As a junior varsity wrestler at Providence High, Nikoly Dos Santos was something of a novelty as a freshman, a girl wrestling for a high school team.
As a sophomore on the varsity this season, she’s more than that. Wrestling at 113 pounds, Dos Santos has won nine of 15 matches and is 5-1 against SoMeck 8 conference competition.
Dos Santos has one conference match remaining, against Charlotte Catholic at home Thursday. Providence athletics director Charles Lansing said she’ll be the conference champion if she wins.
“It takes a lot of courage for her to do what she’s doing,” said Providence senior 170-pound wrestler Grant Kroeschell. “She has to be in her own locker room, weigh-in at her own time, so there’s probably struggles for her that we don’t even realize.”
“And just being a girl in a boys’ sport would be hard. ...She has the most courage on the team I’d say.”
At 15, Dos Santos has an easy smile and a mouth full of braces. She’s small, at about 5-foot-1, but she calls herself tough. She’s also part of a growing trend. According to the Women’s College Wrestling Association, high school female wrestlers have increased from 804 in 1994 to more than 11,000 nationwide today. California, Oregon, Guam, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, Hawaii and Washington sponsor a state high school championship for girls’ wrestling, according to the WCWA.
In North Carolina, girls’ wrestling isn’t sanctioned, so Dos Santos must compete against boys.
“Sometimes, the guys can overpower me,” Dos Santos said, “but I make up for it with technique and practice. I work hard in practice and you get fit. So while some people might not go as hard for (the whole match), I can, because practice is so hard.”
Dos Santos is from Brazil and moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 9, during Thanksgiving weekend. She didn’t speak any English but started taking Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a martial art that focuses on ground fighting, and her teacher spoke her native Portuguese.
Dos Santos stuck with the Jiu Jitsu, eventually earning a black belt. And when she arrived at Providence High in 2015, she gravitated to the wrestling team because it reminded her so much of her martial art.
“Last year,” Providence coach Brett Houghton said, “she would beat up on all of our 106- and 113-pound (back up) guys, but our starting 106-pounder was a regional champ and she didn’t get a chance to wrestle a whole lot.
“This year, she came in at 125 and got down to 120 for her first match, and those kids are pretty big. But she monitored her weight and worked hard. Once she got to 113, she found her way.”
Houghton, once a state runner-up wrestler at East Mecklenburg High, won 171 matches before graduating in 2004. He held the Mecklenburg County wins record for 10 years.
As her coach, Houghton helped Dos Santos use her Jiu Jitsu skills to offset her strength disadvantage in many matches.
“She has a good feel for Jiu Jitsu,” Houghton said. “And I told her that (using her legs) is what she exceeds at. I always tell them that leg riding is the trump card -- no matter how strong the guy is, your legs will be stronger (than his upper body).
“You can control the hips with your legs and that’s the way to beat strong guys. She’s gotten really good at that. Before, she was getting taken down a lot and was she was losing matches because she never got on top.”
Providence senior Jake Reid, a 160-pound wrestler, said it’s “cool” to watch how quickly Dos Santos has improved -- and how much.
“Coach Houghton has really drilled fundamentals in her and built her a solid foundation,” Reid said. “She’s found something that’s worked for her, which is legs, and when she found out what would work for her, she’s been a big part of our team. She’s exceeded my expectations.”
Houghton said Dos Santos’ opponents, particularly those who’ve lost to her, have handled it fairly well. But he admits it’s awkward to wrestle girls. He said one of his wrestlers in 2011 considered quitting after losing to a girl.
“I remember he had a fit afterwards,” Houghton said. “At first, he didn’t want to wrestle and said it wasn’t fair. I said, ‘She goes out and does everything you do in the wrestling room. She trains and she doesn’t want to come here and take a forfeit. You’re the opponent, so you will go wrestle.’ ”
In high school, Houghton said he wrestled a girl in regionals. He was a No. 1 seed. She was No. 16 of 16. He won easily.
“I never had to go against a girl as good as Nikoly,” he said, “but as soon as you’re in there you’re competitive and you want to go win. Most of the guys she wrestles go out aggressive with her and they want to win, too.”
Dos Santos said she wants to wrestle in college. According to the WCWA, 30 schools sponsor women’s wrestling, which became an Olympic event in 2004. According to USA Wrestling data, there are 416 women wrestling in college, including such schools as San Jose State, Stony Brook (N.Y.) and Cleveland State.
Dos Santos’ teammates believe her future is bright.
“She can go out there and play a sport with guys who are probably stronger than her, bigger, faster,” Kroeschell said. “She doesn’t care. She goes out there and just wrestles. I knew this was her second year and she might have a pretty good year, but I didn’t nearly expect what she’s been doing.
“One match, we needed her to get a pin and she got a pin and we won. It was a dual-team match. She pinned her guy and we went nuts.”