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In the eighth grade, Moira Simes just wanted to follow in her big brother’s footsteps — so she put on a pair of wrestling shoes.

“People ask me why I don’t cheerlead. I don’t know. I always try to follow my brother,” said the 17-year-old Ankara, Turkey, resident, whose brother wrestles for the University of Kent at Canterbury, England.

Simes is one of an increasing number of young women at the high school and university levels who are taking an interest in wrestling.

So many women are now competing in the sport that women’s wrestling has been added to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Only two girls wrestled in the Mediterranean District last year — Simes and Naomi Vidro from Naples, Italy.

The number has risen to six this season.

“Women are on the rise in everything,” Vidro said. “Go for it.”

In addition to Simes and Vidro, sophomore Megan McLean moved from team manager to wrestler in Vicenza, junior Jennifer Genoa is competing for Naples, senior Kate Vining is half of Incirlik’s team and senior Jessica Campfield is on the Aviano team.

Simes not only has been wrestling since eighth grade — far longer than all other girls in the district — she beat out 10 boys to place sixth in the 103-pound weight class at the European Championships in Germany last year.

Genoa said watching Vidro, who placed third at 103 in the regional championships last year, helped convince her to take up the sport this year.

“Everybody in high school wants to be on the wrestling team,” said Genoa, who wrestles at 135 pounds. “I wanted to see what I was capable of.”

Testing limits — physical and mental — is the thread binding the few female wrestlers in the region as they compete in a sport that can be physically demanding and occasionally a bit awkward.

“Things are going to get touched,” said McLean, who suffered a back injury in this season’s first meet after being put in a painful hold called a “double chicken wing.”

Like many girls wrestling at the high school level, the girls in the Mediterranean district compete against all the boys in their weight classes, not just other girls.

And in a sport where grappling, holds and close body contact is necessary, wrestlers of both sexes have to concentrate on winning.

“The first time in practice, it was a little awkward. Now, it is no problem,” said Vining, who competes at 171. “In matches it works to your advantage. Guys are a little uneasy about it, but for you it doesn’t matter.”

Any boy — or girl — who is too hesitant about a hold or move runs the risk of losing the match, while inappropriate holds can bring penalty points and forfeiture.

Coaches with mixed-sex teams are quick to explain what is — and what is not — appropriate touching to everyone who is competing, said George Hamby, head coach of the Vicenza wrestling team.

“We’re pretty upfront. There is no place for unnecessary groping,” he added. “Practice also takes care of that.”

Then there is the trauma of losing — to a girl.

“If you wrestle a girl you’re thinking ‘I can’t lose. If I lose, I’m going to be the talk of the tournament,’” said James Kellenbence, a senior from Naples who wrestles in Genoa’s weight class.

Although wrestling is often billed as one of the more equal of sports — competitors always face off against someone else of roughly the same weight — women do face physical disadvantages.

“It is the one sport where you are equal size-wise,” Hamby said. “But you aren’t always equal in strength.”

McLean, who took up wrestling in the 125-pound class after serving as team manager the previous year, said she lacked quite a bit of strength compared to her male competitors and teammates.

“Girls just lack strength,” she said. “You can use technique to catch them off guard, but generally guys have the upper hand.”

Simes, however, finds strength in anyone who looks at her as an easy target on the mat.

“I had a lot of ‘Oh my gosh, she’s a girl, she’ll be easy.’ It made me want to wrestle and win,” she said. “I only see my opponent.”

Leah Bower is a news correspondent working from the Naples, Italy, bureau.

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