Discussing women in sports in terms of their appearance is craven. It diminishes their abilities, their athleticism and their work. It has taken decades of societal growth to get this far and it's still obviously not far enough. Adeline Gray, however, wants to take an antiquated and sexist complex and flip it around, to be part of a movement that dictates their own terms.
On Thursday, Gray could very well become the United States' first gold medalist in women's wrestling. She is the country's best hope. She hasn't lost a match in more than two years and is the two-time defending champion at 75 kg. She is the sport's present and, at just 25 years old, its future. If she reaches her goal in Brazil, she might just be one of the Games' breakout stars.
But this is just part of her list of goals. She wants gold, yes, but also to spark a movement. Just three years after wrestling was nearly pulled out of the Games — a foundational sport almost eradicated from the event by the whims of the IOC — some in the sport are looking at her to raise its visibility and cement its place. Terry Steiner, Gray's coach and the head of the United States women's team for the last 15 years, is putting an even larger burden on her. What Gray does next could change the course of women's wrestling.
"Within the wrestling community she's definitely been a great spokesperson for us and moving forward," he said. "Surely, a gold in Rio I think we can blow those doors off the hinges. She has the ability to be that wrestler, that icon that transcends the sport. I can see Adeline being like Billie Jean (King) was for tennis. It gave people a whole new perspective on the sport of women's tennis and I think Adeline has that kind of persona."
He adds: "She could be like the Mary Lou Retton in '84."
This is all of one kind for Gray. She lays out the terms of her success not just in victories on the mat but as social activism. For her, success in Brazil will be gratifying, of course, and it will be a boon for her sport, but it will also provide a platform for speaking out about the cultural norms she hopes to change. With Gray, a conversation about her possible wrestling success quickly deviates to one about what she hopes to accomplish with it.
Women's wrestling remains a sport undermined by twisted gender dynamics. It took until 2008 for the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association to emerge — though it was done outside the NCAA umbrella, which still does not even recognize wrestling as an official "emerging sport." Gray grew up wrestling against boys in high school and though the number of girls who wrestle in high school is climbing towards five figures, there remain high-profile cases where their male opponents would rather forfeit than wrestle them.
A few months ago, as she sat on a rooftop at the New York Athletic Club, Gray laid out her vision. She hopes to see a time where there is a boys and girls team in every high school -- where they can train together and wrestle in their own divisions. And she wants to change the parameters and the definition of femininity. This is at the core of what she hopes to accomplish. To influence the perception of women's wrestling and female athletes. To break a mold that was constructed for her but not by her.
She is an ambassador for Redefine Feminine — a program commissioned by USA Wrestling to promote its female athletes through public outreach and awareness campaigns and to break down the misconceptions about them. With Gray as its face, it hopes to change the perception of the word and, it touts, "subvert the traditional notions of femininity." Gray wants femininity to bring up thoughts of strength and ambition.
"I'm confident in my femininity enough to know that I can come on this mat and be strong and be powerful and really still be goal-oriented and not have it disrespect or take away from my femininity," she said. "I think that's something that young girls need to realize: Just because you do go out there, you can be a badass and a girl. Those are two things you can do. That's OK. I think that's definitely a cultural thing that we need to start pushing forward and not have that stigma that you can't go out and work hard and have it pay off. That's what muscle is. Muscle is you going in and committing to something and having consistency with it to reach a goal. That's something you should be proud of. That's something that I think a lot of people still look down on for females and I think that's sad."
Gray says her realization of the world available to her came when she was a 14-year-old wrestler with an undecided future. She was at a tournament in Colorado when Iris Smith, the reigning women's world champion in the freestyle division at 72 kilograms, walked in. Smith's title was freshly minted and she paraded her gold medal around.
Just as importantly and memorably for Gray, Smith's hair was done up and she looked good, too — a champion who had not relinquished any of part of her identity in pursuit of athletic greatness. Until this day, Gray believes, had she not had a role model like Smith, she might have been content to follow in the same path as her sisters: college soccer players, who would mature into their 20s without having experienced much of the outside world. Her life could have been successful but it would not have become this.
"She just really showed me that you could be strong and powerful and a badass and still be feminine and beautiful," Gray says of seeing Smith that day. "So I really liked that perspective and liked that image for myself. It's something that I strive for every single day — that I don't have to restrict my femininity because I do what's known as a masculine sport here in the United States."
Smith remembers this moment too. How a young Gray asked her to sign her headgear. She's excited and elated that Gray has continued to espouse a belief she held and stuck to during her career.
Now comes the largest obstacle yet for Gray. Women's wrestling has had world championships since 1987 but was only granted a place in the Olympics in 2004. It has been mostly unheralded even in comparison to the men's. Gray started wrestling at six years old and didn't even know that those championships existed for a while. There was little marketing and few role models for her.
Gray thinks of the difficulties she's had in landing sponsorships. The reluctance and ignorance that she's seen from executives representing potential corporate sponsors. The ones, she says, who hardly know women's wrestling exists or consider it stigmatized.
"I get this very confused puppy look," she said. "They go like 'Women's wrestling is in the Olympics?'
"Unless you get me in front of you, you're not going to know that I can be marketable and useful in your company. But it takes that next step to actually have something catch your eye. Unless you're a wrestling fan it's kind of hard to do that. Wrestling as a whole struggles with our sponsorship."
A gold medal by an American wrestler would help grow the sport in the U.S. It could give it more viability and Gray could be at the forefront. Sports that don't live in the mainstream can suffocate without attention. Gray recognizes that women's wrestling needs more airtime, more media, more sponsors — it needs more.
She hopes she can bring that and open up pathways for future generations of wrestlers and female athletes. As Gray grew up, she worried about being "girly enough," she said. Her mom tied a pink bow or scrunchie in her hair. Her broad shoulders and strength, ostensibly assets on the mat, became perceived flaws in a teenage girl's body image. Wrestling helped alleviate that.
"These things typically have been left for just the boys and that's something that our society, I think, is missing out on," Gray said. "Having those girls have those dreams younger. They're not dreaming about being a princess but they're dreaming about being an Olympic champion. Or they're dreaming about being a professional ball player just like the boys are. Because so many of those boys never end up playing ball or being where they are but at the same time they get the opportunity to dream about that."
She adds: "I think the United States really needs one to show that women's wrestling is serious here in the U.S. And really does have a future moving forward for young girls to dream about."