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Girls Wrestle Their Way Into the Ring at 15 City High Schools

By Alan Neuhauser | March 28, 2013 6:56am | Updated on March 28, 2013 11:19am

MIDTOWN — Coach Mike Torriero had a message to deliver.

"I want you to go, 'Hey, your mom's on the phone,'" Torriero said. "Then take his foot" — the phone — "and put it to his ear."

Torriero, a two-time high school state champion and one-time All-American, demonstrated as he sat astride a wrestler splayed on the floor. Barely 2 feet away, two dozen girls in sweat-slick knee pads, T-shirts and high-top wrestling shoes leaned forward to watch, straining to memorize each sequence of the move. Moments later, they leapt to their feet, paired up and practiced on each other, laughing, grunting, thudding to the floor, then popping back up to grapple again.

Torriero and another coach, Josh Lee, circled and watched, occasionally kneeling to the mat to offer advice.

"I'm certain there are some Olympians in here," Lee said. "I guarantee that if there's wrestling in the 2020 Olympics, one of the girls here will be there."

Torriero, Lee and a handful of other coaches were helping lead a free, week-long wrestling clinic hosted by Beat the Streets, a nonprofit that's been preparing more than 200 teenage girls for the sport it helped bring to the Public Schools Athletic League: girls wrestling, introduced at 15 schools this spring across the five boroughs.

"It's just exploded. It's been really, really exciting," said Ken Bigley, 37, director of programming for Beat the Streets, which has provided shoes, singlets, headgear and bags for the wrestlers, as well as mats for the 15 schools. "It'll be a positive experience for them, just as it is for our boys. There's some really, really talented wrestlers in the city."

The opening matches commence April 6 — the first time in city history that girls wrestling teams, hailing from everywhere from Sunset Park to the High School for Fashion Industries to Bronx Collegiate Academy, will square off against one another on the mat.

"This is history right here," said Omar Mendez, 27, girls wrestling coach at the High School for Fashion Industries, as he turned toward his team. "You girls can say you were the first girls to wrestle in New York."

Coming from across the city and all walks of life, the dozen or so members of the High School for Fashion Industries girls wrestling team offered strikingly similar reasons for deciding to don singlets and plastic headgear.

"It's hard, but it's different. I mean, you lose a lot of weight," said Michelle Gomez, eliciting nods and laughs from her teammates.

But she also grew serious. "You get a sense of feeling strong," she said.

Marilyn Ramos agreed.

"Because I'm short, I want to show people I'm strong," she said. "Just because you're a girl doesn't mean you're not strong. It's a chance to prove people wrong."

The sport's sheer physicality has brought with it a steep learning curve — particularly when it comes to inflicting painful holds on an opponent.

"Their mindset needs to be changed. That it's OK to hold tight during a gut-wrench, that it's OK to throw the girl on her back. That's the whole goal," Mendez said. "The girls don't want to hurt anyone."

 Steve Flanagan, in gray at left, leads a drill at a girls wrestling clinic hosted by Beat the Streets Tuesday, March 26, 2013.
Steve Flanagan, in gray at left, leads a drill at a girls wrestling clinic hosted by Beat the Streets Tuesday, March 26, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Alan Neuhauser

Mendez, a former running back for Utrecht High School, is a rookie when it comes to wrestling. On his commutes to and from Sunset Park, he reads wrestling guides he downloaded to his phone, or watches video he recorded from a three-day coaches' clinic hosted by Beat the Streets.

"I go home and practice moves in the mirror, practice moves on my wife," he said, laughing. "I have to use all the resources I have. My brothers come around [and] I grapple with them.

In fact, working with his wife, he continued, has in many ways helped more than wrestling with his siblings.

"I learned to use the terminology, 'Hold under the bra,' and also about the hair. It gets in the way, which it doesn't for boy wrestlers. The girls got to learn to get around it," Mendez said.

Meanwhile, it took some convincing to get the girls' parents on board.

"We had some moms who thought their girls were on the softball team," said Lee, coach at Bronx Collegiate Academy. "One parent was describing wrestling, and I realized she was describing WWE. I'm like, 'They're not jumping from the turnbuckle!'"

As word of the sport has spread, schools are expecting large turnouts for their first matches.

"I’m excited. Everybody’s excited," said Olga Sostre, athletic director at the High School for Fashion Industries. "All the staff people here are excited about the new team. All the kids are coming to watch. All the teachers are coming. It's a blessing."

Based on inquiries from students alone, Beat the Streets expects to "be adding new girls teams every spring," Bigley said.

And that might not be all, Mendez said.

“I have a lot of girls saying to me now, ‘Why don’t we have a girls football team?’" he said. "They're loving it.”