Emmoni Lopez took dance lessons while her older brothers wrestled. And she liked her dance lessons.
But she liked wrestling better.
Her mom wasn't surprised when Emmoni told her she liked wrestling better than dance, and, three years after Emmoni took up the sport, she enjoys watching her 10-year-old daughter wrestle. Still, when a coach first asked Emmoni to join an Aurora, Ill., program, her mom hesitated. She never thought her daughter would be wrestling.
Emmoni is among a growing number of girls taking up wrestling. Officials with youth organizations in Aurora, Chicago and the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation said they have seen the number of girls participating take off in recent years. North Central College in Naperville is planning to join the handful of other Illinois colleges that offer women's wrestling programs.
At Emmoni's program, the Tomcat Wrestling Club, about half of the kids participating in the organization's free youth wrestling camp this summer are girls, coach Frankie Zepeda estimated. In addition to its co-ed session, the camp also offers an all-girls camp.
The Tomcat club, a feeder program for East Aurora High School, is also anticipating hosting a girls' state championship in East Aurora in the coming year, Zepeda said.
Though girls have competed on high school wrestling teams and in tournaments in Illinois for years, coaches and women wrestlers said there weren't many participating a decade ago.
"It's really picked up the last few years," said Jim Considine, president of the Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation and state chairman of Illinois/USA Wrestling.
Between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 seasons, the number of girls registered with IKWF grew from 363 to 503, and more of the organization's events are featuring a girls-only division, secretary and treasurer Mike Urwin said in an email. Girls and boys wrestle together during the season through IKWF, but there is a girls-only championship at the end of the year.
Some coaches said the gold medal Helen Maroulis won for the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics likely helped drive the sport more into the spotlight. Girls can also get into the sport through brothers who already wrestle, they said.
Colleges' adding wrestling programs gives girls another option, Considine said.
North Central College is poised to offer girls wrestling beginning in fall 2019. The program is a chance for the school to draw new students and increase its enrollment, Athletic Director Jim Miller said.
"It's not something that is taboo or you just don't have it," he said. "Things have happened so quickly. Ten years ago, you'd never dream of doing this."
Girls wrestling isn't catching on everywhere. Though girls have joined their high schools' boys wrestling teams, girls wrestling is not recognized separately by the Illinois High School Association because there isn't enough participation, an IHSA spokesman said. Some coaches said they see parents reluctant to let their daughters wrestle.
"There's still very much a stigma, even amongst wrestlers," said Mike Powell, executive director of Beat The Streets, a Chicago-based organization intended to help children succeed through wrestling. "'Will you let your daughter wrestle' is a big question."
It's a question to which he hears a lot of 'yes' answers, but also a lot of 'nos,' he said. But more parents seem to be willing to let their daughters wrestle than were willing a decade ago, he said.
Angela Malloy, whose 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter attended Tomcat Wrestling Club camp this summer, jumped at the chance to have both her children participate. It's a chance for the siblings to participate in an activity together, for her daughter to build confidence and her son to see that it's normal for girls to wrestle too, she said.
"He got taken down by a girl," Malloy said. "And I just want my daughter to see that, and my son to say, 'oh, that's normal.'"
On a recent day at the Tomcat summer camp, kids helped unroll mats across the floor of Simmons Middle School's multipurpose room and pulled on wrestling shoes they'd grabbed from a communal bin. They stretched and paired up, ready to learn a new move or practice their stance.
Many of the girls Zepeda sees become interested in wrestling through their brothers, he said.
"They probably just learn to give them a little fight back," he said.
One of those was Yamilet Aguirre, 12. She took up wrestling because she was bored sitting on the bleachers watching her brother wrestle, she said.
Sometimes, if she's facing a boy at a tournament, the boy might tell her he's sure he'll beat her because she's a girl, she said. Sometimes the boy does win, but sometimes she does too, she said.
"I like that I can have fun doing it," she said. "And that I can prove girls are just as strong as boys are."
Yamilet and Emmoni won girls' state championships in spring 2018, Zepeda said.
Emmoni's mom says she now talks about getting a wrestling scholarship to attend college.
The Beacon-News is a Chicago Tribune publication.