Success on the mat for Union’s Hannah Michael is a result of determined effort and a supportive environment
By Mike Whittlesey
Call Hannah Michael a trailblazer or pioneer, if you must. Just don’t doubt her passion or commitment to the sport of wrestling. During her freshman and sophomore years at Union High School, her involvement in the sport began as a cheerleader on the edge of the mat. Then something changed.
“During my sophomore year, something clicked in me and I wanted a new challenge in life. I decided to go to a couple of practices in the summer time just to see how I liked it,” Hannah recalled.
Those early practices she witnessed at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum certainly must have agreed with her. When the 2017-18 season arrived, “I went all in and did absolutely everything I could to get on the mat,” she added.
At a school like Union with a rich, wrestling tradition, picking up the sport during your junior year isn’t typically a recipe for instant success. Add the fact that Hannah’s diminutive stature results in giving up significant size and weight to naturally stronger boys, even at the lowest weight class of 106 lbs., and the challenge to achieve is a daunting one, indeed.
Success can be measured in many ways, and for someone who is one of the first girls to wrestle at the varsity level at her school, Hannah is very much focused on the process of improving her own game and making the most of her skills and abilities. She can’t change the fact that many of the boys she wrestles will have an advantage of size, strength and several years of experience. What she brings to the mat, however, is an ample supply of fuel that fires an intense desire to compete, along with a willingness to do whatever is needed to hone her growing set of skills.
“It doesn’t matter about the experience level or the strength. If you have the drive to keep going, it’s going to show in and through the sport. And that’s what keeps me going. Even though I’m wrestling people who have wrestled their whole lives, or are stronger than me, or bigger than me, I’m not going to stop trying to achieve my goal,” she explained.
Fortunately, in her quest to compete in a male-dominated sport, she is not alone.
“I have had nothing but support from my coaches. I’m very, very thankful for that. I know there have been instances where girls have not been so lucky with that,” she said.
That support came quickly, Hannah explained, when her father assured Head Wrestling Coach Bart Mehlert that if she wanted to be a part of the wrestling program at Union, quitting was not an option. Mehlert’s response?
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Hannah confirmed that as soon as she made the commitment to wrestle, it immediately became clear her coaches would train her no differently than any other wrestler. That acceptance and attitude was quickly echoed by the senior leaders in the program.
“When I first stepped into the wrestling room at Union, I was really thankful that the seniors in the room were very mature about how they approached the fact that now there was a girl in the wrestling room. They just saw me as another opponent. They didn’t take it easy on me. They drilled me as hard as they did everybody else. With the seniors and the coaches taking me seriously in the room, everyone else followed. I’m thankful for that,” she stated.
Because of that support, there’s never been the slightest of doubts about her decision to wrestle, even on the days when practice is especially draining. In the sport of wrestling, building muscle memory involves a lot of repetition and physically demanding work- weightlifting, running, drilling, endurance marathons and endless sessions of live wrestling. Just when you think you’re at a breaking point, Hannah said, the coach will ask for even more.
“Conditioning is not a lot of fun,” she admitted.
“Not only getting in shape but pushing yourself to the very limit every single day. But I wouldn’t change anything about that. Because if I hadn’t pushed myself every single day for the last year, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I would be way far behind. So, yes, in the moment, pushing yourself to the limit and then even more, it is a bit draining, but you come back later, thankful that you had done that,” she said.
Fifteen months into her wrestling career, Hannah is more confident in her wrestling, explaining that much of that confidence comes from keeping good positioning on the mat.
“If you’re wrestling someone who doesn’t know a lot of moves but they’re always in good position, it’s very hard to do anything on them or get the move you want,” she said.
“Knowing positions that work well for me- that’s what I love about wrestling. It’s so personalized. If you find a move that you like, you drill it. No one can stop it. So, one of the things I’ve had to do is to realize how to use my weight, not necessarily as an advantage, but to work around it,” she added, noting that her footwork and quickness can help compensate against size and strength.
Girls wrestling is one of the fast growing sports in the state of Iowa. This year, 164 girls are out for the sport, up from just 40 a year ago. Those numbers don’t surprise Hannah Michael, who is a strong proponent of expanding the minds of others to view wrestling as a sport for everyone, one that will include as many girls as possible. What advice would Hannah offer to girls curious about the sport?
“Just to try it. You never know what’s it’s going to be like until you try it. Even if it’s trying just a little bit like I did. If you don’t like it, that’s okay. I would say, ‘Just go out and try it.’ The fact that it’s such a fast growing sport, maybe you and your friends can get together and try it so you don’t have to feel so secluded or by yourself. Many places are now doing all girls practices. Based on what you feel comfortable with, contact someone you think would know where to start and get started. Don’t be afraid at all because most of the people you come across are going to be supportive,” she offered.
While Iowa is not one of the 14 states in the nation to provide a wrestling program specifically for girls, the increase in girls’ participating this year has resulted in the offering of tournaments where girls can compete strictly against one another. On January 12 in Independence, Hannah Michael recorded a pair of first period pins against the two other girls in her class to stand atop the girls’ 106 lb. podium.
One week later, the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association hosted the state’s first girls wrestling state tournament in Waverly. Going into the tournament, Hannah knew the competition would be even tougher. True to her character, her goals for the meet were performance-based and not so much about wins and losses.
“The goal is to stay in good position the whole time,” she said.
Noting that wins would come if she executed well on the mat, the determination not to give up against some of the best female wrestlers in the state was an equally important outcome for Hannah.
“The goal is to get first, but there are a few girls I have to go through first. That will be tough,” she admitted.
“I have no hesitation that I’m going to go out to give it my all.”
In the 106 lb. weight class, one of the largest fields of the State Tournament, where all girls regardless of school size competed against one another, Hannah placed fourth overall.
Should Iowa have separate wrestling programs for girls and boys? It’s a complex question to answer, in part due to the fact that there are separate governing bodies that oversee extracurricular athletics in the state. The Iowa High School Athletic Association governs sports for boys, including wrestling, while the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union is responsible for girls athletics.
As someone who has chosen to compete in a sport dominated by athletes of another gender, Hannah Michael has mixed feeling about separating the sport to provide a program specifically for girls.
“The reason I hesitate is because there are pros and cons to whether or not we want to have separate men’s and women’s practices or a togetherness of the sport. If they were separate, more girls would go out for the sport.
Together, it would change the way people think about the sport for the better,” she stated, firmly believing that her experience is a prime example of how more accepting the sport could become. Regardless of what the state decides to do about the rapidly increasing interest girls are showing in the sport of wrestling, Hannah’s experience on the mat is just the beginning for this senior who plans to study graphic design in college.
“I don’t think my story will end here at Union, wrestling in high school. There is nothing I want more than to wrestle at college.”