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OCU opens doors for women's wrestling

1/15/2010

Melissa Simmons was in a car accident when she was 18 years old. Her face smashed into the steering wheel, which damaged her retina and eye socket. Doctors feared she would never open her eye again. After just three months, Simmons, with only a face mask to protect her, was back on the wrestling mat, where she had been for the previous 13 years.

Three years later, Simmons is now in her final season on the Oklahoma City University women's wrestling team, which has quickly emerged as a national powerhouse in collegiate women's wrestling.

Under the leadership of Archie Randall, who coaches both the men's and women's wrestling programs at OCU, the Stars have won the National Wrestling Coaches Association national duals championship in all three years of the program's existence, including this season. Last year, the Stars also won the Women's College Wrestling Association championship.

The Stars will try to defend their WCWA championship on Jan. 30 in Marshall, Mo.

"We probably have the most talented group of girls here at our place," Randall said. "We basically dominate everyone in college."

Since women's college wrestling is not an NCAA Division I sanctioned sport, OCU and most of the other major women's college wrestling programs compete as members of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

OCU competes against 15 colleges in the United States -- notably Missouri Baptist College, Missouri Valley College and King College (Tenn.) -- about 23 Canadian colleges and competition internationally.

Randall believes women's college wrestling will ultimately be accepted as a mainstream sport and have a presence on the major college athletics scene.

"I think it's going to continuously grow in the NAIA division and in the small private schools," Randall said. "It's unbelievable. In the last three years, it seems we're adding two to three teams every year. It's going to cause a trickle effect down to the high school level. As soon as someone starts a Division I program it is going to snowball.

"When I got hired here four years ago, that's something we were warned -- that we were possibly going to be Division I. It doesn't make any difference to me. I don't want to be Division I; now I've got to recruit against OSU [Oklahoma State University] and OU [the University of Oklahoma]. Who wants to do that?"

With the success OCU has had at the NAIA level, Randall has been able to recruit nationally despite limited financial resources. The team is allocated eight full athletic scholarships valued at about $32,000 each. Yet, with more than 20 student-athletes on the team each season, Randall allocates partial scholarships to students, who combine their athletic money with any academic scholarships or federal assistance they can obtain to make the school affordable.

The lack of athletic scholarship dollars hasn't hurt OCU's recruiting efforts, as the Stars currently have 21 players on their roster who come from 13 different states.

Michaela Hutchison started wrestling at age 7 with her brother Eli in her hometown of Soldotna, Alaska. Throughout most of middle school and high school, she was the only girl on the boys' wrestling team. Most states do not have dedicated girls' wrestling programs in their public school systems. That didn't bother Hutchison, who just wanted to wrestle.

"I didn't really notice after awhile," Hutchison said. "They just treated me like another teammate."

"I prefer to recruit girls who have been wrestling on men's teams," Randall said. "Those girls tend to be a little bit more resilient. The ones from the strictly women's programs, they have an adjustment period.

"I don't coach the girls any different than I coach the guys. I don't treat them any different. I don't do anything different. I treat them as women athletes who wrestle."

Randall's wrestlers have one primary goal for their time on campus: graduate. Once they have their degree, some of his athletes will compete to make the United States Olympic team for the 2012 Summer Games. Though he has not had any female wrestlers move on to the Olympics yet, he believes his program is unique for young women who have Olympic and educational aspirations because it will set them up for academic success and a career beyond wrestling.

"The main goal of OCU wrestlers is to graduate from college and get a degree," Randall said. "The goal of most of the girls on this team is to be Olympians, but they want to have their degrees so if it doesn't work, then they're still fine."

However, as the Olympics are currently formatted, fewer of his female than male athletes would have a chance to wrestle for their country. At the Olympic level, there are seven weight classes for men's wrestling while there are only four weight levels for women. Randall hopes the remaining three levels will be added in time for the 2012 games.

While Randall's wrestlers remain focused on their college degrees, some of them are already preparing to represent the United States in London.

"It would pretty much mean everything," Simmons said of going to the Olympic Games. "It's what I've been training for forever."

Nearly four years after the car accident almost ended her wrestling career, Simmons will begin training for the Olympics this summer after she graduates from OCU. Simmons didn't take the typical path to OCU; she joined the Stars only two seasons ago after spending a year at the Olympic Education Center following high school and taking time off in her home state of Washington. But she plans on staying in Oklahoma for two years to train while also pursuing her master's degree at OCU in health and human performance.

Women's wrestling still has a long way to go to become a mainstream sport in most colleges.

"I think women's wrestling in general is looked down upon," Hutchison said. "I think it's expanding every day. There's more and more little girls going out for wrestling.

"At airports, when we go travel, they're [travelers] like, 'You're a wrestling team? I didn't even know they had wrestling.' The news is spreading."

Patrick Carney is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.