In five years of overseeing Northside’s wrestling program, the Grizzlies’ coach, Shawn Shaffer, looks for those who can wrestle.
Height and weight make no difference. Neither does one’s physical condition.
And that also includes gender. That’s because Shaffer has three female wrestlers on his squad this season.
One of them, Janessa Richardson, is a senior who is on the varsity and is in her second season to wrestle. While she mainly goes up against male wrestlers, to her, it makes no difference.
“When I get on the mat, I don’t see genders,” Richardson said. “I just see another opponent and my goal is to win, no matter what the cost. If it means hurting them, then that’s the cost I make.
“It’s definitely a lot harder than going against girls, but it’s a good challenge. They show me my weaknesses and they show me where I need to work on and what exactly I can do to improve myself.”
Shaffer also has two female wrestlers still in junior high school who come to practice with the Grizzlies. Nadia Facio is an eighth-grader at Kimmons, while Kaila Potter is in the eighth grade at Darby. In Arkansas, ninth-graders are allowed to compete at the varsity level.
“We have a strong interest in the junior high (schools) of girls wrestlers,” Shaffer said. “Every day I’ve got girls asking me, ‘Hey coach, how can I join the wrestling team; what do I need to do, what do I need to do?’ Kaila and Nadia have been with me their first year and this is Janessa’s second year.
“Janessa wrestled varsity matches last year and she is currently my varsity 132 (she wrestles in the 132-pound weight class division) as long as she continues to come to work and practice real hard for me.”
And Shaffer makes it a point of emphasis that his female wrestlers are treated the same as his male wrestlers.
“These warriors right here, they have to compete in technically what is a male-dominated sport,” Shaffer said. “There is no favoritism, there is no gender norming form, they have to compete by their weight so if there’s a 132, Janessa’s got to go wrestle them no matter who it is or what it is, she’s got to go out there and compete just as hard as males do in this sport.”
Richardson echoes her coach’s sentiments. In fact, she said males wrestle her much harder than females.
“They have always given 110 percent, mostly just because I am a girl and they always try to go harder, so it’s my job to go out there and show them I’m a girl, and you’ve got to get off my mat,” Richardson said.
“We’re all the equal. Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I’m any different than a boy.”
Richardson has definitely more than held her own during her senior season. As of early January, she compiled a record of 8-4.
“Unfortunately, Janessa’s a senior this year; I wish I had her for a few more years because she definitely sets the example of how I want all my athletes (to become),” Shaffer said.
“She works harder than some of the male athletes on my team and I appreciate her every day, especially showing these two (Potter and Facio) young junior high female athletes how I need things done here on this wrestling mat.”
Richardson said she took up wrestling in preparation to enlist into the military after she graduates college, though she hasn’t decided which branch she wants to join.
“I know I need mental toughness for the military, so this would be a really good outlet for that; plus (wrestling) is an amazing sport and hobby, and it’s really more of a lifestyle than a hobby I must say because everything you do factors into wrestling,” Richardson said. “The way you eat, the way you sleep, what you do in the morning, the way you put yourself out there in the world, it all factors into how you wrestle.”
And Richardson also makes sure the younger female wrestlers follow her lead.
Potter got involved in wrestling because her older brother, Devin Potter, wrestles for the Grizzlies in the 170-pound weight class.
“I’m less experienced, but they show me what I have to work on and that I have to be serious and not play around,” Kaila Potter said.
“I like it; it’s fun. But then again, at the same time, it’s hard and I just work my (tail) off.”
Facio, who also runs cross country and track, took up wrestling last year as a seventh grader and enjoyed it. Because Facio and Potter are still in junior high, they haven’t had to wrestle a lot of matches this season.
But they come to Northside to learn, not just from Richardson but from the male wrestlers.
“At practice, I feel like they give 100 percent,” Facio said. “But while they’re doing it, they show me how to do it. ... They show me how to be tougher and how to improve myself better.
?(I’ve learned about) keeping up with my stamina, to have force, because my force is very weak, especially with the boys and lifting them up and the weights.”
And the female wrestlers said they have been accepted by their male counterparts.
“They all consider me their younger or older sister,” Richardson said. “It’s just a big family here; it’s very enjoyable and I have lots of siblings.”
Shaffer said he has had other females wrestle for him in the past and wants to see more females involved in the future.
“I’ve had other female wrestlers join the sport and then shortly after, a parent would tell them, ‘I don’t want you doing that sport,’” Shaffer said. “So I want to get it out there that it’s not just a male sport, it’s an athlete sport and the more male and female athletes I get, the better we as Northside can compete with the other teams, so it’s an athlete sport.
“It’s definitely the toughest sport in high school bar none, this one right here and we’re just looking for the best athletes; male, female, even if you have a disability, you can still compete in this sport.”
And Shaffer said he gets great satisfaction from seeing Richardson, as well as Facio and Potter, get their hands raised by the referee, signifying they have won their particular match.
“They have persevered through this male-dominated sport and they still get their hands raised,” Shaffer said. “I’ve told them, it feels good, there’s nothing like it in the world, when that official raises their hand, all those emotions just come out, it’s great.”...