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Female wrestler proves once and for all you can be ‘athletic’ and ‘pretty’

Adeline Gray is a female wrestler on Team USA, who ranked No. 1 this season, all season. She has three world titles under her belt, among other medals and awards, so it’s not really a surprise that she’s going up against Serena Williams for Female Olympic Athlete of the Year (no big deal).

I tracked down Adeline to talk about her wrestling career and it was very apparent that her strong spirit (and body) along with her competitive mindset are big part of who she is — as an athlete and as a woman.

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When I asked her about a moment when she wanted to quit but persevered, she said, “Those moments are part of the game.” And that’s refreshingly honest. “I think it’s an important thing for you to question where you are and still be able to strive through and push through.” She adds, “That’s just part of sports and part of life and you have to figure out how to dig deep and figure out, really figure out, what you want out of it.”

But I had an inkling that you don’t become one of the best female wrestlers in the world without turning some heads in confusion. Gray admitted, “They always kind of give me this look like ‘you’re too pretty to wrestle’ and I just wish I didn’t get that statement.”

Adeline Gray
Image: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images Sport

The stereotype that all female athletes who are worth anything in titles and medals must be masculine, ugly types is one we need to change. “[Women] can be in a realm of just being able to accomplish goals and be athletic and still be girls in this world,” she said. I think most women, especially athletes, would agree that a woman can be feminine and athletic.

Serena Williams, who Gray is up against for Female Athlete of the Year, is no stranger to insults that imply otherwise, either. Earlier this year, someone tweeted about Williams: “Ironic then that the main reason for her success is that she’s built like a man.”

So, it may be more common to see women compete as athletes today, but we haven’t quite squashed the idea that athletes only look, walk and talk like men. These are women who are totally dominating in their sports, and yet one of the biggest battles they fight isn’t athletic at all. It’s against people who continue to try and categorize them in one box and one box only.

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I remember wanting to be “one of the guys” when I was growing up, wanting to be the “cool girl” who could play sports at recess and not worry about breaking a nail. Even when it comes to dating, we’re taught that the only way to get a boyfriend is to be cool and laid back, to not be the girl who’s worried about how her hair looks. Somewhere along the way, it became a bad thing to be girly, when the reality is you can be both girly and sporty. You can care about makeup and muscles. You can be a wrestler and still be “pretty.”

And while I never really was any good at sports (I was mocked for years for not touching the base in a softball game, and my mom’s first words when I told her I was dating a soccer player were something like, “He knows you’re completely uncoordinated, right?”), I still tried it all because I liked being active and I liked feeling strong, but I still put on lip gloss and did my hair every day (OK, most days).

And hopefully, thanks to athletes like Gray, people will start to realize that one person can check several different boxes and there are some words, like “feminine” and “athletic,” that need new definitions.

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Gray notes that the word “feminine” tends to be defined as dainty and weak, but says, “I don’t consider myself weak or dainty by any means and I still consider myself feminine. And I am still a female in this world who can be successful and be strong and talented and those [words] can be positive attributes that can be described as feminine.”

Gray is a great athlete, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be feminine. I was not so great at sports, but that doesn’t relegate me to a life of just being pretty because I can’t throw a softball. These words don’t have to be opposites. You can still get sweaty and dirty, and you just may feel more feminine than ever.

Even further, Gray wants people to know she’s not a pretty diamond in the rough of other female wrestlers. “I have 17 other girls on my team who are beautiful and strong and feminine and goal-oriented, and those should not be negative words.”

You can join the campaign to redefine feminine here and follow more of Gray’s journey as a kick-ass female athlete here.

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