Jenna & Erin Wrestle
By Shannnyn J. Gillespie

High school girls living in a college dorm, on a college campus…

At first glance, this may seem like a summer camp or a college visit, right?

Jenna Burkert & Erin Golston where the first (and last) sophomore high school students admitted to attend the US Olympic Education Center (USOEC) female wrestling, developmental training program, at Northern Michigan University way back when in 2008.  They graduated high school together, traveled around the world together, had ups & downs together, & remain friends 10+ years later.

They were not alone…
During Erin & Jenna’s sophomore year at Marquette Senior High School, they were accompanied by some legends of women’s wrestling like Olympic Champion Helen Maroulis, 5X World Champion Adeline Gray, Jr. World Silver Medalist Vonnie Carlson, & Jr. World Teamer Erin Clodgo (all attended the USOEC & MSHS together).  To say this USOEC program was unique is right.  (Jenna & Erin were apart of the USOEC from 2008-2012 and this slideshow illustrates some of their team mates who were not mentioned…)

But, leaving home at such a young age (15) and living with college students is a challenge.  I knew this challenge would affect their lives immensely so I tried to keep their minds focused on why they were there daily.  We had practice twice per day and this was a chance to talk to them and coach them.  We also had individual meetings once per month so I could figuratively check their pulse and see how they were adjusting.  These meetings were also in addition to film review after every competition to enhance their wrestling ability.

Because I felt Jenna & Erin needed more parental-type support, at least once per month I just went to the dorms to talk to them.  This was in addition to Coach Tony living with they in the dorms (sort of like a resident assistant) plus monthly team dinners or team lunches or team breakfasts.  At these team meals, it was a chance for the team to unwind, see me in a different light, & give the team a chance to bond further.  Training twice a day for 9-11 months can take a toll on anyone…

This training experience really helped Erin & Jenna develop, meet new people, build self-esteem, & love the sport.  Both Erin & Jenna made Cadet Jr. Pan American Teams, Jr. World Teams, & eventually Sr. National Teams.  Jenna was the first female representative at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010.  

During the USOEC training stints, Erin & Jenna made friendships all around the world in places like Japan, Austria, & Canada while still in high school.  When travelling this young, they told me they had a better sense of self and figured out they could get things done. They also fell more in love with the sport because they are still thriving to meet their Olympic aspirations – 11 years later.

Training with older athletes can be overwhelming and confidence building at the same time.  Erin & Jenna where 15 years old and training with women wrestlers whose ages ranged from 16-23.  The majority of the women they were training with were in college and supported them as much if not more than I did.

This is why I believe they were able to sustain that rigorous training and still thrive.  Daily, I’m told, Jenna & Erin’s team mates (like Olympian Randi Miller, Mary Kelly; coaches Tony DeAnda & Jenna Pavlik) would help them with living away from home by talking to them about how they were feeling, taking them to movies, & acting like bigger-loving sisters.

Why did Erin & Jenna join the US Olympic Education Center program?
When Jenna & Erin were in high school, women’s or girl’s wrestling was not super popular.  This USOEC program taught and reinforced freestyle wrestling and was the only program at the time to do so.  In other words, way back in 2008, there were only 2-3 states that had a sanctioned girls only state tournament.  And, these state tournaments were folkstyle or the style the men wrestle in college.  (USOEC Assistant Coach Tony DeAnda was an integral part in bringing Erin & Jenna to Marquette as he was their main recruiter and I am forever grateful to he…)

Today, there are 17 states that offer that opportunity or a sanctioned girls division state tournament and these tournaments are also competed in folkstyle.

To date, there are 65 colleges that offer women’s wrestling in college.  The Women’s College Wrestling Association (WCWA) has been sponsoring a freestyle national tournament for women’s wrestling since 2008 or the year Erin & Jenna joined the USOEC.

The inaugural NAIA Invitational for women’s collegiate wrestling was held in the spring of 2019 and this tournament was essentially a national tournament for the NAIA member schools.  The year before Erin & Jenna joined the USOEC program, there were 5-6 women’s collegiate wrestling programs and those teams competed in a tournament called the Women’s College Nationals.

When they joined the USOEC program, there were very little opportunities for Erin & Jenna to compete in high school state tournaments or college national tournaments and now, I am happy to say, things have changed for the better (but we need more change!).

Jenna & Erin are role models!
These 2, like the female wrestlers before them, have helped the masses see that females, in fact, do wrestle too.  Erin & Jenna, with the support of other veteran women wrestlers, have showed by example that persistence is one of the keys to success.  

Now, more little girls may believe they can follow a wrestling path to: high school, college, in the military, & at Olympic Training Centers.  Now, more administrators (high school & college) are seeing that female wrestling is a force that is continuing to grow and is demanding attention.  Now, many may read this article and encourage little girls to wrestle.

Now, parents may say to their young daughters “You can be Just Like Jenna & Erin!”

Editor’s note: This article was inspired by:
National Team member Erin Golston
SPC Jenna Burkert

Photo credits: Tony Rotundo & John Sachs
Slideshow photo credits: Coach Shannyn

Related articles

Why Shouldn’t All Girls Have the Opportunity to Benefit From Wrestling?

The Great Debate for Female High School Wrestlers: Freestyle or Folkstyle 

Open Letter to College Presidents & ADs: Women’s Wrestling


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