Want proof that Alaska girls really do kick, er, behind? Check out this weekend's state high school wrestling tournaments, where a wave of female athletes proves the Last Frontier is first when it comes to toughness.
Kenai freshman Hope Steffensen doesn't look all that scary. Barely 100 pounds, Steffensen wears glasses, likes reading and plays the piano. She also has a thing for pain.
Steffensen, who will enter Friday's Class 4A state championships at Chugiak High School as the third-ranked 103-pounder, is one of the state's most promising wrestlers, regardless of gender. For the past three years, she's been one of the state's most feared lightweights, winning three consecutive state middle school championships in both freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling. Earlier this year, she won a girls national middle school title in folkstyle at 96 pounds.
"She was just one of those kids who took to it," said Steffensen's father and coach, Stan Steffensen.
Steffensen began wrestling in the fifth grade, right about the same time Skyview's Michaela Hutchinson was making history by becoming the first female wrestler in the nation to win a state title against boys at the 2005-06 state tournament.
Although girls had been wrestling in Alaska in increasing numbers throughout the decade, Hutchinson's triumph, which garnered national media attention, proved just the beginning of a wave of female wrestlers in Alaska that continues to build.
"When Michaela won state, that made it go, 'Boom,' " Hope Steffensen said at a meet earlier this season.
Michaela Hutchinson's success wasn't the first for Alaska girls in the sport. Along with Nikiski's Tela O'Donnell, Melina Hutchinson made history in 2000 by becoming the first girl in Alaska to place at a state tournament.
It's no surprise to wrestling observers that the Hutchinsons would be at the forefront of girls wrestling. The family's 10 children have made quite a name for themselves in the sport. Older brother Zeb Hutchinson was a two-time state champion, while Eli Hutchison is one of seven wrestlers to win four Alaska state titles.
At this year's 4A tournament, the family will be well represented, with senior Monica making her third consecutive trip to state despite spending much of the early season on the Panthers' volleyball squad.
Along with Steffensen, Hutchinson will be among a group of seven girls who qualified for this year's state tournaments at either the 4A or 1-2-3A level. The group also includes Hoonah's Melissa Fisher, Nome's Kalynna Booshu, Service's Codi Sloan, Colony's Jenae Shannon and Kodiak's Chloe Ivanoff, the nation's No. 10 female at 130 pounds, according to the U.S. Girls Wrestling Association. Last season, nine girls qualified for state.
Those might not sound like huge numbers, until you realize that before Melina Hutchinson in 1998-99, no girl had ever qualified for state.
"Once it was a couple, then pretty soon you've got a few more girls trying it," said Stan Steffensen.
According to the National Federation of High School Sports Associations, participation in wrestling among Alaska girls has more than doubled since 2002. That year, 68 girls statewide were involved in the sport. Last season, the most recent for which statistics are available, 148 girls were in the sport -- enough to rank Alaska ninth in the nation among girls' participation.
Tela O'Donnell, who grew up in Homer and lives there today, said it was just a natural thing for her to try wrestling.
"I had a pretty physical lifestyle growing up, like many Alaska people do," she said. "I was in the woods a lot."
Stan Steffensen said the nature of Alaska life makes wrestling a natural fit for a lot of girls.
"Alaska is at the forefront of a lot of things," he said. "You've got gals that are hunters, fishers and even governors."
Steffensen, who was the longtime head coach at Kenai and is currently an assistant for the Kardinals, said the girls he's seen are as technically sound as any wrestlers.
"Any move that's available, these girls are using it," he said.
It's not just at the statewide level where Alaska girls are finding success. Michaela Hutchinson is a women's defending collegiate national champion at Oklahoma City University, and O'Donnell placed sixth at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
Skyview coach Neldon Gardner, who has coached all the Hutchinson clan's wrestlers, said some team members resisted having Melina join the squad back at the turn of the century.
"They didn't take it serious until she started working out with them," he said. "Then it changed real quick."
Once Melina started putting boys on their backs, she became an accepted member of the team.
"It was quite a wake-up call for them," he said.
While girls wrestling was a bit of a novelty back then, it has become mainstream today. Most teams feature at least one or two girls, with some schools boasting three or four.
Gardner said it has reached the point where he rarely hears any snide comments about girls -- mainly because they have proven themselves on the mat.
"The guys have learned that you just have to shut up and wrestle," he said.
O'Donnell said she felt that once she proved herself in the wrestling room, the boys on her team never had a problem.
"You either try hard or you don't," she said. "I was clearly a girl on a boys team but definitely accepted."
With the success of wrestlers like O'Donnell and Michaela Hutchinson, Gardner said that in Alaska the sport has developed to the point where female athletes can now dream of reaching the highest levels.
"If it's your dream to be on an Olympic team, wrestling is a sport where you can get there," he said.
Hope Steffensen, who has an outside shot of becoming Alaska's second female state champion, already has her eyes on a college scholarship. She said she plans to wrestle throughout high school and beyond, continuing what's becoming a storied tradition for Alaska girls.
"I love it," she said. "I really like the competition."
She said she'd recommend wrestling to any student -- male or female -- who wants to push themselves to their physical and mental limits.
"It gets you in shape for one thing," she said. "And it makes you feel good about yourself, because you're out there doing something tough."
Find Matt Tunseth at adn.com/contact/mtunseth or call him at 257-4335.