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Meet Charlotte Bailey, a driving force behind growing the girls’ wrestling movement in Iowa

This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.

Cody Goodwin   | Des Moines Register
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IOWA CITY — Charlotte Bailey’s basement wall is covered with wrestling medals and trophies, a nod to her kids’ accomplishments. On a recent Thursday, she is sitting in the room telling stories, including one about the impact of her daughter’s career.

Jasmine Bailey wrestled at Iowa City West from 2010-14. She won 62 career varsity matches, then became a three-time All-American at McKendree in Illinois. But one weekend, a young girl named Jayden Bentley approached her daughter at a tournament.

Charlotte Bailey smiles at what came next.

“Jayden went up and told her, ‘You know, I’m a wrestler, too,’” Bailey said. She could tell that Jayden was inspired merely by seeing an older girl excel at a sport that Jayden liked, too.

“That’s one part that’s been really fun for me along the way," Bailey said. “Terry Steiner (USA Wrestling’s top women’s coach) has said, 'If you believe in all the things wrestling teaches, why would you want to teach it to only half the population?”

Bailey, one of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2021, has become a driving force behind Iowa’s growing girls’ wrestling movement. Because of her efforts, girls’ wrestling has a chance to take more giant steps forward this year. 

Currently, there are 696 girls registered to compete in Iowa for the 2020-21 high school wrestling season, according to Trackwrestling. That’s over 100 more than last year (568), and a massive uptick from five years ago, when 71 registered and competed.

Iowa’s growth matches the national trend. In 2018-19, 21,124 girls wrestled at the high school level nationwide, according to stats compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations. (Numbers from 2019-20 weren’t available due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Five years prior, in 2013-14, only 9,904 girls wrestled nationally.

What’s more, 29 states now sponsor girls’ wrestling through their state high school athletic associations, host a girls' state tournament or are planning to do so. Of those 29, 23 have been added since 2018.

But Iowa is not among them — which makes the growing numbers, and Bailey’s behind-the-scenes work, all the more vital to the movement here.

“She’s fighting an uphill battle because she’s promoting a sport that’s not sanctioned in our state,” said Mark Reiland, chairman of Iowa USA Wrestling and the first vice president of USA Wrestling’s Executive Board. “But she understands the bigger picture.

“There’s a value in our sport that is ingrained in these kids, and they learn a lot from it. She realized that a lot of girls could really grow from the sport, too — not just in the sport, but because of the sport.”

Iowa unique in how it governs boys and girls sports

Iowa is the only state in the country with two governing bodies for high school sports. The Iowa High School Athletic Association sponsors all boys sports, while the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union sponsors all girls sports — and girls’ wrestling is not among them.

Because of that, for years girls here had to compete against boys if they wanted to wrestle for their high schools. A handful of girls have competed successfully against boys over the years, including Cassy Herkelman, Megan Black, Rachel Watters, Felicity Taylor and, of course, Jasmine Bailey.

Jasmine’s experience — Reiland was her coach at West (he retired in 2018) — is largely what’s fueled Charlotte Bailey to grow Iowa’s girls’ wrestling presence.

It was during Jasmine’s freshman year at West that both Herkelman and Black qualified for the IHSAA state tournament, in 2011. They remain the only girls in state history to do so. In 2012, Black became the first (and only) girl to win a state medal, finishing eighth at 106 pounds in Class 1A.

Jasmine was in and out of West’s lineup throughout her high school career, but she also competed at many out-of-season tournaments, too. She won two Junior women's folkstyle national titles, was a two-time Junior women's freestyle All-American and won bronze at the Cadet Women's Pan-American Championships.

Her accomplishments ultimately led to a college scholarship and opportunities to further her education, but wrestling taught her plenty about life, too.

“You focus on what you can control," Jasmine said. "Even if things don’t go your way, you just continue to find a way.”

Breakthrough: Tournaments open up girls' divisions

Charlotte Bailey wanted to open that same door to every other girl in the state.

She began by founding Female Elite Wrestling in 2012, a girls-only wrestling club open to all ages from all over the state. She invites both beginners and seasoned wrestlers, so girls can experience the sport for the first time or gain opportunities to compete at bigger tournaments.

Bailey then turned her attention to the high schools.

She has looked closely at how the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union added sports previously and what's needed to add girls' wrestling. She talks regularly with coaches and officials at Iowa USA Wrestling (where she serves as the women’s director), at the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association, and with Lewie Curtis, the wrestling administrator for the Iowa High School Athletic Association, the group governing boys sports, to find innovative ways to create opportunities.

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It didn't take much innovation at all, actually. She just asked a simple question.

“If we could add a girls’ division and give the opportunity for girls to wrestle only girls, and not guys, what would happen?” she asked.

Her breakthrough came in January 2018. Both Ogden and Independence added girls’ divisions to their regularly scheduled junior varsity tournaments. Eleven girls competed in Ogden and another eight wrestled at Independence. It was just 24 matches over the course of two tournaments, but it was a start.

Bailey took those conversations a step further the following year. Enough interest had bubbled that Curtis sent coaches a list of tournaments that added girls’ divisions for the ’18-19 season. The Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association stepped in and sponsored a girls’ state tournament at Waverly-Shell Rock in late January, where 87 girls competed.

Then came last year, where 350 out of the 568 registered girls competed at the 2020 Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association girls’ state tournament. It grew so much and so quickly that the 2021 girls’ state tournament has been moved to the newly opened Xtream Arena in Coralville.

Goals: Keep growing, becoming sanctioned

Bailey’s next goals are to continue to grow the numbers within the schools. She felt confident about hitting 800 this year before COVID-19. Still, Iowa’s 696 girls would’ve been the fifth-most by a single state in 2018-19, behind California (6,014), Texas (4,421), Washington (1,864) and Missouri (956), which began girls’ wrestling in 2018-19.

“I remember when we made a T-shirt celebrating 66 girls, and we made it like the Route 66 sign,” said Bailey, who was awarded the Russ Smith Community Impact Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in 2018.

“It was always a big deal to get to 30, 90, 100, so these numbers are really exciting.”

The bigger numbers have paved the way for greater competition and opportunities, too.

Five Iowa colleges now offer women’s wrestling: Waldorf, Grand View, William Penn, Iowa Wesleyan and Indian Hills. In 2019, three Iowa girls became All-Americans at the 16U freestyle national championships, the most since 2011. Seven Iowa girls are currently ranked in USA Wrestling’s latest high school girls’ national rankings.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to get girls’ wrestling sanctioned through the Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union. Bailey doesn’t think it’ll happen this year, but she’s hopeful the growth will continue — with more coaches advocating, which means more girls-only competitions.

And perhaps, she hopes, that will lead to more schools supporting the sport.

“The goal should be to make it so big that they can’t ignore it,” Reiland says. 

Bailey's also talked about modeling this year’s girls’ state tournament to mimic what the boys do each February at Wells Fargo Arena. By that, she means a single mat in the center of the arena floor on Saturday night for the finals.

She might even see a familiar face there, too.

Jayden Bentley, the young girl who approached Bailey's daughter years ago, is now a senior wrestling at Waterloo East.

About 'People to Watch'

The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.

Meet Charlotte Bailey

AGE: 49

LIVES: Iowa City

EDUCATION: Bachelor's in exercise science, Iowa State University; master's in physical therapy, University of Iowa; doctorate in physical therapy, Temple University.

CAREER: Physical therapist at Iowa City VA Medical Center; women’s director at Iowa USA Wrestling; founder and coach at Female Elite Wrestling.

FAMILY: Husband, George; son, A.J.; daughter, Jasmine.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.