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After fighting to wrestle with boys two decades ago, Homer Olympian continues to empower girls through sports

Girl athletes practice technique at Wrestle Like A Girl's Empowerment Camp in Palmer, Alaska on March 11, 2022.

Over two decades ago, Homer High School student Tela O’Donnell Bacher was told she couldn't join the boys wrestling team. So she fought the school district.

Without a girls’ team, Bacher said she just wanted an opportunity to compete in the sport that she loved even though she was mostly up against boys. Bacher said she was encouraged by a female coach, and did some research on Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in schools based on sex.

“I wrote a letter to the school board saying, ‘Hey, could you please let me wrestle? I just really want to give it a try. Plus, there's this law. It's called Title IX. I don't think you have a choice.’”

After she was granted the right to join the team in the late 1990s, Bacher didn't stop fighting. She won national championships while still in high school. And a few years after graduating, she competed in the Olympics, which was a first for her and for women wrestlers worldwide.

“So 2004 was the first time they had women's wrestling in the Olympics,” Bacher said. “I was a part of that inaugural team. There were four of us.”

About a decade later, Sally Roberts, a former teammate of Bacher, reached out to her. Roberts wanted to encourage more women and girls to become involved in the sport. She asked Bacher for help in starting a nonprofit organization that centered and promoted girls’ wrestling.

The organization they helped found was Wrestle Like A Girl. Bacher led the push to start up a statewide chapter of that national organization called Alaska Girls Wrestle. She summed up the organization's goal:

“We work to use wrestling as a catalyst for change in Alaska.”

Bacher said both groups, Alaska Girls Wrestle and Wrestle Like A Girl, work to empower young women through sports, from hosting coach’s clinics and navigating the college recruitment process to hosting and teaching wrestling camps.

According to Bacher, last year, one of the Alaska Girls Wrestle training camps hosted 60 female wrestlers from 20 different Alaskan communities, from Chevak to Utqiaġvik. She said about 70% of the girls were able to attend because of scholarships which helped cover the cost of food, lodging and training.

The group has also worked with The Sports Bra Project to provide sports bras to every Alaskan wrestler that wants one. Bacher stressed the importance of access to proper sporting equipment.

“If a girl grows up without her family having a lot of experience in the sport, a sports bra can be the reason why she excels and feels comfortable in the sport,” she said. “Or the reason why she drops out.”

Wrestle Like A Girl has also organized various trips to other countries to partner with female fighters abroad. The group is planning an exchange with Mongolian wrestlers in the upcoming year.

Bacher said these trips are often transformative. After a trip with the group to Pakistan to meet with female boxers in 2019, Bacher said she began to recognize how wrestling could be used as a tool to promote healthy self images for young women.

“We see girls in combat sports and in wrestling really having this confidence that comes from knowing, owning their space in their body,” she said. “When they walk into a room and they walk down the street, this confidence is something that can be seen, through cultures, through language barriers.”

Around that same time, Bacher said she was processing the disappearance of her childhood friend, Anesha “Duffy” Murnane, who was abducted in Homer in 2019, while walking to a doctor's appointment.

“That veil had been pulled off my eyes…like, ‘Oh, Alaska and the safety of women, it wasn't what I thought it was.’ Alaska has some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world,” she said.

Since then, Bacher began to view her work with women's wrestling as a way to combat gender-based violence by teaching skills for women to defend themselves, like helping them understand their own strength or becoming more conscious of their environments.

“I'm really big on making safe spaces for athletes, for youth, for people,” she said.

Bacher is able to do that locally as the coach for Homer High’s girls’ wrestling team. The five-member squad just finished up their season, with two of the members, sisters Saoirse and Roane Cook finishing in first place at the statewide championships in their weight class.

Bacher will be presenting her a TED Talk at Grace Ridge Brewery at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 29. She plans on a 20 minute presentation with time for questions afterwards. Bacher encourages people who want to know more about Alaska Girls Wrestle to go to the organization’s website.

Local News Kenai Peninsula NewsWrestle Like a GirlHomer WrestlingTela O'Donnell BacherOlympics
Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, Desiree has called Alaska ‘home’ for almost two decades. Her involvement in radio began over 10 years, first as a volunteer DJ at KBBI, later as a host and producer, and now in her current role as a reporter. Her passions include stories relating to agriculture, food systems and rural issues. In her spare time, she can often be found riding her bicycle, creating art from handmade paper, or working in the garden.
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