Combat sports are often stigmatized as brutal, barbaric and violent, especially in sports that have a very minuscule female presence. But over the past few years the lines between gender specific sports have rapidly become blurred in society, as great strides have been made in the world of mixed martial arts, football and women’s wrestling.
The battle for gender equality in sports is still ongoing, often dealing with either misrepresentation or underrepresentation, but on Fresno State’s campus Rossana Aguilar has taken it upon herself to push the envelope in the sport of wrestling. Aguilar was instrumental in establishing a presence in female wrestling that had never been seen in Fresno State’s 113-year history at the time Aguilar stepped foot on campus.
In 2019, with four years of wrestling under her belt (2015-19), Aguilar has become a pioneer at Fresno State, going from being a teenager with an inkling of joining her school’s wrestling team to a 3-time All-American and the first female wrestler in the history of Fresno State.
Aguilar’s upbringing began in the Bay Area. Born to Filipino immigrants who moved to the United States in their teens, Aguilar said she spent her life in a traditional environment along with her eight brothers and sisters. At the age of nine, Aguilar’s parents moved to Fresno in search of better opportunities for their family.
The journey to All-American female wrestler began by happenstance for Aguilar, as her first taste of wrestling was in eighth grade during a throw-away unit in physical education, run by the wrestling coach, where the students learned the basics of wrestling. Along with many of her friends in the class who were also on the wrestling team, the inclusion of many female wrestlers on the team is what piqued Aguilar’s interest in giving wrestling a try.
“Surprisingly, there were 10 or 11 girls on the team. So it was more encouraging to join the team, and then from there I liked how versatile wrestling is, how you could develop your own technique to win,” Aguilar said.
The decision to join the wrestling team shocked Aguilar’s parents as wrestling was not the avenue that her family thought she would pursue so passionately. Aguilar was not surprised by the reaction of her family at first, but knew that they would come around to support her, especially in the form of her mother.
“My mom doesn’t discourage us when it comes to trying new things, even if she is worried about our well-being,” Aguilar said. “I just made sure to let her know that I could handle myself and I would be OK.”
Aguilar’s mother’s support would waver in some instances, as the physical toll that wrestling takes began to show in the form of bloody noses, bruises and sprains.
Aguilar’s parents were not the only deterrents when it came to pursuing wrestling. She is the sister of six brothers, many of whom tried to steer her away from wrestling due in part to the fear that their sister would be putting herself in danger by wrestling.
“My family would be really upset when I would wrestle against guys and end up with a lot of bruises, popped lip and bloody noses,” Aguilar said. “They were discouraging, but I told them that I would get better. They became more supportive and [started] coming to my matches.”
Aguilar would continue to realize just how difficult it is to be in a male-dominated sport, as she moved on to Edison High School where she wasn’t able to receive the adequate resources needed to support female wrestlers, despite the success that Aguilar was achieving.
“Those first two years of high school, I was not able to compete for [the] girl’s state title because of funding and there wasn’t enough interest in the Valley to create a sectional tournament,” said Aguilar. “In order to go to state, you have to go to a sectional tournament and the closest one was six hours away, which my coaches didn’t want to drive just for that.”
Luckily for Aguilar, a Central Section was opened for women’s wrestling during her junior year. In her first year competing at that level she was able to turn her inexperience into a top-12 finish at state in 2013. Aguilar was able to follow that with a win in the Valley sectionals in 2014 and once again reach the top 12, but lost a disheartening matchup before the placing rounds.
Aguilar’s wrestling ability led to opportunities beyond high school. One such opportunity involved a scholarship to Menlo College located in the city of Atherton near the Bay Area.
But in Aguilar’s mind, mixed feeling began to arise, as she would be informed that the perceived full scholarship would not cover all of her tuition, as once believed. With the fact that Menlo is a business-focused university and Aguilar’s was interested in the science, technology,
engineering and math fields, coupled with the inflated cost of tuition at a private university, led her to a less expensive college destination.
“I didn’t want to put my mom through having to help me with paying for college, and I knew if I had a debt, she would have to help me somehow,” Aguilar said. “With Fresno State being local and tuition being low, along with being able to qualify for financial aid, it would be so much easier.”
Aguilar’s choice to attend Fresno State became a life-altering decision, as the path that she chose to take would ultimately leave a legacy on campus that few have been able to achieve in such a short amount of time.
In a chance conversation with a former teammate, Aguilar was provided with the information on how to apply to start a club on campus which could help Aguilar continue her wrestling career in some capacity.
“I found out you could apply for… different funding on campus so I knew that if I was to come to Fresno State, I would still be able to compete for a club team,” said Aguilar. “It just depended of how much work I was willing to put into the program.”
Starting life on campus as part of the Fresno State Wrestling Club (FSWC) was an easy transition for Aguilar with the support of her coach and teammates. The drive that Aguilar possessed led to the development of the Fresno State Women’s Wrestling Club (FSWWC), an offshoot of the FSWC.
Aguilar established herself as the first female wrestler on Fresno State’s campus at the club sports level and first female wrestler on campus in general, due to the fact that NCAA wrestling programs like Fresno State’s are strictly male, the magnitude of Aguilar’s feat is not lost on her teammates and coaches.
FSWC coach Omar Benavides first met Aguilar in the fall of 2014 when she joined the FSWC and has nothing but admiration for the legacy that Aguilar has developed during her time on campus. Benavides understands the magnitude of Aguilar’s impact in female wrestling on campus.
“The FSWWC owes much of its success to Rossana Aguilar,” said Benavides. “By branching off of FSWC in the spring of 2015, Aguilar has given other female student-athletes a formal platform to either begin or continue their wrestling careers.”
With Aguilar’s success on the mat, she has exemplified the rigor of balancing academic and wrestling success. As a senior Aguilar, is grinding to complete her degree in the Lyles College of Engineering and working towards earning her fourth national championship medal under the National Collegiate Wrestling Association in the 123-pound division (third in 2016, fourth in 2017 and second in 2018).
As Aguilar continues her 2019 campaign with a record 5-0, the realization that this year will be her final opportunity to earn a first place finish at nationals is slowly creeping up. But Aguilar doesn’t seem too concerned with the stress of finishing first at the end of the season.
“My goal every year is to take first at nationals, but I want to continue to have fun and become a better wrestler.” Aguilar said. “I’ve always come out with mindset of ‘I’ll do my best and if that’s not good enough, that is okay’, but this year I do feel the energy of just wanting to win at whatever cost.”
Even without a first place finish, the legacy Aguilar has cemented for herself is one of incredible feats, including her medal finishes at NCWA nationals in the past three years or being undefeated during her time in the West Coast Conference matching up with the likes of USC, UCLA and Nevada.
For the 3-time All-American, the goal of expanding female wrestling and continuing the ongoing fight for recognition by the NCAA beyond club sports is what her focus has shifted toward.
Well-versed in wrestling knowledge, Aguilar finds inspiration from other wrestling stories apart from hers that she can feed off and continue her path as a trailblazer in her own right.
Aguilar knew that being a female in wrestling would be difficult, but drew inspiration from stories like former New Jersey wrestler Anthony Ferarro, subject of the documentary “A Shot in the Dark” chronicling his time wrestling while legally blind. And the story of Anthony Robles, the 2010 NCAA national champion in the 125-pound division who wrestled with only one leg after losing a leg at birth.
With those stories of perseverance in the back of her mind, Aguilar believes that women’s wrestling can continue to make strides in its quest to ultimately become a sport recognized by the NCAA.
According to an NPR article, in the past few years the NCAA has been approached by a few colleges to try and persuade them to recognize women’s wrestling as a sanctioned sport. The reports suggest that about 17 NCAA colleges are ready to start women’s wrestling teams if sanctioned.
As the articles explains and Aguilar suggests herself, the numbers game is one reason why the NCAA has not moved forward in making progress for women’s wrestling, but organizations like USA Wrestling and the U.S. Olympic Committee, have continued to try and persuade the NCAA to open its doors to female wrestling.
“The issue is numbers. There are not enough women in wrestling to garner that kind of recognition just yet.” Aguilar said. “But I know the sport’s growing, I think in five or six years the amount of college teams has doubled already, so I think it just depends on upping the numbers.”
According to the NPR article, there is a significant number of benefits that male college wrestlers receive that their female counterparts do not including health insurance, scholarships, grants and internship opportunities.
The Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association provides its members with health information and recognizes athletes who achieve certain GPA accomplishments, but it does not have an adequate financial budget and is dwarfed in comparison when it comes to financial assistance compared to the NCAA.
Time will tell whether or not the NCAA will move to recognize women’s wrestling as a sanctioned sport under its umbrella, but Aguilar is doing everything in her power to make sure that when that time comes, Fresno State can too expand in the realm of women’s wrestling.
With numerous opportunities to further her wrestling career, Aguilar wants to continue the growing success of the FSWWC on campus and turn her wrestling experience into a coaching opportunity for female wrestlers who want to advance the legacy of women’s wrestling.
“I am leaning more so to coaching the club teams to help out with the funding, maybe eventually turning that into a career coaching at the high school level and potentially one day a WCWA team,” said Aguilar.
In the annals of Fresno State lore, Aguilar will go down as a true trailblazer for starting the FSWWC on campus and achieving the highest success at the WCWA level. With the utmost humility, Aguilar isn’t worried about the legacy she established on the mat, she just wants to continue the legacy she started off of it.
“I am not so concerned with whether I am remembered,” Aguilar said. “I just hope that what I’ve started will eventually branch off and encourage the school to pick up an official women’s team.”