Female Wrestlers Sue for Right to Participate

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Copyright 2017 The Salt Lake Tribune
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The Salt Lake Tribune


Layton - Sitting on the edge of the mat before their first meet of the season, the two wrestlers discussed strategy and braided each other's hair.

By the end of the competition, both would be declared victorious ccc one by pin, the other by forfeit ccc but for Kathleen Janis and Gabbi Serrao, Central Davis Junior High School's newest wrestlers, the real fight has been over being allowed to wear their school's singlets.

"To get here, it's been tough," Kathleen said. "But we're good. Me and Gabbi, we're going to get through what's happening."

Kathleen, a ninth-grader, and her family have been fighting the administration for more than a year to be allowed to try out for the once all-male wrestling team, but she had been rebuffed by officials who said it was against district policy. So last month, the girl's mother, Kelly Janis, filed a federal lawsuit, seeking to declare the policy unconstitutional, a violation of her daughter's 14th Amendment rights. The case is being litigated, but U.S. District Judge Robert J. Shelby earlier this month ordered the school district to allow girls to wrestle while the lawyers argue.

As her daughter and the girl's classmate did Tuesday on the mat, Kelly Janis is confident that they will prevail in court.

"The fact that they told her no because of her gender," she said, "that's wrong."

Tuesday's match, the school's first of the season, was not Kathleen's wrestling debut. For a long time, the girl would go with her brother to his wrestling practices and found herself wanting to join the competition. For the past four years, she has trained and competed with clubs in northern Utah, but her attempts to join her middle school team were thwarted.

The district permits female wrestlers at the high school level, but not in middle schools.

Females could only serve as team managers because, according to the lawsuit, officials had concerns about "inappropriate or sexual touching."

After the judge's ruling, Kathleen tried out for the team earning a spot as a varsity wrestler for the school's first meet of the season. On Tuesday afternoon, the teen had to deal with some disappointment as she found out just before the start of the competition that there was no varsity opponent in the 175-pound weight class.

Kathleen shifted her focus to her teammate.

Wrestling had interested Gabbi for a while, but it wasn't until she learned of her classmate's victory in court that she put on a singlet.

"She helped get girls to be able to wrestle," Gabbi said.

The crowd in the gymnasium roared as the girl's name was called for the 104-pound weight class. Moments later, her opponent lunged at both her legs and Gabbi countered. In the second round, her coaches jumped in the air as the girl twisted her opponent onto his back. Kathleen pounded her fists against the ground. Soon after, the referee had smacked the mat, announcing her second-round pin.

All the while, Kelly Janis cried.

"It's not just about my daughter ccc it's about all of them," she said. "It's about giving them the opportunity."

On the opposite side of the gym, Davis County School District spokesman Chris Williams watched as Gabbi emerged, victorious, from her first match.

"We are following the judge's order," he said. "Of course, we hope no matter who the athlete is that the athlete is treated like every other athlete. So was it exciting to watch [Gabbi] win the match? Yeah, it was exciting."

With no opponent to wrestle Tuesday afternoon, Kathleen would be declared a winner, too. Her mother smiled as her daughter walked out onto the mat for the referee to raise her arm in victory.

"To see these girls here, to be part of the school, it is definitely worth the fight," Kelly Janis said, "and I'd do it all over again."

[email protected]

Twitter: @aaronfalk

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February 15, 2017


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