As a high schooler, every day before she left for practice, first-year Maya Letona would look at a newspaper cutout pinned to her bulletin board: “Santa Cruz sophomore Maya Letona suffered a heart-breaking 1-0 decision to San Benito sophomore Jenna Hartman to finish in fourth place, one spot from a state berth.” The snippet from the Santa Cruz Sentinel was a stinging reminder of just how close she came to qualifying for the California Interscholastic Federation State Wrestling Championships tournament months before. Though it was only the second year of her wrestling career, Letona’s narrow defeat at the Central Coast Section tournament left her with a deep desire to compete at the highest level.
One year later, Letona won sectionals and placed seventh at states.
A year after that, she won again at sectionals, as well as at the Napa Valley Girls Classic—one of the largest girls wrestling tournaments in the nation—and took home silver in the state.
No longer obsessed with her sophomore year sectionals loss, Letona now looks back fondly on that moment. She sees it as one of many difficult situations she is proud of navigating in her wrestling journey and as a catalyst for her later success.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, Letona played soccer from a young age and enjoyed a very active surf-town lifestyle. “But quickly, we realized that I was a little more violent than active sometimes—not violent, violent, but aggressive,” Letona said, smiling. After one too many yellow cards, Letona was inspired by her father’s judo experience and took on the traditional Japanese martial art at a small dojo near her city. From elementary to middle school, she competed frequently, winning competitions at the national level.
When high school rolled around, Letona and her parents decided she should join a sport available at her school, but it was hard for her to let go of judo. After reluctantly holding out on registering for a sport for months, she joined the only one still available—wrestling.
Letona was the only girl on the Santa Cruz High wrestling team. Her judo background came in handy, and she found herself regularly tossing her male teammates during practices. While she didn’t know proper wrestling technique at the start, she fit in by scrapping with her teammates.
“I didn’t actually realize that I was the only girl, nor did it really affect me very much until people told me,” Letona said.
During her sophomore year, Letona was joined by another freshman girl. They competed together at the occasional tournament. “It was just us two,” Letona said.
At the beginning of her junior year, the two girls decided to create a girls’ wrestling team at their high school. They started an advertising campaign, hosted events during lunch, and put up posters around the school, all in an effort to get girls to join their passion project.
“We were just banging on our athletic directors’ door, letting them know we’re actually doing this. We have girls; we need our own time and our own space,” Letona said.
After some construction at a nearby learning center, they got their own wrestling room, and Letona took on a leadership role in her newly formed team, teaching the girls how to wrestle.
While getting the new wrestlers up to speed and organizing her team’s practices, Letona was busy preparing for her own matches. Using her one-point defeat from sophomore year as fuel, she went to extra workouts after practice and committed to upping her game. “It was really rough. ... That at the time, drove me. All throughout my junior year, I really pushed myself,” she said. “I gained a lot of muscle; I gained speed. I just really pushed myself to compete against harder athletes.”
Letona stayed true to her word. While juggling athletics and overseeing her team, she became the first girl in Santa Cruz High history to win her region’s sectionals tournament. As a senior, she capped off her high school wrestling career by placing second at states. As the achievements piled up, Letona realized there was potential for wrestling to open up more opportunities for her, specifically in higher education. She also quickly realized those opportunities were much harder to come by for women than men. Letona began thinking more about gender-based discrepancies in the sport.
As a freshman, Letona did not think much about being the only girl on the boys wrestling team, but as she became more familiar with high school wrestling, she began to see differences between the male and female experience in the sport. While judo emphasizes respect between competitors, including bowing before and after fights, Letona found wrestling could feel hyper-masculine. This phenomenon may be attributed to the fact that wrestling in America has historically been predominantly male at all age levels. While there have always been around 250,000 male high school wrestlers per year, the number of female high school wrestlers only recently surpassed 20,000. Not only are there more men in wrestling, but there are also more opportunities for men to use wrestling to further their career goals, including in professional competitions.
Letona noticed one example when she paid attention to match announcers her senior year. Before matches, announcers would proclaim where each male wrestler had committed to college to the thousands of spectators in the arena, but she heard almost nothing for the top female wrestlers.
“You could hear all of the guys being called. And then the announcer going, ‘they’ve committed to whatever school they’ve committed to,’ and it was just interesting hearing that and then hearing the girls being called out. One every five, or every four, [would] get called,” she said. The universities where the boys committed often had stronger wrestling programs and academics than where the few girls committed.
In a culture that lacked female voices, Letona also found herself speaking out about inappropriate decisions that affected her team. When a pop song with objectifying lyrics was used in the wrestling teams’ promotional video, she asked for the song to be changed. In addition, she remembers “working with the administration to understand what women’s wrestling entails; we’re just as legit as the guys’ team.”
Despite having to work through those challenges, Letona’s team proved their worth on the mat. In her senior year, her group outperformed the boys’ team, winning more matches at sectionals and sending more members to states.
“I’m a person that fuels off of tight situations. I really do like being in really hard situations and coming out of it because I know that that pushes me for the next time,” Letona said.
While Letona was blazing a trail for female wrestlers at her high school, a similar breakthrough was taking place at Columbia. Although Columbia boasts a long men’s wrestling history and hosted the first collegiate wrestling match in the nation, the only opportunities for women wrestlers were community-based practices. Senior Bri Csontos and sophomore Talia Fine decided to respond to this discrepancy by taking matters into their own hands. Together, they formed the Columbia women’s wrestling club team in early 2020.
Fine, who is now vice president of the club, put their goals simply: “The driving force behind the club was that we wanted a team,” she said. Although female wrestlers had attended Columbia since women were allowed to enroll, the club and varsity levels had only included men’s programs. Female wrestlers would practice with separate clubs that were primarily for high school students. Csontos initially thought of creating a centralized team as a first-year and later finalized the paperwork to do so with Fine in March of last year. Though the COVID-19 pandemic occurred right as Csontos and Fine planned to hold their first in-person events, the club still took to social media for publicity and held virtual practices for team members.
While the team intends to send individual members to compete, Fine and Csontos hope that women’s wrestling will grow big enough so all Columbia women’s wrestlers can be registered together at tournaments. There is still a long way to go before the club will reach that point, though other schools like Harvard University and Brown University have recently followed in Columbia’s footsteps.
What’s more, the NCAA recently gave women’s wrestling Emerging Sport status in 2020. This means that the NCAA is carefully considering giving the sport championship status and more athletic opportunities in the future. In addition to reflecting the sharp increase in youth female wrestlers over the last decade, the NCAA’s decision showcases how the current lack of equitable opportunities is being reevaluated.
“The ball has been dropped, and it’s been rolling,” Fine said.
And as for the possibility of Ivy League varsity women’s wrestling? “They will have a program by the time I graduate. I swear it. Oh, maybe I shouldn’t swear it because what if it doesn’t happen? That’d be really bad,” Fine continued, laughing. “But I think it will. I truly think it will.”
The conditions surrounding the team’s start at Columbia were conducive to its success. Csontos and Fine’s many supporters included the men’s wrestling team, senior Columbia administrators, and Columbia College Alumni Association President Kyra Tirana Barry, CC ’87.
Barry graduated in the first fully co-educational class at Columbia, which, unknown to her at the time, was the first year of World Championships for women’s wrestling. A founder of the women’s varsity soccer team and the first female Alumni Association President, Barry has broken her fair share of barriers. She also served as long-time president of Beat the Streets, an organization dedicated to promoting wrestling in New York City public schools, and Team Leader of the USA Women’s wrestling team seven years ago. She has played an instrumental role in popularizing women’s wrestling in New York City and the country at large.
Barry’s determination to create a women’s wrestling program at Columbia was backed by Carl Fronhofer, a former men’s wrestling team coach at the University. It was Fronhofer who initially gave Barry the idea of creating collegiate women’s wrestling to expand the sport as a whole. Barry then shared her goals for the University with many receptive senior administrators. “There’s been a really good attitude about ‘well, how do we make this happen?’” she said.
To create a collegiate program, however, Barry knew it was necessary to also direct a concentrated effort at the high school level. “To grow high school [women’s wrestling], you need to have a collegiate outlet,” Barry said. “But to grow college [women’s wrestling], you have to show that there are enough girls wrestling in high school.”
Advocacy for NCAA Emerging Sport status came hand in hand with laying the groundwork for high school girls’ wrestling, which she focused on in 2014. Rapid progress was made. “Around 2018, states started adding high school girls’ championships. It went from six states to this fall, we’ll have 29 states that will have an official state championship. There are about ten that have unofficial [state championships],” she said. Csontos, Fine, and Letona are part of the first wave of girls who benefited from the high school opportunities for which Barry fought.
Letona was asked to volunteer at a Stanford-Columbia men’s meet during her senior year. There, she got to mingle with prominent figures in the wrestling world like Barry and five-time world champion Adeline Gray. After talking with Barry about the possibility of wrestling at Columbia and learning of the burgeoning women’s wrestling club, Letona realized she could potentially wrestle on a collegiate team with strong academics. “From there, it kind of sparked the idea of coming to Columbia and wrestling,” she said.
As the granddaughter of immigrants and the daughter of Spanish-speaking parents, Letona was ecstatic when her acceptance letter came in the mail. “I was very excited. And so was my family, they were dancing and crying. It was quite a journey,” she said. “It’s kind of ingrained, as the immigrant’s dream, to go [for] higher education.” After proving her talent on the mat for years, Columbia allowed her to continue that passion.
According to Barry, the creation of Columbia’s wrestling club last year marks a huge turning point in collegiate women’s wrestling and signals what is to come. “Because there weren’t competitive academic opportunities for women wrestlers out there, a lot of them just thought of their senior year as that pinnacle of their career,” Barry said. Young women wrestlers are now benefiting from a slew of new opportunities that are popping up around the country. “I talk to girls on a weekly basis who say, ‘I’m from California. I’m from Tennessee. I’m from Wisconsin. And I want to wrestle at Columbia,’ because we have an Instagram, we have a website,” Fine said.
Barry, Fine, and Letona all expressed their excitement about the future of women’s wrestling. What was once a shadow of men’s wrestling is now holding its own on the mat.
“The difference in competition between my junior and senior year was like night and day,” Letona said. “The level of technique that’s been displayed over the last couple of years has just been elevated every single year. And it’s only getting better too.”
Fine hopes that Columbia will stay at the forefront of the women’s wrestling movement and continue to advocate for equal opportunity in the coming years. “We deserve to have a team, we deserve to have a coach, we deserve to have a locker room,” Fine said. “But we also have to earn the respect first. We also have to make ourselves known, make ourselves apparent first.” Barry intends to keep looking “for the opportunity to keep opening doors and bringing more people into the sport.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Letona stayed home this semester after initially living on campus in the fall. In some ways, staying home has been a blessing in disguise: It’s allowed her to volunteer at her middle school wrestling practices, where she works with both new and returning female wrestlers.
“Part of judo that stuck with me was always serving back to the community that brought you,” she said. “To be able to serve back to them and teach them the sport that I love and that’s taken me so far in life is something that I can’t really explain. It’s something so giving and magical.”
Luckily, that magic will live on at Columbia.