Jessi Johnson started wrestling in the seventh grade, competing against the boys in her New Jersey schools. “I just like the aggression,” the scrappy blonde tells The Post. “It’s an individual sport, and it’s up to me how I do.”
Now the 16-year-old Manalapan H.S. sophomore is about to make history: After finishing fourth last summer at a national girls’ tournament in Fargo, ND, Johnson and 59 other girls are headed to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall on Friday to compete in the inaugural girls state tournament.
It’s something they thought would never happen — until October, when New Jersey became the first state in the Northeast to make high school girls wrestling an officially sanctioned sport.
Now, without having to dominate their male peers, what used to be a distant dream is finally in sight.
“It’s really cool,” says Johnson, a former jujitsu devotee who wrestles at 136 pounds. “Especially in my age group, the guys are always so much stronger.”
She’s in fierce company. Chloe Ayres, the 16-year-old daughter of Princeton University wrestling coach Chris Ayres, practically grew up on the mats. Now the petite sophomore, who first put on a singlet in the seventh grade, wrestles at 105 pounds for the Princeton High School boys’ varsity team. Going into Atlantic City for the first girls’ showcase, she sees herself as a pioneer.
“We’re going to be the first girls to compete at states, ever in the history of the state,” Ayres says. “It’s really cool to see that some of my friends and I are paving the road for girls to wrestle.”
Last fall’s unanimous vote made New Jersey the 12th state in the nation — there are now 14 — to offer wrestling for high school girls. Ayres and Johnson say they were shocked at how quickly it all unfolded.
“I thought it would happen after I graduated,” Ayres says.
With only a month to prepare for the season, coaches across the state scrambled to build programs from scratch.
Doug Withstandley, the coach at Jackson Memorial H.S. — where boys wrestling is a religion — hit the hallways, recruiting athletic girls he could turn into wrestlers. Coach Farid Syed from Kingsway Regional High School gave a PowerPoint presentation explaining the discipline’s benefits off the mat — and his effort landed a roster of 40 girls.
Manalapan’s coach Scott Pressman appealed to a sense of history: “I said, ‘In 20 years, this school will probably induct this team into the hall of fame.’ ” He ended up with 15 girls, including Johnson and another standout, Angelina Vitola, who had also previously wrestled with the boys.
“I thought it was brave of them to not worry about the stigma of doing ‘guys things,’ ” Pressman says.
The coaches’ sales pitches worked: Last year, approximately 120 New Jersey high school girls wrestled. This season, that number soared to more than 420.
Yet the sport isn’t exactly new. Rachel Brosnahan, the 28-year-old star of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” told Shape magazine that she was on her high school’s wrestling team. More and more colleges are offering the sport, and the rise of mixed martial arts and superstars like Ronda Rousey and Rose Namajunas have made combat sports seem like a viable and attractive career option. Raritan High School’s girls wrestling coach is Melissa Gardner, a former MMA fighter.
The sport’s allure is simple, says Ayres: “You are putting your heart out on the mat. You have to be willing to fight back and have persistence. It’s a cool way to test your limits.”
And female wrestlers don’t fit into any box. Two of the athletes who have advanced into the state tournament — Kingsway’s Olivia Heyer and Millville’s Diane Johnson — are also cheerleaders.
Though the rules of the sport are the same, regardless of gender, women’s wrestling has its own set of challenges — uniforms among them. Males wear low-cut singlets, while females generally wear two-piece ensembles. For Ayres, who still wrestles on the boys team, that was a problem.
“Last year, I had to wear a boys singlet, which I absolutely hate with a passion,” she says. “It’s stressful to stay modest.” Her solution: a modified uniform from the New Jersey-based company Chick Wrestler, which has more coverage and, Ayres says, lets her “look more like a girl out on the mat.”
A much thornier issue is cutting weight — shedding pounds to fit into a particular weight class. It’s a topic many coaches tackle carefully, fearful of encouraging eating disorders.
Both Pressman and Withstandley talk about changing eating habits rather than cutting calories. When one of his wrestlers wanted to move down to a lower weight class, Pressman discussed it with both her and her parents. After giving it a shot for a week, she decided it wasn’t her best option.
With four years of wrestling under her belt, Johnson finds it easier to maintain her weight. Teammates who seek her advice are told to avoid sugar and stick to vegetables and proteins. They also learn how to handle pressure: “I always tell them, no matter the outcome, it’s really just about learning.”
Once Johnson hits the mat in Atlantic City, she plans to teach a packed house what girls wrestling is about.
“I just hope in the future,” she says, “it will just be a normal thing.”