During her single season as the only girl on the boys’ wrestling team at Jim Thorpe Area High School in Pennsylvania, Michelle Green never won a match: She finished with a 3-10 record, the three “victories” forfeits that came when the coaches of rival teams refused to let their boys meet her on the mat. But the clipping I was shown in mid-January made her sound like a kid worth investigating. Blunt, feisty, a little rebellious, she stuck with a losing team (0-15) in a sport where she wasn’t wanted—and, in the end, she earned a few fans. In February I drove to eastern Pennsylvania to meet my namesake. She seemed a lot like me at the same age. “People tell me I’m a smart ass,” she said. “They’re right.”
Michelle Green is hardly the sort you’d expect to find on a high school wrestling team. Medium-boned and pleasant-looking, she has none of the tack-spitting toughness of the stereotypical bruiser. The oversize glasses that she wears to correct for nearsightedness make her look vaguely bookish, and the two senior rings—her own and her boyfriend’s, Lance Malatak—that adorn her right hand signal a susceptibility to the rituals of adolescence.
In fact, Michelle, 17, is anything but a conformist. In October she informed coach Rich Flacco that she wanted to join the all-male wrestling squad at Jim Thorpe. Never mind that only a handful of girls in America have penetrated the male preserve. Lance, a 210-pound veteran of the team, already had introduced her to half nelsons. The team’s statistician last year, Michelle was tired of sitting at home while he was at practice. (“You know how you always want to be with your boyfriend…” she says, bashfully.) With two seasons of varsity field hockey behind her, the 5’5″ 130-pounder knew enough about sports to realize that wrestling would be physically demanding—but she never expected to undergo a psychic pummeling as well.
Every one of the 5,260 souls in the fraying blue-collar town seemed to have something to say about her. Traditionalists argued that any boy who met her on the mat would be putting his burgeoning masculinity on the line: If he won, he would be accused of unchivalrous behavior; if he lost, he would be called a sissy, or worse. “Pinch me, it has to be a bad dream,” wrote a local columnist.
Coaches of rival schools alternately vowed to keep their boys from wrestling her or to send them into battle prepared to “rip her arm off.” Away crowds would swell with gawkers who left as soon as Michelle’s matches were over. They hurled taunts like “What’s that girl trying to be, a little sleaze?” And every newspaper and TV station in the state, it seemed, descended on little Jim Thorpe to ask Michelle whether she shares the boys’ locker room (no) and what she wears in competition (a regular wrestling uniform with a T-shirt underneath).
It was mid-February, and Green was sitting on the stage in the deserted school cafeteria, where wrestling practice had gone on without her. Tucking one sneakered foot under a blue-jeaned leg, she leaned against a rolled-up mat to take the pressure off her rib cage. Her left side had been badly bruised in a weekend loss, and she would miss the season’s last bout when it didn’t heal.
Your basic hard-core jock and pragmatist, Michelle had been put out by all the attention. Like most high school athletes, she wants to compete, not philosophize. “I never find it embarrassing to wrestle with guys,” she said. “You just stay away from certain moves, like the ones where you grab through the crotch. But I can tell it bothers the guys I meet in matches, sometimes. You can see their whole bodies shaking.”
Even her teammates, she said, were thrown off. “They don’t wrestle me hard enough,” she complained. “I want them to be the same with me as with anybody else. I’m as good as any first-year guy in my weight class.
“I’d love to win,” she continued, “especially against the guy who hurt me last Saturday. Not to make him look like a fool, but you know how they want to make it equal rights? I would like to prove that women can do anything men can do.”
Coach Flacco admitted that he took criticism for letting Michelle join the squad. “But my job is to teach anybody who wants to learn. Michelle didn’t have as much muscle development or technical skill as some of her opponents. But she has a good attitude. We needed bodies, and she came out here to help us.”
Michelle’s own family—mom Sally, a housewife, dad Michael, a laborer for New Jersey Zinc, and sisters Carol, 15, and Peggy, 14—took a while to accept the notion of having a wrestler in the ranks. Her father refused to sign the school’s consent forms. “I got my mom to sign the papers,” Michelle says.
The sport that she fought to enter proved incredibly rigorous. During the first week of practice Michelle was plagued by an upset stomach and shed as much as six pounds during the daily three-hour workouts. She learned to live with fatigue and stiff limbs and—like other wrestlers—to take extreme measures when she was carrying extra pounds before a match: “You run, you jump rope, you do anything you can to take water out—spit in a bucket, go to the bathroom. I didn’t eat for 2½ days one time to make weight.”
Her tenacity earned her a following in Carbon County. “She has a lot of fans here,” reported Jim North, an engineer who drove from nearby Palmer-ton one winter evening to see her compete. And although Green won’t take her wrestling career any further—next year, she says, will be devoted to studying accounting at Lehigh Community College—Jim Thorpe may not have seen the last of its female wrestlers.
Pulling a piece of notebook paper from her purse, Michelle unfolded it to reveal a list of questions written in perfect script. “A little girl gave this to me this morning; her teacher sent it,” she said. “Her class wanted to know stuff like ‘Do you think there should be an all-girls wrestling team at the elementary school?’ ”
Michelle allowed herself a little smile. “Sure,” she said.