Wrestling might have been reserved primarily for men years ago, but a new age is dawning for the sport in terms of gender equality. As women’s wrestling grows in prevalence, so too does a push to sanction high school girls wrestling in Alabama and other states throughout the country. And in Shelby County, the need for separate wrestling programs for young women is becoming ever more evident.

Just ask people like Brynleigh Glover, Yasmine Oliveira, Aenaya Vines and Kat Alvis, whose opportunities to compete against other girls have been limited. They’re ready for progress and a more level playing field—or mat, more accurately—and for programs they can call their own.

Brynleigh Glover: Thompson High School

All eyes were on Brynleigh Glover as she walked into a 6 a.m. wrestling practice at Thompson High School last year. The only female in the room, Brynleigh sensed the questions running through the minds of her male peers, confusion written on their faces. “It was honestly super nerve-wracking,” she says. “I only told one person on the team that I was coming. Everyone stared at me, wondering why I was there.”

Brynleigh had just finished her junior season of volleyball and was looking for something else to fill her time, something that would keep her active, competitive and conditioned. When she thinks back to how she landed on wrestling, she mentions her friends who are wrestlers and her enjoyment as a spectator of the sport.

So Brynleigh, then a junior, mustered up the courage to go to her first practice. “The first couple weeks she was in there, the guys were getting used to her and gauging how serious she was, like any new kid on the team,” THS wrestling head coach Shawn Weltzin says. “After she was doing everything the guys were doing, they accepted her as one of them.”

Brynleigh focused on learning different moves, honing her technique and building her strength. “I could feel myself getting stronger, so it was easier to wrestle and practice against these boys,” she says. With time, she earned more respect from her teammates. “That was a huge thing, when they started being my friend and not just someone they had to scramble with during practice,” she says.

A breakthrough moment for Brynleigh came when she and a female wrestler from Spanish Fort competed against each other in the same weight class. “I felt way more comfortable because we could relate to each other,” Brynleigh recalls. “She and I had talked before the match about how it felt to be the only females on our teams. That was the first match that I officially won that wasn’t a true forfeit. Everybody was super stoked. Everyone started to see me as a wrestler and not just a girl on the team.”

Weltzin ardently supports a push for women’s wrestling to be approved by the Alabama High School Athletic Association as a sanctioned sport at schools throughout the state too. “I think it’s about time,” he says, noting that four women’s wrestling tournaments are slated to be held in the upcoming season, including the championship tournament Thompson will host.

“Girls should have the same opportunities in sports and athletics that guys have, and not have to have the same physical makeup as guys,” he says. “It should be on a level playing field.”

Brynleigh won’t be the only female competing for THS this season, either. Eighth grader Aenaya Vines will join her on the mat for the Warriors. “If more girls got out there, it would already be a sanctioned sport, and we would have our own programs in high schools,” she says. “I just want to prove that women’s wrestling is on the rise.”

Aenaya Vines: Thompson Middle School

Aenaya Vines is a quiet person. She won’t dominate a conversation, instead choosing her words carefully and keeping her responses to questions concise. But the soft-spoken 13-year-old who might seem timid at first adopts a different demeanor as soon as she steps onto the wrestling mat, a place where she has come to thrive over the last eight years. Words aren’t needed when she can let her wrestling skills do the talking.

Aenaya started wrestling when she was 7, at the same time her twin brother and her older brother took up the sport. “We were looking for another sport to do,” she says. They started out wrestling with a youth program prior to getting involved with their school’s team in the seventh grade. The Vines siblings clicked with the sport. “We turned into an instant wrestling family,” says Rosita Vines, Aenaya’s mother.

So much so that Aenaya wrestles with the Warrior Wrestling Club during the off-season, when her school team isn’t competing, meaning she stays busy year-round training and traveling to tournaments in and out of state.

She finds it especially fun to win, even when the odds might be stacked against her as her team’s only girl. “She has heard somebody talk bad about her at a tournament, and then, she’ll pin them,” Rosita says. “She’s very strong. They underestimate her.”

Growing up with brothers who also wrestle helped her acclimate to the mostly male environment early in her training. “Some guys think it’s weird, but I don’t really care,” she says. Her goals include becoming a starter and perhaps continuing her wrestling career in college.

Regardless of who she faces, Aenaya will continue to bring her trademark focus and determination to every practice and match—and to make silent statements with her strength and technique alone. “She’s a totally different person on the wrestling mat,” Weltzin says. “She looks like she has fun with it.”

Kat Alvis: Oak Mountain High School

Kathryn “Kat” Alvis was looking for a contact sport to try in the seventh grade when she heard an announcement about her school’s wrestling team and decided to give it a shot. It was a significant pivot for Kat, who had been a majorette. “I pretty much didn’t know anything about it,” she says. “My friends thought I was crazy. It’s been a journey.”

Kat says her introduction to the sport went well, thanks to a practice structure that was conducive to beginners like her. “Our coach really wanted to help everyone understand the technique,” she says. “The practices were really great because we focused on individual things and put it together at end of week. It took a physical toll on my body because I wasn’t used to strenuous workouts like that.”

Two years later, Kat, 14, is a freshman at Oak Mountain and still wrestling. She admits she has coped with her fair share of challenges, though. She sometimes struggles to keep up with the guys in workouts. To remedy that, she often leaves wrestling practice and goes straight to the gym or picks back up with exercises at home. “I really work heavily outside of practices,” she says. “Practicing at home is a really big deal. Sometimes my dad will help me, which is a really great thing.”

As of this summer, Kat was hoping more of her female peers would join her on the team, where she has formed strong friendships with her male teammates. She knows they see that she puts in the same amount of effort they do, and they accept her as a teammate, an equal. “I feel we’re just one and the same,” Kat says. “We’re both just two wrestlers, trying to win. Let the best person win.”

Kat also wants more girls to get involved in the sport so she can practice with them and compete in more all-girls tournaments in the future. Kat’s advice to other girls who want to try wrestling is to first introduce themselves to the coach and talk to them about their interest, ask questions or express concerns. “They’re going to be the ones to help you along,” she says.

More than anything, Kat says she would urge them to give wrestling a chance: “No matter what anybody tells you, be headstrong and go after what you want. Don’t have their opinions change what you want.”

Yasmine Oliveira: Spain Park High School

Thoughts race through Yasmine Oliveira’s mind in the moments before a wrestling match starts. Thoughts of what could go wrong or what could go right. But as soon as the whistle blows, those thoughts vanish and she focuses on the task at hand, pressing toward the end of the match when she or her opponent will win and the other will lose. The final seconds will determine the outcome. “You get an adrenaline rush,” she says.

Yasmine, 16, has had plenty of chances to feel that end-of-match rush since she started wrestling nearly four years ago. “I really just started wrestling because I wanted something to help my jiujitsu game, and wrestling was the closest thing to it,” she says. “There was another girl on the team who had been doing it since the sixth grade, but she stopped when we got to high school the next year. It was difficult at first being the only girl.”

Yasmine did well in wrestling her first year, but that changed when she got to high school. As a ninth grader, she was unable to beat the same guys she had beaten in the eighth grade. “That mentally messed with me,” she says. “I kind of struggled that year. I tried changing my diet, I tried exercising more, I physically tried to change. A lot of that wasn’t helping. I got discouraged from that.”

One of the team leaders talked to Yasmine and reminded her the team saw her as a strong person. She says it lifted her spirits, but she still felt a bit lost. She decided to take a hiatus from wrestling and spent her sophomore year reflecting on her experiences. Meanwhile, her dad, whom she calls one of her biggest supporters, was urging her to use the setback as a catalyst for improvement. “I learned I need to be more determined and to persevere and to be mentally strong, and I know what to expect now,” she says.

Her younger brother, a freshman at Spain Park, is also on the wrestling team. Yasmine says she wasn’t surprised when her father started wrestling so that he could have a better idea of what she and her brother were doing in practice and competitions.

Yasmine, too, would like to see women’s wrestling become a sanctioned sport at Alabama high schools. “In the wrestling world, there are women who have been successful, but overall, guys against girls is very difficult,” she explains, “because guys are just naturally stronger than women. This would give us a chance to wrestle fairly.”