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Girls wrestling camp continues to grow in Sweet Home

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

The Santiam Wrestling Camp has been a mainstay at Sweet Home High School for over two decades, attracting young athletes from across the state – on the boys side. But three years ago, longtime organizer and Sweet Home High School head coach Steve Thorpe decided to start a girls camp too, and it’s been taking off.

That first year, in the summer of 2021, as the sport was still trying to shrug off the effects of the COVID pandemic, 24 girls came to the camp.

This year, for the camp that took place July 9-12, that number was up to 70. So it seems like the idea to start a girls camp was a pretty good one.

“We saw the growth of women’s wrestling,” Thorpe said. “We saw what was happening in the United States. We saw that Oregon was in the top three for the biggest women’s wrestling population.”

So Thorpe and longtime buddy and current Thurston High School coach Mike Simons (the two were teammates at Oregon State University in the late 1980s and early ’90s) got the camp rolling in 2021, calling that first crew “COVID busters.”

“Getting to do this with one of my best friends in the world is one of the coolest things,” Thorpe said. Of course, the camp is a pretty cool idea for the young athletes as well.

Kassidy Zajic of Sweet Home, left, battles Leila Newman from the Brookings Harbor School District, during a workout at the camp.

“It’s great to have the women wrestling women, and for the women to receive the same things the boys are doing,” he said. “We’re just trying to continue this on. Iron sharpens iron, so we want to make women’s wrestling tougher so we get tougher. Everybody gets tougher.”

The camp is geared toward sixth- through 12th-graders, though several college women worked out as well.

The furthest traveler to the camp was from the southwestern Oregon coastal town of Brookings.

Campers are fed through the school district’s food service and sleep on the wrestling mats in the gym. Some girls get there early with friends to stake claim to a preferred spot to slumber. The campers also enjoy field trips to Foster Lake and the Rio Theatre.

Thorpe says the camp is the only one of its kind in the state.

“It’s just been a very cool group of young ladies with very diverse ability levels,” the coach said. “We have multiple state champions in that room and girls that just wrestled this first year. It’s a camp that hits people where they’re at. It gets them what they need, whether they’re a first year wrestler or trying to see what they can do at the next level.”

The girls carry an added responsibility as trailblazers in advocating the fast growing sport.

“Boys wrestling is so established that it’s not as much of a concern, but these girls are ambassadors to the sport,” Thorpe said. “They’re still building.”

That might seem like a lot of pressure, but fun is also a major priority.

“It’s okay to compete and have fun and smile and laugh and build relationships,” Thorpe insists.

Former Sweet Home wrestler Marissa Kurtz, who now competes for Southern Oregon University, has returned home to help coach the camp all three years and has witnessed first hand how the camp and the sport itself have been growing.

“All these girls grew up with a whole bunch of girls in the room, and they don’t realize what happened before they got here,” Kurtz said. “It’s just amazing to come here and see a group of 70 girls from different areas here wrestling with each other, and they all want to help each other and we’re all friends.”

Speaking on the value of wrestling for girls, she added, “This teaches girls a lot of independence and self confidence. They’re making friends that share values of working hard, getting sweaty, getting bloody. I hope they find confidence in themselves and their wrestling abilities, and I hope they realize how fun it is and that it’s not scary if you just go out there and try.”

Asked why women’s wrestling has been catching on, Kurtz said, with a laugh, “I think it’s because we’re tougher than men and starting to realize it.”

She added, “It’s just girls wanting to do things. In the past; women have been so suppressed from doing things that they want to do. We can go out here, we can be muscular, we can be tough, we can get bloody noses and still smile about it. We’re tough.”

Another returnee is Paige Chafin, who participated the first two years as a camper and this year came back to coach as she prepares for her sophomore campaign at Eastern Oregon University.

“I just really like coming back and giving back because Sweet Home’s done a lot for me,” Chafin said. “When I did this camp when I was younger, it helped me, so why not give back?”

An ambassador for the sport herself who wants to get into coaching later, Chafin said “This is a sport that can benefit you your whole life. It teaches you good life lessons and values, and wrestlers are just good people.”

She liked the response she got from the younger campers – “girls coming up to me and telling me they really like what I’m showing them – I just think that’s pretty cool.”