Iowa is synonymous with success in the world of college wrestling. No program has won more championships over the past 50 years than the Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes regained their perch atop the world of men’s college wrestling this past spring, winning their 24th national championship, on the heels of back-to-back Big Ten championships over the past two seasons. What’s left for Iowa to do having (re)conquered the wrestling landscape? Conquering an entirely new territory — after first helping to blaze the trail to that territory. Earlier today the University of Iowa officially announced plans to add women’s wrestling as a varsity sport.
The University of Iowa: Home of @IowaW_Wrestling.
The #Hawkeyes will become the first Power Five institution to add womens wrestling.
— The Iowa Hawkeyes (@TheIowaHawkeyes) September 23, 2021
Iowa is not the first college to add women’s wrestling as a sport. They are the first to do at the highest level of the sport, though — no other Power 5 university had announced plans to officially add women’s wrestling until now.
The momentum has been building in this direction for a while. The NCAA officially recognized women’s wrestling as an “emerging sport” in 2020. 45 college programs currently offer women’s wrestling, including six in Iowa, all at a lower level than the Power 5 conferences. (The other Iowa colleges offering women’s wrestling are Iowa Wesleyan (Division III), Waldof (NAIA), Grand View (NAIA), William Penn (NAIA), Iowa Western (juco) and Indian Hill (juco).) The only other Division I women’s wrestling programs currently are at Sacred Heart and Presbyterian.
Participation in women’s wrestling has exploded in Iowa in particular in recent years. As Cody Goodwin documented at The Des Moines Register, the state has gone from having 67 girls competing five years ago to 683 girls competing in the 2020-21 season. The increased interest in women’s wrestling has also led to tremendous success for American wrestlers internationally; the U.S. women won four medals at the just-completed Tokyo Olympic games, almost doubling their previous all-time medal haul (five).
The University of Iowa has been getting prepared to get involved in women’s wrestling for a while as well. Gary Barta expressed interest in adding women’s wrestling as a sport earlier in 2021. The program announced plans to develop and build a new standalone training facility intended to be big enough for two programs — a men’s program and a women’s program.
That said, it’s clear that the final impetus to get Iowa into the women’s wrestling game was the recent Title IX lawsuit filed against Iowa in the wake of the school’s decision to terminate the women’s swimming and diving program (as well as three other men’s programs: swimming and diving, tennis, and gymnastics). While Barta (and Iowa) backtracked on the decision to eliminate the women’s swimming and diving program (it was reinstated in February 2021), the lawsuit remains ongoing and it included a condition that Iowa add one or two additional women’s sports (in addition to restoring women’s swimming and diving) in order to be truly compliant with Title IX, recommending women’s wrestling and rugby be considered as possible additions. (Barta has claimed that Iowa remained in compliance with Title IX even after women’s swimming and diving was eliminated, though experts did not agree with his assessment.)
As Chad Leistikow detailed, Barta stated on Thursday that a settlement agreement re: that lawsuit had been generally agreed upon and that the final paperwork for the agreement was being completed. A key part of the agreement? Iowa’s addition of women’s wrestling as a sponsored sport.
The center of the agreement, per Barta, was that Iowa would add another women’s sport (in addition to reinstating women’s swimming). Barta said it was a no-brainer to choose wrestling “for obvious reasons.”
“Were it not for COVID, we wouldn’t have cut sports,” Barta said. “Were it not for the Title IX lawsuit, I wasn’t ready to add women’s wrestling yet. But I can tell you while the timing may be challenging, the decision is awesome. We’re excited about it, and we’re ready to go forward.”
But regardless of the lawsuit’s role in this decision, adding women’s wrestling was unequivocally the correct move for Iowa to make. The University of Iowa is synonymous with college wrestling and it has a bigger, more invested fanbase than any other in the sport. The state as a whole has seen rapid growth in women’s wrestling in a short amount of time, as already noted. If Iowa wants to remain a leader in the wrestling landscape, being a leader and trailblazer in the Power 5 space when it comes to women’s wrestling was a necessary step.
It’s also, frankly, very advantageous for Iowa to be the first big program to formally enter the world of women’s wrestling. There is a lot of emerging talent in women’s wrestling right now, both nationally and internationally. Iowa is poised to be the biggest program with the best facilities on the block; that should give them a leg-up on everyone else when it comes to recruiting, retaining, and developing women’s wrestlers.
It will be a few years yet until we see women in black and gold singlets competing in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In their announcement about adding the sport, Iowa said that plans were to begin competition in the 2023-24 season. That gives Iowa time to find a coach to head up the new program (Tom Brands will remain the head coach of the men’s wrestling team, but will not have any formal involvement with the women’s team) and build up the roster. It also gives other schools — including many of Iowa’s peers in the Big Ten — time to follow Iowa’s footsteps and begin offering women’s wrestling. After all, these new Hawkeye wrestlers will need someone to beat when they take the mat a few years from now.