Just a girl

Local filmmaker Lisa Blackstone spotlights stories of female wrestlers in documentary ‘Grappling Girls’

When they meet, the girl in red and the girl in blue brush fingertips. There’s an impatience to the gesture that alerts the onlookers that these girls haven’t come to make nice. They’ve come to fight. It’s in the intensity of their gaze, the way their bodies crouch in the posture of attack.

At this point they could still back off, but they won’t. The onlookers wouldn’t have it. From the sidelines, men, women and other girls shout advice, their words drowned in the sudden blare of a whistle.

What happens next would expel the girl in red and the girl in blue from school and probably fire off a round of accusatory phone calls from parents, each one labeling the other’s child the instigator if the brawl had occurred anywhere else.

But they’re here at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, Minn. It’s 2004, and they, along with 300 girls and women from around the nation, have convened for the Women’s Wrestling National Championships.

For the younger generation, girls in their tweens and teens, it’s a chance to rank against peers who are not only of the same weight class but of the same gender. Girls’ wrestling is still just catching on in most parts of the country.

The women at the tournament have a bigger goal, as 2004 marks the initial appearance of women’s freestyle wrestling at the Olympics, and Linden Hills filmmaker Lisa
Blackstone is there with her film crew to document the sport.

“What I love about women’s wrestling,” says Blackstone, “is it’s women-powered. It’s women doing something out of the norm because they love it. If you didn’t love wrestling, God knows you wouldn’t be doing it. You get hurt. You train hard. It’s exhausting.”

This spring, four years after the St. Benedict’s tournament, Blackstone has produced a documentary on the subject. Called “Grappling Girls,” the documentary tells the story of these girls and women as they face opponents and face down long-held taboos against females in contact sports.

Blackstone first learned about women’s freestyle wrestling from an article.

“I was thumbing through Minnesota Women’s Press one day and there was this photograph of girls wrestling,” says
Blackstone. “I was like, ‘Get out town.’ You might see a woman who’s a great softball player. But there’s something very direct in this get-in-there power of wrestling.”

As a television producer who had compiled a laundry list of credentials including stints on Animal Planet and Home and Garden Television, Blackstone read another story between the lines of the article. Who were these girls and women? And why were they determined to persist in a sport that was so at odds with traditional
femininity?

A call to the Minneapolis Amateur Wrestling Club put her in touch with the club’s Director Larry Allen.

“I said, ‘I’m interested in making a documentary,’” recalls Blackstone. “And he said, ‘Good timing. There’s a national tournament coming up.’ It was a qualifying tournament for the Olympics.”

Blackstone didn’t have a lot of time to raise money. A few years earlier, even a barebones documentary would have cost her a mint. But fortunately Blackstone was riding in on a wave of independent film production that had been spurred by new low-cost digital technology.

With a film crew, digital video camera and no sense of what would happen next, Blackstone headed north.

“We as a society aren’t used to seeing women going hand to hand without it being [on] ‘Jerry Springer,’” says Blackstone. “It’s amazing. The girls are very intense on the mat. Very focused. They’re trying to win. But when it’s over, they shake hands.”

“Grappling Girls” opens with a shot of a young girl in a red singlet. She’s bouncing on the sidelines, limbering up for her match, while behind her the soundtrack belts out No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” The song takes the point of a view of a young woman fighting against the stereotypes that bind her individuality to pink ribbons and pretty dresses.

The scene cuts to a pair of young wrestlers. Their long hair is tied back for the tournament. The one on the right says, “Wrestling is something to be very proud of, especially if you’re a female because there’s not a lot of them.”

Blackstone’s quick editing speeds the viewer through the next several shots: the girl bouncing on the sidelines again, a female coach, two opponents in the ring, a female referee expressing, “They can bend in ways men never thought of,” which leads to a shot of two women contorted pretzel-like on the mat.

The next 14 minutes provide a high-octane overview of the 2004 Women’s Wrestling National Championships. There are double-leg takedowns, single-leg takedowns, side singles and bodies slamming into the mat with a palpable thud. One wrestler walks off crying. Another plugs a bleeding nose.

But the meat of the documentary, for Blackstone anyway, comes in the interviews. This is where the girls and women tell their side of the story. They talk about parents who tried to talk them out of wrestling, and boys at school who wanted to fight them.

They also share their passion for a sport that has them fasting 12 hours before a meet to lose that extra pound that will make the difference between competing against opponents at 51 kilos or 55 kilos. Because like their male counterparts, these girls and women want to win.

At the 2004 Olympics, American woman wrestler Sara McCann took home a silver.

According to Allen, there are 25–30 girls competing in Minnesota high school wrestling. Though no Minnesota university currently sponsors a women’s team, Allen says there are at least three Minnesota women with the potential to make it to this year’s Olympics.

Blackstone says her intent with the documentary was to allow people to “see these girls and who they are. We may not want our kids to wrestle. But even though we pursue things differently, we see as human beings we’re not different.”

Online

“Grappling Girls” is currently making the rounds of the film fest circuit. You can watch a clip of the documentary at www.lisablackstoneproductions.com.

USA Wrestling’s website — www.thewomensmat.com — posts up-to-date information on women’s wrestling and includes blogs from some of America’s top women wrestlers.

Minnesota/USA Wrestling provides local information on tournament results and clubs at mnusa.wrestlingsystems.com.

Contributing writer Britt Aamodt lives in Linden Hills.