LISA NOWAK, second from the right, poses for a photo after being inducted into the New England Women’s Wrestling Hall of Fame. Nowak was a pioneer in Maine high school wrestling, taking her fight to court to battle for women being allowed to wrestle. Nowak won her case and soon proved her talents on the mat, earning All-American honors at Mt. Ararat High School.

LISA NOWAK, second from the right, poses for a photo after being inducted into the New England Women’s Wrestling Hall of Fame. Nowak was a pioneer in Maine high school wrestling, taking her fight to court to battle for women being allowed to wrestle. Nowak won her case and soon proved her talents on the mat, earning All-American honors at Mt. Ararat High School.

BRUNSWICK

To be a girl high school wrestler in the late 1990s in Maine was tough, if not nearly impossible.

At Mt. Ararat High School, Lisa Nowak wanted to grapple. She longed for the time when she would be able to step on the mat, take on an opponent, boy or girl, and do her best, win or lose.

Times were tough, and things were about to get tougher for the Nowak family, with the only goal for Lisa to wrestle, and it took a monumental court case to make it happen.

Fast-forward 20 years, and Lisa, now a mother of two young boys and wife to Dr. James Wilkins, saw her wrestling career come full circle with her induction into the New England Women’s Wrestling Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., recently.

Her story is one that was described in length in The Times Record back in the summer of 1996, when the soon to be sophomore took her battle to court.

“When I first started, getting coaches to allow me on a team was hard,” said Lisa. “Coaches allowed me to compete as long as no one complained. My eighth-grade year, I wrestled a couple matches. Then as a freshman in high school, I was only allowed to wrestle jayvee matches or tournament exhibitions. At the McDonald’s Tournament, I didn’t get to compete because a coach and athletic director complained about a girl competing against the boys, so I wasn’t allowed. It was frustrating.”

In Lisa’s freshman year, she wrestled a mere three matches, while wrestlers she trained with, the boys, were on the mat 30-40 times. She was the first female wrestler in Maine, and it was certainly lonely.

Lisa sat down with her father, Mark, and mother, Debra, and came up with a plan. She was going to fight.

“My dad was a military man, marathon runner, and we sat down with a lawyer (Michael Feldman) and went to court,” remembered Lisa. “We won the case. I didn’t realize how big it was, but I realized that I was a fighter.”

So it would be easy for the story to end there. Lisa won her court case, so things would go easy from now on, right?

Think again!

“People would throw things at me, say hurtful things, I received nasty letters, a nasty editorial was written, it was tough,” Lisa said from her home in Brookline, Mass. “I felt the eyes on me. But, there were some teams and wrestlers who were great. The Caribou team was great, while others shook my hand and said they respected me. But, others were awful. Kids on my team stood up for me. There were no other girls to wrestle back then. But, after my sophomore year, more and more girls began competing, and that continues today.”

“The great thing was the wrestlers respected her as a wrestler,” said Mark, who remembered how difficult it was to watch from the stands as parents said things about his daughter. “The parents were tough, especially if Lisa beat their son. There was some coaches that were bad, felt that girls shouldn’t wrestle boys. But, today most teams have girls, especially the smaller teams.”

Again, all that Lisa wanted to do was wrestle.

“My dad, uncles, brothers wrestled/coached, so wrestling came naturally to me,” said Lisa.

“We didn’t go back and forth, we supported her whole-heartedly,” said Mark about the court case. “The school and district supported Lisa. The coach all the way through the community supported her. Her lawyer took the case pro bono. He had no reservations. We asked Lisa about going forward and she said, ‘I want to wrestle.’”

Lisa was injured during her junior year and missed the season, but returned for her senior year and was voted a team captain by her Eagle teammates. She had put on a bit of weight, moving up to the 130-pound class, but by the end of the season, she was in “great” condition and made the All- American team, her second such honor. She was named the McDonald’s Tournament Outstanding Wrestler in 1997 and was the first recipient of the National Girls and Women in Sports Day Exemplary Student in Women’s Athletics and Wellness, also in 1997.

She also placed fifth in the girls National High School Championships, seventh in the Women’s National Wrestling Championships and was an assistant coach at Hyde School in Bath.

Title IX

Lisa’s hard work and sacrifices from that time eventually helped lead to a Title IX ruling, which requires high schools to provide equal athletic opportunities to females. This has certainly helped as more female grapplers take to the mat each year, with the days of bullying behind them. After all, Lisa did the heavy lifting.

“Female wrestling is growing, and I believe women are saving high school wrestling as numbers have dropped overall,” said Lisa, who chose to give up wrestling in college, instead concentrating on playing rugby after also competing in soccer at Mt. Ararat.

Today, Lisa is all about raising her children, Wesley, age 4, and Casey, age 2. She has a bachelors degree from Wheaton College and a masters from Middlebury College. Lisa is also a volunteer for the “Boston Friends of Refugee Support,” an organization that helps refugees settle in Boston.

As far as the induction into the New England Wrestling Hall of Fame, Lisa was surprised when she received the call from Springfield Technical Community College men’s and women’s wrestling coach Alberto Nieves, an Olympian from Puerto Rico.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing, and when I was called I was shocked,” Lisa said, who graduated from Mt. Ararat in 1999. “Since becoming a mom, there is little that is about me now. Plus, wrestling seems like so long ago.

“When I was 15, I took (the case) on head on. I have carried it with me. It made me strong enough that I feel that I can do anything. I am not afraid to be powerful. It was one of the most important things that I have done. My parents were there for me, and girls are busting their butts on the mat today. It has come full-circle.”

To this day, Lisa still receives cards and messages from female wrestlers, who thank her for doing what she did over 20 years ago.

“I won my case 20 years ago, which is hard to believe,” said Lisa, who remembered her grandmother, Pearl. “She was dying of cancer, but she held on until the court case was decided. She died within an hour after I won the case. She wanted to make sure I was OK.”

“We couldn’t be prouder of her, both as a mother and a wife,” said Mark. “What she has done throughout her life, we are proud. She always strives to better herself.”

Lisa is OK, and now she is a member of the NE Women’s Wrestling Hall of Fame. She has surely come full-circle.


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