Tateum Park was 9 years old when she decided to give wrestling a whirl.
She watched her older brother participate and was drawn in by the competitive nature of the sport.
“I asked my dad if I could try it,” Park said. “He said yes."
Seven years later, what started as an experiment has blossomed into a passion for the Davenport North sophomore.
Park is part of a growing number of girls participating in a traditionally male-dominated sport, one filled with hours of torturous preparation.
There is blood. There is sweat. There are bruises. None of it fazes Park.
“She’s just as tough as the guys and can handle the pain just like they can,” North wrestling coach Jake Conner said. “She respects her opponents, but she’s not afraid of them.”
Coming off a freshman season where she was 24-15 on the varsity and finished fourth at the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Class 3A district meets, Park is aiming for more.
The 113-pounder is seeking to become the third girl in Iowa to qualify for the traditional state tournament, following in the footsteps of Cedar Falls’ Cassy Herkelman and Ottumwa’s Megan Black.
“Personally, it would be really exciting to make that state meet,” said Park, who has a long-term goal of 100 victories. “It’s something I’ve always wanted.”
South Winneshiek’s Felicity Taylor is another female emerging on the state scene. She was 34-11 last season and reached the district tournament. Taylor beat Park in an exhibition match last March at the West Gym in Cedar Falls.
Park has had a wealth of success against girls.
In the past two years, she’s claimed a pair of national championships and was both an AAU state champion and an Iowa high school girls freestyle winner.
“I’m really looking to wrestle in college and do well there,” Park said. “I really want to try and make it to the Olympics.”
There were only 37 high school girls to wrestle in Iowa five years ago. That number spiked to 92 last winter and is expected to eclipse 100 this season.
North had three girls wrestling at one stage last year. This season, it has two. Next year, Park’s younger sister will be a freshman and is expected to join.
“I love it,” Park said, “seeing the girls out there. It is wonderful that the sport is growing so much. I’m hoping here in the next few years North can have its own girls team.”
As of last March, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas and Washington are the only states to hold girls state wrestling championships. There are 39 other states, Iowa included, that allow girls to wrestle with boys teams.
There have been preliminary discussions at the state level about wrestling becoming a sanctioned sport for girls. Nothing has been determined.
"I think it could happen down the road," Conner said. "It is big in college, big on the international level. It's trickling from the top down, and I think it will get to the high school level eventually."
For now, Park has to match up against the boys.
That presents challenges, on and off the mat.
There are occasions she’ll walk into the gym and receive unfavorable looks.
“Mostly, it is from the moms of wrestlers,” Park said. “There have been a couple of kids that didn’t want to wrestle me. One said it was against his religion.
“That is kind of disappointing. People will forfeit because it is too different for them and they don’t want to wrestle a girl. I just see it as a wrestler against a wrestler. They need to open their eyes a little more to see it that way.”
Park said she doesn’t gain any additional satisfaction beating a boy.
“A win is a win, boy or girl,” she stated.
When Park does wrestle a boy, the biggest obstacle is handling the upper-body strength.
“They’re just stronger in most cases,” she noted. “For girls, it is more about technique and hand-fighting.”
Conner calls Park's technique among the best in his room.
“You have to put in the work to get where you want to go,” she said. “I don’t think I really do anything special out there. I just work hard.”
That has rubbed off on a North program thirsty for success.
Conner said the boys have witnessed her work ethic and off-season triumphs. It has led to them spending more time on the mat in the summer.
North has more numbers and more talent in the room this season.
And for Park, it creates more competition.
“I’m trying to realize they’re making me better,” Park said.
While wrestling is a focal point, Park is still your typical teenager.
After competing in a tournament last spring, she came home and immediately got ready to attend the Bachelor Capture, one of North’s formal dances.
“I just do me,” Park said. “When I’m in the wrestling room, I wrestle. When I’m out and about or at a dance, I’ll be who I am.”
Park's courage and toughness is what Conner appreciates most.
“It makes her that much harder to beat on the wrestling mat, but it is going to carry on from there,” he said. “It is going to help her compete in school, help her compete in the job market.
“She is just tough. She’s not afraid to put her nose in there and just do it.”