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Blood, sweat & braids

photos and text published at The Bold Italic.

 

At the end of each training session, the sweaty, exhausted girls of Albany High School’s wrestling team gather around coaches Jason Griffin and Malinda Ripley for a pep talk. As Ripley reads an inspirational quote from her phone, the girls undo their braids, peel off layers of damp clothing and unlace their soft-soled sneakers. It has been a long two hours of training. They have run laps around the red room, grappled with one another in training drills and hoisted their opponents—and in this case, their friends—into the air and onto the padded ground.  Some have bickered. Others have cried. Most have apologized for being spent and stressed and snarky. But for the last ten minutes of training, as they settle on the floor—shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand—it is warm and quiet.

Since girl’s high school wrestling began in Hawaii in the late 1990s, the number of young women who wrestle has ballooned from just over 800 to more than 16,000. While many states hold unofficial tournaments, just 14 — six of which joined in 2018 — hold a state-sanctioned championship recognized and run by a scholastic governing body. when I began photographing the Albany team, I was interested in capturing the increasing popularity of the sport and highlighting how an otherwise sidelined demographic — teenage female wrestlers — are carving out a space for themselves in a historically male-dominated field. But week after week, tournament after tournament, the story that emerged from documenting the end of the team's season was not borne from the comparison of women's wrestling to men’s wrestling. Rather, from their goofy pre-match rituals to encouraging words screamed from the sidelines of a tussle, whether jubilant of dejected, the Albany team—and their fellow female high school wrestlers—are redefining the future of an ancient sport, on and off the mat.