet with Bountiful. She lost to Braves’ 120-pounder Jonathon Johnson, who was one of those wrestlers who supported and helped Bush when she first started the sport.
Her parents said they’ve never doubted their daughter would achieve her goal of earning a scholarship in wrestling.
“From day one,” Bethanie Bush said of when she thought her daughter might have enough talent to earn a college scholarship through the sport. “When Sam makes a decision to do something, she jumps in (completely). She goes all in. It’s all or nothing with her.”