FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — Welina Tong tried wrestling for the first time six years ago and loved the sport so much she was willing to move 4,000 miles from her home in Hawaii to the snowy plains of Nebraska to compete.
She's not alone. She and two other women from the Aloha State are competing this season for Midland University, a 1,400-student private school that is among three dozen small four-year or junior colleges sponsoring varsity women's wrestling programs.
Tong got into the sport quite by accident. She was late for the first day of varsity basketball tryouts her junior year in high school and afraid of facing repercussions from the coach. On her way to the gym she bumped into a friend who persuaded her to try out for wrestling instead. The next year Tong won the state championship at 175 pounds, and Midland assistant coach Antonio Barber was on the phone trying to recruit her.
Now a senior, Tong was one of the first in a line of wrestlers to go to Midland from the private Kamehameha Schools system, which has high school campuses on three Hawaiian islands. Call it the "Wahine Wrestling Pipeline."
A self-described homebody, Tong was hesitant to leave Hilo. But Barber's pitch was convincing, and she was comforted knowing there was a close-knit group of about a dozen athletes from Hawaii already at Midland.
Back home, her friends were a bit confused. For her high school graduation, they made a banner that said, "Good Luck Wrestling in Alaska!"
"An iffy part for me was coming to the mainland for school. That's a big culture shock," Tong said. "I talked to my high school coach, and he said it doesn't matter where you go to college on the mainland. The fact you cross the Pacific Ocean is a huge separation, so what's the difference if you wrestle in Nebraska or just go to school in California?"
There has been a world championship in women's wrestling since 1989, and it became an Olympic sport in 2004. Participation in girls high school wrestling nationally has nearly doubled in the last five years, to more than 14,500. Hawaii in 1998 became the first state to have a sanctioned girls high school championship, and five other states have followed suit. The advocacy organization Wrestle Like A Girl is campaigning for the remaining 44 states to sanction championships.
Women's wrestling is also on track to gain greater recognition at the college level.
A proposal, supported by coach Tom Brands of men's wrestling powerhouse Iowa, was submitted in August to give women's wrestling "emerging sport" status in the NCAA. A vote could be taken in January 2019, NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent said. If approved, at least 40 schools would have to sponsor women's wrestling within 10 years for it to become an NCAA championship sport.
Women's wrestling already is an emerging sport in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, where Midland is among 19 schools offering it. Once that number hits 25 and certain benchmarks regarding rules and athlete eligibility are met, the NAIA would sponsor a national invitational competition. That would be a precursor to championship status once there are 40 schools.
This year, two NAIA conferences held championships for the first time, and the Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association will host its national tournament Feb. 9-10 in Oklahoma City.
Leilani Camargo-Naone represents Midland's best chance for a national title. The sophomore from Wai'anae, on the west side of Oahu, is ranked No. 4 in the nation at 191 pounds and was the only Midland wrestler to win a conference championship. She's 61-9 with 40 pins in her career.
Camargo-Naone said she initially thought softball was going to be her ticket to college. She lost interest in that sport just as she was starting to excel at wrestling. She was offered a scholarship by women's wrestling power Menlo College in California after she won the 184-pound state title in 2016, but she accepted a Midland offer because high school teammate Erin Scheidt and other wrestlers she knows were at the campus some 30 miles west of Omaha.
"They had corn and cold winters," she said. "That's all I knew."
Barber is the connection between Midland and the Kamehameha Schools. He previously coached men's wrestling at the now-closed Dana College in Nebraska. A number of Dana wrestlers were from Hawaii, and when those wrestlers returned to Hawaii and started coaching, they maintained ties with Barber.
Barber works under Dana Vote, the head coach for both the men's and women's programs, but has been in charge of the day-to-day operation of the women's team since 2013. Barber said about 15 women from Hawaii have wrestled at Midland since the program started in 2011, with as many as six on the team at one time. This year's team has 15 wrestlers in all.
Scheidt, who was Camargo-Naone's Kamehameha teammate, ended up at Midland after taking a year off from wrestling. She attended a community college and helped coach at her high school before realizing she missed the competition.
She called Barber, who found a spot on the team for her. Friends wondered why she would want to leave Hawaii to go to Nebraska.
"When you're stuck on an island so long, it's kind of claustrophobic, and you want to get out and explore stuff," she said.
Scheidt, a junior, is 57-28 at Midland with one of her 19 pins coming last year against current U.S. national team member Brittany Marshall of Wayland Baptist. She was ranked as high as No. 7 nationally at 155 pounds this season and hopes to earn All-America status at the WCWA tournament.
"I love this sport, but it's more of a tool to do better in life," Scheidt said. "I'm in the nursing program here, so without wrestling I wouldn't be able to go to school. Without wrestling I wouldn't be who I am."