Girl power

Rizzo PAL partners with Beat the Streets to create girls-only wrestling program.

Fierce females: Colleen Kline (left) and Jasintai Mallqui prepare to practice basic skills while Jessica Medina watches at the Rizzo PAL Girls Freestyle Wrestling practice.

By Melissa Komar

A circle forms in the basement of Rizzo PAL. Children jog, skip, swing their arms, shuffle into low stances and perform tuck jumps.

Wrestling practice is underway, not an unusual sight at the home of PAL Wrestling Club.

The 35-year-old Port Richmond program has helped produce top-notch talent including Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling Champion Jameel Coles and the first-ever Philadelphia PIAA State Champion, Joe Galasso.

What is striking at this particular session is the appearance of the participants.

All 18 wrestlers are female.

Last Monday marked the first practice for the Rizzo PAL Girls Freestyle Wrestling program, a partnership between PAL and Beat the Streets aimed at introducing wrestling to girls ages 6 to 18 and giving them the opportunity to hone those skills.

Albeit, it’s not the first time girls have wrestled at the PAL center in Port Richmond.

“We’ve always had girls wrestle at PAL,” said Officer Ernie Rehr, center director at Rizzo PAL and Holmesburg resident. “Right now, the girls are wrestling with the boys. I would love to see the girls have their own high school and college divisions.This is a way to offer more diverse and unique programming for girls and hopefully, it will grow.”

PAL Wrestling head coach and Fishtown resident Ed Schneider estimated a half dozen girls have participated in the program since the 1990s, but they always practiced with the boys.

The Girls Freestyle Wrestling is the first time there has been a female-only wrestling program at PAL.

Schneider witnessed many firsts in his 30 years of coaching for PAL, but nothing like the practice on Monday, March 27.

“This is brand new and has never happened before in Philadelphia,” he said. “It’s groundbreaking. I’ve been coaching high school, junior high school and youth for 30 years, and I’ve never been at a live girls practice in my career.”

The program is not only a result of the Beat the Streets expansion, it is a reflection of the growth of female wrestling on the East Coast, according to Schneider.

“In the 1980s, it was extremely rare for a girl to participate in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sport,” he said. “In the last 10 years, wrestling for women has expanded exponentially, with some states creating high school programs. And even within the past few years, opportunities for girls to receive college scholarships for wrestling has dramatically increased.”

The program coincides with what is occurring at the international level of wrestling; freestyle is the top style of wrestling in which countries compete during the spring, according to Schneider.

During the spring and summer, girls will not only learn the techniques of freestyle wrestling, they will be given the option to participate in competitions.

And, they will have a female role model to emulate.

Beat the Streets provides the coach for the program, Jessica Medina.

Medina has wrestled for 14 years, competing at the high school and college levels, and has competed at the senior level for USA Wrestling since 2005. She trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado and took sixth place last April at the Olympic Trials.

She moved to Philadelphia from California about two weeks ago to coach for Beat the Streets.

Back on the West Coast, girls wrestling was the norm.

“For me, it’s actually normal,” Medina said. “On the West Coast, it’s a totally different culture with girls wrestling programs. So for me coming here, I’m excited because I think it’s something that’s about to explode.”

Girls from various levels of wrestling participated in the first week of practices.

Northeast Philadelphia resident Colleen Kline, 11, started wrestling at Rizzo PAL when she was 8 years old.

She took second place in the 60-pound weight class at the 2016 PAWF Girls Folkstyle State Championship.

“It’s fun,” Colleen said. “I learn self-defense and I get better.”

Jasintai Mallqui, 10, has wrestled for three years and previously trained with the Beat the Streets Camden City Youth Wrestling program in New Jersey.

She took first place at the 2016 War at the South Jersey Shore National Folkstyle Championship.

“I like everything about wrestling,” Jasintai said. “It’s fun and I like beating up boys. I get better at how to defend myself.”

Until last week, both girls practiced with the boys.

Mixed in with the younger, more-seasoned wrestlers were older girls, some with less than a year of experience under their belts.

Franklin Towne Charter High School freshman Stirling McKee, 15, just wrapped up her first season of wrestling.

Stirling wrestled at the 138 weight class and has yet to wrestle a girl at a competition.

“The boys treat me the same as everyone else,” Stirling said. “I love my team. I just want to get better and continue to improve.”

Wrestling at the collegiate level is one of her goals.

Gia Gonzalez, 14, attends Mariana Bracetti Academy, and has wrestled for two years.

“I just want to get better,” Gia said. “My favorite part of practice is live drilling.”

Like Colleen and Jasintai, Gia has practiced with boys at Rizzo PAL.

“I think it will be harder, but easier at the same time because I’ll have a girl coach and I’ll get to wrestle girls,” Gia said.

It’s girls such as Gia, Stirling, Jasintai and Colleen who are breaking into uncharted territory, creating the need for an all-girls wrestling program, and they are the backbone of the sport’s future.

“The biggest thing is building confidence in the girls and having them realize they don’t have to compare themselves to the boys,” Medina said. “It’s their own sport and about being their best selves. And that girls wrestling is just as tough as the boys, but they don’t have to prove that by beating boys.”

For Schneider, the hope is the girls will walk away with lifelong skills and opportunities both on and off the mat.

“I want them to enjoy the sport and use the sport to learn discipline and competing,” he said. “This sport builds good people and good character. I would like to see this as yet another opportunity for someone who grows up in my community to have a road map to college. What better way to improve self-image than to physically be able to take an opponent down on the mat?”

Girls Freestyle Wrestling at Rizzo PAL, 2425 E. Clearfield St., is held on Mondays and Wednesdays , from 7 to 8:30 p.m. For more details, call (215) 426–6583 or visit the PAL Wrestling Club Facebook page.