Nassau Community College wrestling coach Paul Schmidt went to athletic director Kerri-Ann McTiernan in the summer of 2016 with the idea of starting a women’s team.
Schmidt had just attended an annual wrestling coaches conference and sat in on a discussion about the growing popularity of women’s wrestling.
“I sat there for the whole hour and I said, ‘You know what, this might be something we should think about at Nassau Community College,’ ” Schmidt said. “You can see the sport is really growing.”
It wasn’t a tough sell.
“I knew we were more than ready,” McTiernan said. “This fit with what our culture is. To me, this shows our commitment to being in the forefront in athletics on the women’s side.”
McTiernan said the school’s administrators supported the idea, and Nassau Community College officially announced in August that it would have the first college women’s wrestling team in New York State.
“Very often you have to be willing to be the first,” McTiernan said. “If you’re willing to be the first, it works as a domino effect. Other programs can then say, ‘Oh look, Nassau did it. This is a model. We can do that.’ ”
The two-year school in Garden City became the nation’s 40th college to offer women’s wrestling. Five of the schools are in the Northeast, with Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, being the closest to Long Island.
“What we want to do is we want to blow the doors off this and provide opportunities for women across the country and have Nassau be the location in the East,” McTiernan said. “We want to be a primary location. But we want to also be the first of many.”
The team has two wrestlers — Kristen Walsh of Franklin Square, and Carolyn Herrera of Amityville — and competes only in tournaments this season. Schmidt said he hopes to have eight to 12 wrestlers and compete in dual meets as well as tournaments next season.
Walsh, 19, competed in the school’s first tournament Nov. 18 in Missouri. Though she returned from the Missouri Valley Open with a losing record, Walsh recorded the school’s first victory when she beat her second opponent by a technical fall.
“I wanted to win,” Walsh said. “It’s the first female team from New York.”
Herrera, 18, missed the tournament with a back injury but is looking forward to what lies ahead. “I feel like I’m a part of history,” Herrera said.
Growth of a sport
Women’s wrestling has enjoyed a growth in popularity and participation since the 1990s. The University of Minnesota-Morris was the first college to offer it as an official varsity sport in 1994.
Women’s freestyle wrestling was introduced in the Olympics in 2004, and Helen Maroulis, from Maryland, was the first American to win a gold medal at the 2016 Games in Brazil.
“By saying it’s an Olympic sport, it gives it credibility,” Schmidt said. “Not that we need credibility, but an Olympic sport is as high as you can go.”
At the high school level, girls who want to wrestle still have to join the boys team. Since 1994, the number of girls in the United States who wrestle in high school has grown to 13,900 from 804, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
On Long Island, there are two clubs that offer wrestling for females — Team Alpha Girls Wrestling Club at East Islip High School and the Copiague Female Wrestling Club.
Walsh wrestled on the boys team as a senior at Carey High School in 2015-16 but wasn’t sure what she would do after high school.
“I didn’t know where I was going to go, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Walsh said. “And then when I saw the wrestling at Nassau, I said, “Well, that’s kind of perfect.’ ”
At 16, Walsh started training in jiujitsu, a form of martial arts that emphasizes grappling. She hopes to one day compete in mixed martial arts and felt wrestling would help her become a better fighter.
Herrera, a softball player in high school, already planned to attend classes at Nassau when she heard about the wrestling team. She had never wrestled before but was familiar with the sport from watching the Amityville boys wrestling team. She decided she wanted to give it a try.
“I was scrolling through the sports, and I saw women’s wrestling,” Herrera said. “I was like, ‘Wait, was that right?’ I’m glad Coach Schmidt didn’t shut me out.”
Excited for the future
Schmidt has coached men’s wrestling at Nassau for more than 30 years and has guided the Lions to eight national titles and coached 13 national champions. Now, as the director of wrestling, he oversees both the men’s and women’s teams.
Sam Thomas, an assistant with the men’s team, is head coach for the women’s team.
“I’m excited by how big and how strong I can make our program,” said Thomas, a 2016 gold medalist at the U.S. men’s freestyle veterans nationals. “They get more excited every day and get better every day as we go. They’re not afraid to work hard.”
The women train alongside the men at Nassau. Same room, same drills, same coaches. The women’s team will travel for all of its competitions this season and has tournaments scheduled in Tennessee and Illinois in January.
“Kudos to the women who just started this program out,” McTiernan said. “They just want to wrestle. They just want to be involved in their sport. But, you know, they carry a little bit extra weight on their shoulders.”
That fact is not lost on Walsh and Herrera.
“You just don’t want it to look like a joke,” Walsh said. “You want it to look like a good program. Especially because all the coaches are so great and so helpful, you want them to have a good program.”