Gleaming with sweat from her pre-match warm-up exercises, 16-year-old America Morris of San Diego, Calif. paces the perimeter of the wrestling mat, psyching herself into a state of controlled fury. As she and her opponent square off, she is oblivious to every distraction. All that matters now for the Clairemont High School sophomore is contact, the collision of bodies, the straining of limbs, move and countermove. For Morris, exhilaration comes only with victory, which she achieved earlier this season by pinning Madison High School’s Russell Cain, 15, for the mandatory two-second count. Thus did America Morris—affectionately dubbed “studdette” by her boyfriend—become, in all likelihood, the first girl in California, if not the entire U.S., ever to pin a boy in a high school varsity match.
“I jumped up real high,” she recalls. “Everyone crowded around and shook my hand. Even people on the Madison team were cheering. Then Russell came over and I just gave him a hug. I kind of felt bad, not because I pinned him but because of the aftermath, like his getting teased.” Cain, who has since had to endure an excess of static from those of his acquaintance who were not pinned by a girl, says he “froze” when the referee blew the whistle to start the match. “I mistakenly touched her breast,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do. I was in dream time. After that I was really embarrassed…. But I’m not self-conscious now. I learned my lesson.”
Morris’ coach Jerry Knuppel maintains, reasonably, that touching is part of the sport and shouldn’t disturb a wrestler’s concentration. “Her breast,” he says, “is part of her chest, and a chest hold is appropriate.” America’s boyfriend, Derek Magdalik, 18, considers Cain’s alleged reluctance to grope nothing more than “a well-played excuse for losing.” Morris herself admits with a giggle that in the heat of a match it would be perfectly acceptable to grab a guy between the legs. “I’m not going to do it intentionally,” she says. “I don’t think about it, although I know they think about it. Before they wrestle, you can hear them whisper, ‘Grab her here and there, do this, do that.’ But I don’t want to wrestle a guy with that kind of intention because then it’s not wrestling, it’s not a sport.”
Coach Knuppel believes Morris is in a no-win situation. “If she loses,” he says, “it’s because she’s a girl. If she wins, it’s assumed she’s wrestled a weaker, underskilled wrestler.” But at 5’5″ and 107 pounds, Morris outweighed Cain by only two pounds and was ahead on points, 9-4, when she pinned him. Admittedly the trim, blond first-year varsity wrestler has so far won only this once when the other team has been able to field a boy in her weight class. Still, she is nobody’s idea of a pushover. Teammate Joseph Damirjian, the school’s top wrestler in the 175-pound class, notes, “America learns fast. She’s a tough girl.”
More than the bruises, the grueling daily practices and the snickering gawkers, Morris’ toughest challenge may have been coping with the loss of her long hair, which had to be lopped off before she could wrestle. At her first match she had it tied back with a rubber band. “Right there on the spot,” she says, “they got out the surgical scissors and cut a good three inches.” Now her mother, Delia, a beautician who is divorced from America’s father, a dentist, gives her designer cuts more to her liking.
Morris says she started wrestling last November after getting to know some other wrestlers in a conditioning class. Her previous experience of hand-to-hand combat was confined to familial struggles with three older half brothers, her mother’s sons by a first marriage. Today, while professing a love of high heels and expensive dresses, she continues her living room workouts with her 6-foot, 170-pound boyfriend. “I’m like a guinea pig,” Magdalik says. “She’ll try to put moves on me, but she can never pin me.” “No?” challenges Morris. “What did you call that last night?”
Russell Cain, take heart, wherever you are. This woman’s string of conquests may not stop at one.