Pinning Her Hopes on Change
As Pleasantville high school freshman Adriana Palumbo becomes the first female wrestler in her school's history, acceptance of females in the sport is slowly taking root across Westchester.
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By Martin Wilbur
All eyes are on Adriana Palumbo every time she heads out to represent her team at Pleasantville High School.
It’s not just that she’s a freshman, often competing against older rivals, or even that she’s the principal’s daughter. This season Palumbo became the first female varsity wrestler in the school’s history.
Matching up mostly against boys, Palumbo understands she carries a bit of a burden if other girls are to follow.
“I’m the one making that path, so it’s definitely a lot of pressure, but I’m happy to do it because if that means that other girls do it, I’m more than happy to because I don’t want people to feel like they can’t do what they want to do,” Palumbo says.
Making history is fine but as a competitor, Palumbo also wants to win. During the second weekend in December, she did just that, notching her first varsity victory at the Yorktown Dual Meet Tournament. For the season, Palumbo has collected seven wins in 17 matches through Feb. 4, according to the website TrackWrestling.
Her participation didn’t come without plenty of preparation. After starting out in gymnastics like many young girls, about five years ago she was intrigued by the jiu-jitsu training facility next door to the gymnastics studio. That was a fortuitous happenstance because as Palumbo began maturing, she grew taller and more muscular than a typical gymnast.
When she moved to Pleasantville for seventh grade, her father, Joe Palumbo, suggested that she consider competitive wrestling. Adriana had been searching for a winter sport and since she acknowledged she was awful at basketball, there weren’t many other options open to her.
“Part of him, I think, was like kidding because he probably didn’t think I’d actually want to do it,” Palumbo says of her father’s query. “But I compared it to jiu-jitsu and [it’s] like the same thing, except I get to do something I love in school.”
While there had been plenty of other girls involved in jiu-jitsu, including at least one training facility she knew of that offered girls-only classes, that wasn’t going to be the case representing her school on the wrestling mat. For seventh grade, Adriana was on Pleasantville Middle School’s modified team. She didn’t wrestle last year because of the pandemic but has once again immersed herself in the sport this year as a high school freshman.
Her father, who had been a high school wrestler himself, was pleasantly surprised at her interest. Joe Palumbo says he didn’t want to push her because he enjoyed the sport or make it seem he was living vicariously through his daughter.
“I was nervous because she’d be competing against boys,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of girls in the area that are currently wrestling, and developmentally boys and girls, physically, are a lot different as they get older. When she was younger and competed with boys in jiu-jitsu, from a physical standpoint there wasn’t that big of a difference between the boys and the girls.”
Palumbo has been wrestling in the 152-pound weight class, which means she and all of her opponents compete between 145 and 152 pounds. While weight classes level the playing field to some extent, longtime Pleasantville High School wrestling Coach Bob Bernarducci says he initially wasn’t sure about having girls compete against boys at the varsity level.
Seeing the time and effort Palumbo has devoted to training along with having an increasing number of girls gravitate to the sport at GPS Wrestling in Armonk, where he is an instructor, has changed his outlook. Bernarducci says even in defeats Palumbo fights well into the third period if not the entire match, and she’s hard to turn and pin.
But being in the 152-pound division as a freshman forces Palumbo to square off much of the time against older boys. Since she has been the only team member in that weight class, there’s no opportunity to back down.
“That’s what makes what Adriana’s doing pretty remarkable because she’s in the 152-pound weight class,” Bernarducci says. “Most of the girls that have been really successful against boys are in the lightweight classes, like 102, 110, where they are not always going against boys that are developed physically yet, and she goes out there against some boys that are pretty muscular. Not once has she said to me ‘I don’t think I can do it, he’s too big, too strong.’”
Palumbo says while strength is a disadvantage, a physiological advantage for her and many other female wrestlers are their hips.
“That’s why a lot of the time the guys have a harder time pinning me,” she says. “They can throw me around as much as they want, but they have a hard time pinning me because I know how to shift my hips to my advantage to avoid being on my back. Girls know how to do that, so it’s harder to pin them, too.”
What has made the transition to compete in a boys’ sport easier is the support she has received from the team and school. Palumbo acknowledged that the social aspects, the prospect of possibly being viewed as someone who invades the guys’ space, was more frightening for her than the matches.
She says her friends and most other girls at school have overwhelmingly encouraged her. Even at matches, she hasn’t received any negative comments or reactions, except for one incident while on the modified team.
“They all think it’s really cool, actually,” Palumbo says of her classmates’ reaction. “I haven’t gotten any bad comments this year. The only bad experience I’ve gotten in school wrestling is once in seventh grade I was competing and one of the guys wouldn’t shake my hand (before the match), and then I beat him, and then afterward he wouldn’t shake my hand again. He just laughed it off. He pretended the whole thing was a joke. He may have been treating it like a joke but it really wasn’t because I pinned him in like 15 seconds.”
At a match earlier this season, while sitting on the sidelines during a bye round, Palumbo overheard derogatory comments directed at a girl on the opposing team. However, she says her male opponent that she defeated at the Yorktown meet for her first varsity win congratulated her after the match.
As her father and principal, Joe Palumbo advised Adriana that there might be those that won’t accept her.
“I told her she might experience some negative comments,” he says. “I know it happened in middle school, I know it happened when she competed before we started in school and she was traveling to tournaments regionally in jiu-jitsu. I told her some of that may happen and she just needs to take it in stride.”
Bernarducci says when girls first began competing, there were times he had to beg some of his wrestlers to go out onto the mat. The boys looked at it as a lose-lose proposition, where they were expected to win, and if they lost, would be exposed to ridicule. After a couple of his wrestlers were defeated by girls, that began to change.
In fact, Bernarducci says that one of the top wrestlers in the state, Minisink Valley’s Sofia Macaluso, is nationally ranked.
“It was kind of tough at first but it’s become, I think, wrestlers have realized girls are putting in as much time as them,” he says.
As more girls slowly but steadily take up the sport, there is growing acceptance of their presence in competition, although not without lingering challenges. Mariella Koufakis, a junior at New Rochelle High School who is on the varsity wrestling team, says there was some social stigma at school but more often at meets, where others would stare at her. As a freshman, she was the only girl on the team and there were rarely other girls on opponents’ rosters. Two years later, she’s now one of four female New Rochelle wrestlers.
Koufakis, who currently wrestles in the 110-pound weight class, says she had to prove that she could be competitive against boys and eventually win in order to be accepted, and to do that she had to work harder than her teammates.
“I feel like as a female wrestler, you have to put in a lot of work to match the boys,” she says. “You have to put in a lot of work, you have to be prepared to lose and you have to be prepared to lose badly and you just have to get up and keep trying and keep going to practice and keep putting the work in. I know [that’s] wrestling in general, not even just being a female. I just feel like I need to be really strong.”
At the close of the 2020-21 season, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) counted 169 female wrestlers at the varsity, junior varsity, and modified levels across the state, says the association’s Communications Director Chris Watson. The NYSPHSAA will have updated numbers after the end of the current season, although Bernarducci says he wouldn’t be surprised if there are now double that number statewide.
Joe Palumbo, a member of the Athletic Council for Section 1, says there’s a push regionally and across the state to make girls’ wrestling a sanctioned sport. Currently, 28 states have sanctioned girls’ high school wrestling, but in New York, it appears there is still more work to be done before that becomes reality.
Watson says for girls’ wrestling to be recognized for a regional championship, there must be at least four all-female teams in each of at least four of the state’s 11 sections. To be fully recognized as sanctioned with a state championship there must be at least four teams in a minimum of six sections. Currently, there are only two schools in the state with all-girls teams — Bay Shore and Rocky Point — both on Long Island, Watson says.
It might be more practical for neighboring districts where there is some interest to form multi-school partnerships, a common practice with ice hockey teams locally and with 11-man football in more sparsely populated regions upstate, Watson says.
An increasing number of colleges have been fielding all-female wrestling teams, many of them out west, Adriana Palumbo says. Sacred Heart in Connecticut just started its all-women’s team, one of the few schools to do so in the Northeast. Joe Palumbo says he has a suspicion that other colleges will follow suit.
For now, she and her father are looking forward to the rest of this season and Adriana’s three remaining years competing for and representing Pleasantville High School.
“It’s just such a pleasure to see her compete and grow,” says Joe Palumbo. “She’s so excited about what the next three years hold and for the potential for wrestling beyond that.”
Martin Wilbur is the Editor-in-Chief of Examiner News. He has more than 30 years experience covering local news in Westchester and Putnam counties, including a frequent focus on zoning and planning issues. He has been Editor-in-Chief of The Examiner since its inception in 2007.
Prior to that, he spent nine years as assistant editor at the former North County News in Yorktown Heights and also worked for the Daily Racing Form, the Reporter Dispatch in Putnam County, and Courier-Life Publications in his native Brooklyn.
Martin earned a bachelor’s degree in History from Brooklyn College. He lives with his wife and two children in Montrose. He has been honored by the New York Press Association with statewide awards for news reporting, sports features, and editorial writing.
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