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UM-Dearborn’s Goocher fights for right to wrestle

November 6, 2017

Dearborn — She just wants to wrestle. Marina Goocher’s two-year struggle for equal opportunity on the mat now comes down to a Tuesday decision. That’s when a statement about a requested policy change regarding coed wrestling is expected. Goocher has said she’d happily compete against women — but she’s the only female wrestler on her UM-Dearborn team, and in her conference.

Goocher, 20, who has wrestled since age 5, dominated during her Riverview High School years and won 80 percent of her matches on the boys team there. She said she’s also one of three women in the state to get more than 100 victories, with most of those wins against male competitors.

The junior mechanical engineering student chose UM-Dearborn for studies, she said, but was excited to learn the school had a club wrestling team. Goocher said she joined as a freshman in 2015, the only female, with full support from her coach and teammates.

“They knew I could help them win,” Goocher said.

Except she can’t. The squad operates as a club wrestling team governed under the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, or NCWA. Before her first match with the squad in 2015, she scoured the NCWA rule book and insurance policy, finding no rule saying she couldn’t wrestle men.

NCWA executive director Jim Giunta, however, said Goocher could only wrestle women. Goocher kept pushing to wrestle at subsequent tournaments, leading to Giunta to send an eventual follow-up email to Goocher’s coach, Grant MacKenzie, stating: “Women wrestle women, men wrestle men in practice and competition. Period.”

Goocher said Giunta never quoted a specific rule or policy that she would violate by wrestling men, and she eventually turned to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Detroit chapter for help.

For the past two years, the ACLU examined the facts to make sure it could take on Goocher’s case. Bonsitu Kitaba, the ACLU attorney representing Goocher, said the next step was finding partners to help, including the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in New York, the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York, and the National Women’s Law Center of Washington, D.C.

Together, the coalition researched how the law and previous cases affected Goocher’s situation. On Oct. 25, a 13-page letter was filed with the NCWA, requesting a policy change to allow women to wrestle men in cases like Goocher’s. One of the five listed reasons states the NCWA’s own rules require the organization to follow NCAA rules.

“While the NCAA’s wrestling competition rules neither prohibit nor explicitly allow for coed wrestling, they have been interpreted to allow for women to compete on men’s teams,” the letter states, supporting with cases like that of Patricia Adura-Miranda, who wrestled on Stanford’s male wrestling team in the early 2000s and would go on to medal at the 2004 Olympics.

Tied up in red tape

The ACLU requested a formal reply by Nov. 7, a deadline Giunta told The Detroit News via email that the NCWA plans on honoring.

“As a coach-run organization the NCWA tries to account for and reflect the needs of all of our member institutions,” Giunta said when asked if a policy change could be immediately put into place.

Giunta also said he wished the NCWA had had time to examine Goocher’s case more closely before the ACLU’s letter got published, and sent a general response that has been given to media. An excerpt from the letter:

“The NCWA’s purpose is to promote men’s and women’s collegiate wrestling divisions but has no role in determining which universities choose to build their women’s teams. Our organization’s structure and purpose are not to build coed wrestling competition because those collegiate opportunities already exist for the athletes who desire them. In fact, no one is preventing Ms. Goocher from competing against men at the college level, and she has many opportunities to do so. Almost every weekend this season, she can compete against men in open collegiate wrestling tournaments. Because those opportunities already exist, the NCWA focuses on providing women the opportunity to experience the sport of wrestling on a large scale within a women’s league.”

During a recent interview at UM-Dearborn, Goocher stressed that her case is primarily about wanting to wrestle with her team during the season, not about her wanting to wrestle men.

“I just want an equal opportunity,” Goocher said.

Few competitors

Because Giunta informed UM-Dearborn Goocher also could not wrestle men in practice, she’s expected to train and stay in shape on her own during the season, while sitting on the bench during her team’s meets. It’s only during the season’s end at nationals where she can conveniently wrestle other women. Goocher competed in nationals in her freshman and sophomore seasons, going 6-0.

The NCWA web site lists 43 women’s teams at schools where the organization is trying to establish female programs, but participation is sparse.

Registration is still open for the season that began Oct. 12, but as of Sunday, only five other states had schools with women wrestlers listed, including 10 women at three schools in Texas, four in two Washington schools, three in Colorado, two in Utah, and two in Minnesota — the closest to Goocher — at Winona State University.

“It is pretty tough for these ladies to find competition,” Winona State head coach Louis Orr told The Detroit News. “I’m gonna host a home invite this winter and see if we can get some women to come.”

Orr said he has coached women wrestlers in the past, and a lack of competition makes it tough for them to get better. After getting up to speed on Goocher’s case, Orr said more power to her, though he believes college competition is different.

“It works really well in high school (women vs. men),” Orr said. “In college, though, I think the ladies need to wrestle ladies.”

Orr said men’s bodies change when they’re older, and he thinks that makes it tough for men and women to compete against one another.

Mackenzie Van De Walker, 18, a female freshman wrestler on Orr’s team, said she’s new to the collegiate level of the sport, and has mixed feelings about women wrestling men.

“I’m more for it, but I could see why other people are against it,” Van De Walker said, adding she’d probably get soundly defeated by a man.

Van De Walker said a lack of women competitors means that she, too, will likely sit the bench a lot this season, and thinks that a wrestler like Goocher should be allowed to wrestle men if she wants, especially since the NCWA supposedly follows NCAA guidelines that do not explicitly forbid coed wrestling.

“Why should it be any different?” Van De Walker said.

No matter what happens Tuesday, Goocher plans to press on and keep wrestling, even if it’s just for two more national events.

Kitaba said the ACLU will decide what’s next, including the possibility of a lawsuit, after the NCWA’s decision. There’s an online petition that will get presented to the NCWA, too, Kitaba said, showing Goocher has support of people nationwide, not just her legal coalition.

“This affects more than just Marina,” Kitaba said. “It affects a lot of other women who either are in the NCWA or are interested in college wrestling, but aren’t able to wrestle because they might not have other women in their conference or at the school to wrestle against.”

Goocher said she always has had the respect of male wrestlers, and doesn’t feel it should be different now.

“I just want to wrestle,” Goocher said.