Vienna Prado began wrestling in seventh grade, mostly taking on boys as she progressed from middle school and up through three years of high school wrestling.
Prior to her junior year at Stamford, it was announced the CIAC would hold its first All-Girls Wrestling State Open Invitational with 75 female wrestlers participating.
Prado was thrilled she would be able to measure herself against the other female wrestlers in the state.
However, before she reached the girls tournament, Prado tore both her ACL and MCL during practice, ending her dream of wrestling for a title.
“It was so close to the state tournament,” Prado said. “I was so ready for a girls state tournament. I had been practicing for this my whole life and I couldn’t wait to wrestle for a championship. I was so angry, knowing there was finally a girls tournament and I was going to miss it. But it is what it is.
There will be no comeback story for Prado as the CIAC is not allowing any wrestling this winter due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Prado said because of the injury she was not sure she was going to be able to compete this winter but her coach, Jaime Camacho, said he thought she would have been a top contender for a state title wrestling in the 126-132-pound range.
No wrestling obviously hurts thousands of athletes across the state but it also halts the momentum girls wrestling had going.
“I think it will affect all wrestling not just the girls but there is no doubt the girls had a good thing going and now don’t have it,” Camacho said. “The die-hard kids will still come out for the team, but kids who might have gotten into the sport might move on to something else now.”
Despite the lack of a season, girls wrestling remains one of the fastest growing sports among female athletes in the United States.
Since 2001, participation has jumped from 3,405 to more than 17,000, according NFHS. Many feel that the inclusion of women’s wrestling as an Olympic sport in 2004 and the popularity of mixed martial arts have contributed to the growth in popularity.
“In our youth program, interest among girls is way up,” Bristol Eastern wrestling coach Bryant Lishness said. “We are seeing a lot of girls come from Ju-Jitsu or Judo backgrounds and get into wrestling. Girls can now watch women in MMA or in Olympic wrestling and it gets them interested. The numbers are up for girls wrestling everywhere and we are seeing that in Bristol.”
In the inaugural CIAC girls tournament, Bristol Eastern sophomore Ella Nichols was among the 10 girls to win state titles, taking home the 145-pound crown and being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler.
Nichols was ranked No. 9 in the country by USA Wrestling and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Even Nichols had a hard time cracking her team’s varsity roster as a No. 1 with two highly ranked boys in her brother Tommy, who was the 138-pound State Open runner-up, and Alex Marshall at 152 who finished sixth at the State Open.
Bristol Eastern has won three CIAC Class L titles since 2016, finishing as runner-up twice in that span.
“Ella came up through our youth wrestling program, wrestling mostly boys,” Lishness said. “When we started taking her to girls tournaments, she was dominant. Against boys at the JV level, she only lost four matches and won something like 35. Our varsity team is just really strong. I think at other schools, she could wrestle as the No. 1 at her weight class.”
Lishness feels that the loss of this season will not hurt the girls any more than the boys, saying the increasing numbers at the youth level leave him optimistic that the sport will continue growing in high schools in Connecticut.
Girls Wrestling has grown in Connecticut to a point where there were enough athletes to host the invitational at the State Open. The number of states sanctioning girls wrestling has grown from 4 to 21 in just five years. Other states are joining Connecticut with West Virginia and Ohio both holding their first all-girl wrestling state tournaments last winter.
Twenty states across the country now hold state wrestling championships for girls.
Before last year, four girls won medals in the CIAC championships meets against boys with the best finish coming from Montville’s Jessica Bennett who came in second in the 103-pound division of Class M in 2009.
Prado’s Stamford teammate Samantha Yap won the 106-pound division last year at the Invitational as a freshman and was looking forward to defending her title.
“It was frustrating. I was hoping to add another state title and improve from last year,” Yap said. “It was a huge accomplishment for me being among the first girls state champions. I was really proud of all the hard work with my teammates and coaches. It really showed. I felt really good. All my coaches and teammates were cheering me on. That feeling of getting my hand raised as a state champion felt really great with all those people supporting me.”
Yap began in MMA before switching to wrestling in sixth grade.
Yap, who like most girls wrestles boys all season, was pumped when she found out about the girls tournament.
“I was really excited to have a girls state tournament to compete in,” Yap said. “When you wrestle guys in high school, they are much stronger than they were in middle school. You have to put a lot more work in to wrestle them. With the girls you still have to put in a lot of work but you are the same gender and that makes it easier. The girls are a lot more flexible.”
Yap is sophomore but knows she wants to wrestle in college, where the sport is also growing, even locally.
Sixty-three colleges now field women’s teams, 40 in the NCAA, with one of those being Sacred Heart University.
Sacred Heart is the first college in New England to offer Division I women’s wrestling when it begins competing next fall.
“I think it’s important that the NCAA recently labeled women’s wrestling as an emerging sport,” Sacred Heart Men’s Wrestling coach John Clark said in a press release in September. “But even before that, I saw the potential. Anything that guys can do, girls can do, too. This is an equal opportunity.”
The rise in college programs is giving a glimmer of hope to local female wrestlers who in the past had few options to continue wrestling past high school.
For now, the girls are left missing the season as much as the boys.
“I love it. You don’t wrestle unless you love it,” Prado said. “It’s so much fun when you are there and it’s just you and your opponent. It is something so different. You practice so much and put your heart and soul into it and the matches are when you showcase it. I love training, I love the people around me and I am very competitive and wrestling or mixed martial arts really brings that out in me.”