NICOLE WOODY, one of the top female wrestlers in the U.S., still encounters people who think the mat is no place for a woman. Some schools forfeit rather than send a boy to face her, and one fellow wrestler at Arundel High in Gambrills, Md., transferred rather than be on her team. But Woody, a graduating junior and team captain for the Wildcats, also hears plenty of encouragement. Several girls from far-flung states have reached out to her online, says Woody, the nation's top-ranked 100-pound female by the U.S. Girls' Wrestling Association. "This one from Maine sent me a message saying, 'Hey, I read an article about you wrestling, so I started.'"
It's a choice more girls are making. At U.S. high schools the number of female wrestlers has tripled in the last decade, from 1,629 to 4,975. (There are 50 times as many boy wrestlers). Woody's coach, Bill Royer, says, "It's not a girl-boy thing. She's a wrestler. She lives and dies and bleeds this sport." Woody, who competes against boys at varsity events and women in national competitions, says, "I actually used to get nervous wrestling girls. I'm like, I can't lose to them."
Woody began wrestling at age nine at the suggestion of her mother, Mary, who liked the discipline it taught her son William, who went on to become a Marine. Nicole trains rigorously: Her daily practices are complemented by morning and evening runs. In August, Woody was the only American of either sex to win a title at the Junior World Championships. Her ultimate goal: the Olympics, which added women's wrestling in 2004. She sees her best shot as 2012, and is weighing a scholarship offer from the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Mich. Getting to the Games would not just be a goal achieved, Woody says, but also "a big relief, too—like, 'Woo-hoo! I did it!'"
Best of the Boys
Mike Benefiel, 171, Montini Catholic (Lombard, Ill.) A three-time state champ, he has a chance to become Illinois's alltime wins leader.
Dom Bradley, 285, Blue Springs (Mo.) The versatile senior, 27--0 this season, is aiming for his third state title; he has signed with Missouri, the nation's top college team.
Cody Gardner, 215, Christiansburg (Va.) The Virginia Tech--bound Gardner is the nation's top recruit and has a 100-match winning streak.
Eric Grajales, 112, Brandon (Fla.) The sophomore has a 69--0 career record; his Eagles have won a record 439 consecutive dual meets.
Corey Jantzen, 135, Shoreham-Wading River (Shoreham, N.Y.) The Harvard-bound senior (left) won the 125-lb. junior national title last year; he's 11--0 at 135.
David Taylor, 103, Graham (St. Paris, Ohio) The sophomore beat Monroeville's (Ohio) Logan Steiber in a December match between the nation's top 103-pounders at the Walsh Ironman.