With 13 national titles, second-most in NCAA Division III history, Augsburg University has quite a history in the sport of wrestling. Augsburg was also the first college or university in the Midwest to sponsor a varsity women’s ice hockey team and the first collegiate institution in Minnesota to sponsor a varsity women’s lacrosse team. So, it should probably come as no surprise that this fall Augsburg became the only college institution in Minnesota to sponsor women’s wrestling as a varsity sport.
“We like to be the first ones,” says Augsburg Athletic Director Jeff Swenson. “Being the first one does have its challenges, you know. You don’t have a lot of competition around, you usually have to travel, but I feel like Augsburg University has really been a pioneer as far as providing opportunities for women, so that’s really where it started.”
That may have been where it started, but the timing of when Augsburg moved to add women’s wrestling had a lot to do with the high school graduation of one young woman in particular.
“It was exactly that,” says Augsburg volunteer assistant women’s wrestling coach Chad Shilson. “Augsburg knew that if they were going to start a program, they had to do it now, because if they waited a year, Emily and her training partners would all be scattered across the U.S. and Augsburg, they didn’t want to lose that opportunity.”
Coach Shilson would know, because the “Emily” he’s referring to is his daughter, a young woman with a laundry list of wrestling accolades and accomplishments that include becoming the first American wrestler to ever earn a gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018.
“Honestly, I never even thought that this would be a reality,” says Emily. “I mean, I’ve always wrestled with the boys growing up, and to be on a team with all women, it’s incredible. I mean, I’ve never had anything like this before, it’s different than the women’s practices we’ve had here before in Minnesota because this is part of a school team, and I’ve never, ever had anything like this before.”
Few women have, but that is changing. University of Minnesota, Morris was actually the first Minnesota University to have a women’s wrestling program, but it was disbanded. Right now, women’s wrestling is the fastest growing sport at the NCAA level, with the expectation that it will receive “emerging sports status” either this year or next year, which means it will be recognized as an NCAA sport.
“I know when I was like 13, I was looking at schools and there were maybe 20 schools and now there’s like over 60, and it’s crazy!” says Val-Raye Baker, a freshman from Benton, Pennsylvania. “It’s exciting to be at one of those schools that’s just starting, and I’m excited about the teammates that I have, and the coaches that I have, and about the coming years and how this team can grow. Yeah, I’m excited!”
Baker and Shilson are members of a star-studded freshman class that includes six wrestlers that were ranked among the top 100 women’s wrestlers, regardless of class in 2019 by ‘The Open Mat.’ All six were also ranked in the top 10 in their individual high school weight classes in the USA Wrestling National Girls High School Rankings in June of this year.
“When you think about Augsburg and you think about wrestling, you think about tradition, you think about winning, you think about championships, you think about all those things,” says head coach Max Mejia. “They weren’t going to start a women’s program just to start a women’s program; they were going to start a women’s wrestling program to be the best, it’s Augsburg’s pursuit of excellence.”
Harvard educated Mejia brings a world class coaching experience with him to Augsburg, where more than one of the young women have aspirations of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games next summer. That being said, none of them have lost sight of why they came to Augsburg in the first place.
“If I just wanted to wrestle I wouldn’t be here, I’d be out at the Olympic Training Center, but I want to get a degree because wrestling is going to end sometime, and I do need something to do afterwards, so it’s really important to go to school and get my degree,” says Shilson.
Mejia added that Augsburg is “only going to bring in girls who have great character, who are living a healthy lifestyle and making great decisions, that are helping out in their community, and the final piece is wrestling. We want girls who have the highest aspirations when it comes to wrestling, that want to be a world champion, that want to be an Olympic champion. For everybody, it’s going to be different, but when you’re bringing in girls that are checking all those boxes, it’s hard not to be the greatest, it’s hard not to be the best leaders, that’s the vision that we have here.”