Pioneer wrestler grapples with gender taboos


Her seven brothers and a family history in wrestling helped Chandell Knox break new ground for women in sports and break into the movies as well. She is one of 11 females featured in Grappling Girls, a 2008 documentary on women wrestling.

“I thought it was very well put together,” she observed after seeing herself on film for the first time during a brief showing at the U of M Tucker Center Film Festival in February. “I really don’t remember doing it, because it was about six years ago. I was at a tournament and the lady who is doing the movie came up and asked questions. She heard that I was the first [female] wrestler for a high school team in Minnesota.”

She hopes that the Grappling Girls documentary will serve as another supporting point to argue that girls and women, if given the chance, can compete on the wrestling mat just as well as males.

The simple goal of any wrestler is to win by out-maneuvering on the mat his or her opponent, who is trying to do the same. However, a female wrestler in a historically male-dominated sport “has to always prove yourself over and over again. You can’t make any mistakes, because if you do, [it’s] ‘See, I told you — you guys shouldn’t be doing this,’” notes Knox. “You have to be on your toes and your game all the time.”

As a young girl, Knox became interested in wrestling virtually because she was out-manned. “I have seven brothers, and my dad made them practice on me,” she admits, adding that when she wanted to become a wrestler herself, her father wasn’t too keen on the idea. “Finally he couldn’t stop me anymore.”

The wrestling genes finally couldn’t be denied. “It has been in the family,” says Knox. “My grandfather started the Minneapolis Wrestling Club back in the ’60s.” Once a member of the Southwest High School varsity wrestling team in 1995, “I wrestled all through high school,” she explains. “But I was on the USA team, and I couldn’t do high school [wrestling] and be on the USA team at the same time.”

She wrestled for USA for five years in the mid-1990s.

Girls’ and women’s wrestling has slowly but steadily grown over the last two decades. It became an Olympic sport in 2004. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that there were 7,351 girls wrestling nationwide.

But according to Knox, female wrestling is still seen by the mostly male wrestlers and coaches as “taboo.” While male wrestlers have no problem finding practice partners, “a girl might only have just one, so it’s hard to get better if you don’t have enough practice partners,” says Knox.

Wrestling is also “very expensive” for females, especially if she isn’t on a high school team. “You got to pay” for private coaching, says Knox. “You need…practice partners and more resources to be able to travel to the places and get more competition. It has to be something that you love to do.”

Women’s wrestling remains “at a standstill,” believes Knox, with only a handful of U.S. college and university varsity programs. “If there were more girls [at younger levels]…I think it would be more successful. A lot of girls start wrestling late, and that’s a disadvantage.”

Knox now coaches a group of male youngsters ranging from five to 14 at Best Academy in North Minneapolis. She first became a coach in 1997 at a local park, and then joined the school staff four years ago.

“When I first started the team [here], I could tell the boys were looking at me [thinking,] ‘You’re a girl and you are trying to teach me wrestling.’ Probably their parents were thinking the same thing.”

It was only after the school director suggested that she bring in her trophies to help convince any doubters that “I got the respect,” says Knox. “We’re organized and dedicated every year. They don’t question me anymore. They love to come to practice. They are good athletes.”

The Best Academy Warriors regularly compete in suburban tournaments, and many of Knox’s wrestlers have qualified and won in their respective classes.

“We want to represent the North Side of Minneapolis,” says Knox. “What I’m proud [of] is that they come to school every day — they have a nine-hour school day — and then they stay around to practice.

“I love working with children,” says Knox. “I really want to stay with the children’s program, but eventually I would like to get into a high school coaching position.”

Knox eagerly teaches her wrestlers the same things she learned as a wrestler: “If you are going to do something, do it all the way. Don’t give up and just keep going. If you fall down, get back up and keep going.”