Her head, topped by a black shower cap, bobs from side to side beneath the glare of a huge overhead spotlight in an otherwise darkened gym. Her intense eyes focus on a male wrestling opponent.
Dena Glisan, of Oakland Mills, stalks the 125-pound opponent cautiously, taking short, choppy steps and balancing on the balls of her feet. Then the two wrestlers quickly advance and lock arms in a test of strength.
Soon Glisan, despite shouts of encouragement from fans, finds herself flat on the mat, struggling, as Jeff Carter of Long Reach, hoping to pin her, tries to turn her off her stomach.
The only real indication that Glisan is a girl occurs when a blond ponytail slips from the shower cap and the match pauses so she can adjust it. The rule is aimed at long-haired wrestlers, not just girls.
After the match resumes, Carter finds it difficult to lift Glisan's hips and develop the leverage needed to turn her. With two takedowns and an escape, he settles for a hard-earned 7-2 decision.
Carter, who has a 9-14 record, comes away impressed by Glisan.
"As soon as we locked up, I knew she was strong," he says. "She pushed my head down and got aggressive. It was just like wrestling anyone else, except that girls are more flexible and have low centers of gravity, so it's hard to pick their hips up off the mat to turn them."
Carter's coach, Bill Flick, also expresses admiration for Glisan.
"She's a good wrestler. Very strong. Tough to pin. I don't think of her as a girl at all," Flick says. "She's as tough as anyone at that weight class. She's an asset to the sport, and one should look to her if they question whether girls should wrestle."
For Glisan, who won the 120-pound title in last year's first annual girls national wrestling championships, the match proves to be another test of mental and physical toughness that in her eyes she has passed.
She knows she is an anomaly, a girl competing with boys in a sport in which raw strength often can be the decisive factor.
She realizes that her victories will be limited but considers the character she is building worth the heavy price she pays.
"I like the mental toughness wrestling gives you. Things could have gone better this season as far as wins, but overall I'm happy," she says. "I lack strength against guys and am looking forward to wrestling girls in some upcoming tournaments, but I wanted to go out my senior year knowing I've made an impression on people."
She has made a big impression.
Glisan is a fourth-year wrestler who, despite a nagging knee injury, has not missed a match this season. She has six wins, two by forfeit and four on the mat, including the first varsity pin by a girl in state history.
She has not been pinned in a varsity bout, including four as a junior, when she recorded Maryland's first technical fall by a girl.
"Knowing I have not been pinned pushes me," she says. At Oakland Mills, she wrestles for a school with a rich wrestling tradition that includes three state tournament and 14 Howard County titles in 22 years.
She follows in the pioneering footsteps of the state's first female wrestler, Nicolle Scott, who graduated from Oakland Mills in 1984, and Stacey Kirschbaum, who graduated from Oakland Mills in 1997 after wrestling four seasons.
Other pioneers include Meade's Tamara Dakis and Joppatowne's Lisa Larson, who in 1986-87 became the first girls to wrestle at the varsity level.
Glisan's dedication and work ethic inspired her coach, Brad Howell, to name her a team co-captain this winter.
"I want the guys to imitate her dedication," Howell says. "She's always on time, comes to all the optional practices, never wants to pull out when her knee is hurting, sucks weight if necessary, never complains and cuts herself no slack.
"She's not a co-captain because she's a girl. She earned it. And she earned her chance to wrestle varsity by four years of blood and sweat on the mat."
To prove her dedication to the team, she once willingly dropped six pounds in 10 hours to fill an unexpected vacancy at 119 pounds.
For Glisan, wrestling was something she fell in love with as a freshman and has stayed with through good times and bad.
"I try not to give up in anything I do," she says. "The more people doubted me when I first started, the more I wanted to do it."
She has tendinitis in her left knee, and the kneecap slides out of place. So she wears a knee brace and ices the knee after each bout.
Glisan calls herself very competitive. "I hate to lose," she says.
A plethora of athletics prepared the 17-year-old for her wrestling adventure. She competed in gymnastics for eight years and in swimming 11. She also has started three years and captains the Oakland Mills field hockey and girls lacrosse teams.
"Doing so many sports, I've always been in shape and have endurance," she says.
Athleticism runs in her family. Her older sister Julie, 19, a freshman at Maryland, played lacrosse and is a figure skater. Younger sister Shannon, a sophomore at Oakland Mills, plays soccer and lacrosse and as a freshman made the varsity girls soccer team.
Glisan is naturally strong and has done little weightlifting, something Howell wishes he had stressed more for last summer.
"She was afraid of getting bulky if she lifted weights, but if you have two people who work equally hard and are equally knowledgeable, the stronger one is going to win," Howell says.
Glisan, likely to wrestle her last varsity bouts in this weekend's Howard County tourney at River Hill, looks forward to the inaugural Colonial States Championships sponsored by the U.S. Girls Wrestling Association in Brookline, Mass., on March 7.
That tournament will be a tuneup for the second annual USGWA's National Championships March 27-28 in Lake Orion, Mich. Last year, 272 girls participated, making it the world's largest girls wrestling tournament.
"I can overpower most girls," says Glisan, whom the USGWA ranks No. 1 at 120 pounds.
Women's wrestling expands
"Women's wrestling is picking up," Howell says. "The Olympics and World Games now have women's wrestling. The U.S. team has several real tough ones. Hopefully, pioneers like Dena will pave the way. The main deterrent has been parents who don't want their daughters wrestling with boys. But until women have their own sport, they'll have to wrestle with the guys and get whatever wins they can."
Glisan says her father enjoys having her wrestle and has attended every one of her matches.
She also says she wouldn't push anyone into the sport.
"It has to be something you like," she says.
Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association statistics indicate declining interest of girls in wrestling.
Only four girls competed in wrestling during both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, down from 19 in 1995-96, MPPSSAA figures show. No numbers are available for this season.
Glisan is leaning toward playing lacrosse in college but hasn't ruled out wrestling.
"Minnesota-Morris is the top all-girls wrestling college. They do lots of international and national tournaments, and they've contacted me, so I'm looking into it."
Pub Date: 2/18/99