By: Mike Ferguson, Contributing Columnist.
Davenport - As the oldest girl with four brothers, Layla Nickerson grew up wrestling and roughhousing with her siblings.
What she wouldn’t have guessed is that it would one day pay her way through college. This season, Nickerson, 17, became Ridge Community High School’s first female wrestler to earn a scholarship. She’ll also become the first member of her family to attend college.
“I did cheerleading and I was like, ‘OK, it’s not for me’,” she said. “My older brother liked (wrestling) and told me to try it. “(Getting a scholarship) was definitely the last thing on my mind. I started looking (at colleges) in my junior year of high school.”
Wrestling against boys at the 138-pound weight class this past season, Nickerson had two offers and signed her letter of intent in February to wrestle at Iowa Wesleyan, a Division III school starting its women’s program next season. Despite being the only girl on a team full of boys at Ridge, Nickerson said she wasn’t treated any differently by her teammates.
“They treated me like I was one of them,” she said. “They knew I was strong enough to handle it. I didn’t feel uncomfortable in any way. Other than having more muscle mass, nothing was different between me and them.”
Nickerson said one of the things that appealed to her about Iowa Wesleyan was how popular the sport was in the area. The state’s two Division I teams in the sport, Iowa and Iowa State, have combined for 31 national championships. Former Iowa State wrestler Cael Sanderson won four straight individual national championships from 1999 to 2002 and is widely considered the greatest college wrestler of all-time.
As for women’s wrestling, Nickerson said she anticipates that it will continue to grow in popularity. Although she wrestled against boys, girls wrestling held state championships this season in Florida. Girls wrestling is sanctioned in more than 20 states and many hope that by next season, it will be a sanctioned sport by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
“I was recently at state (championships),” Nickerson said. “There were over 100 girls there. It’s going to start growing and growing as a sport.”
At Iowa Wesleyan, Nickerson said she wants to major in human resources and become a social worker. As far as wrestling goes, Nickerson said she wants to be the best she can be and hopes to inspire other girls in the process.
“That’s the main reason I joined,” she said. “My team has inspired me a lot. My mom has been a big supporter. The inspiration that I’m trying to leave is that you can push yourself to be just as good or better than male athletes. I just want to keep pushing it and try to be the best.”
About the Author: Mike Ferguson currently serves as the public information officer at the Haines City Police Department. A native of Polk County, Mike previously spent nearly five years as a full-time reporter at The Ledger. Mike contributes to a number of outlets and has work appearing in the Associated Press, Yahoo, FoxSports.com, Athlon Sports and Sports Illustrated online among other publications. Mike earned his bachelor's degree from Florida State University in 2009. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Davenport, Florida with their two children.