Female wrestler fighting for equality

SELMA -- Biridiana Mendoza sits on the wrestling mat alongside 20 teammates on Selma High School's wrestling team listening to coach Sam López talk about commitment.

The 16-year-old junior is the lone female on the Selma Bears team. Crystal Padilla is out indefinitely due to a knee injury.

López's words about commitment are encouraging, but he also hands out some harsh criticism about the lack of pride at winning smaller and less-competitive tournaments. Mendoza and her teammates react with smiles and frowns.

Biri -- as Mendoza is known to her teammates -- is ranked sixth nationally in the 132-pound division.

Her titles include last year California Girl's Hanford Invitational (the unofficial state tournament), the Napa Valley Classic, the Castro Valley Classic, and the Queen of the Mat in Antioch.

As the boys prepare for a weekend tournament in southern California, Biri readies for the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Girl's Regional on Jan. 22-23 in Covina. She finished second in last year's regional.

Wrestling against males most of her career has prepared Biri.

She remembers being in the first grade and joining her parents José and Antonia Mendoza -- immigrants from Guanajuato, México -- watch José Jr. learn wrestling at the Selma Wrestling Club.

José, Sr., a truck driver and general laborer, asked Biri if she wanted to wrestle too, and she accepted.

"My mom was OK with it, but only because she didn't think that I would do it when I'm older," said Biri. "She gets really nervous and afraid when I wrestle against boys. My hair gets all crazy ... and I get all sweaty."

Eleven years later, Biri, who also plays softball for the Bears, has impressed dozens of coaches while defeating hundreds of opponents, both male and female.

"She has over 150 wins against boys," boasts longtime club coach Diego Quintana. "She was the junior high state champion."

Mendoza won the junior high crown three times.

Biri is among the less-than five percent of female high school wrestlers nationwide who compete on boy's teams. In 2004, women's wrestling became an Olympic sport.

She wants to go to college, but will not follow her older brother to California State University, Bakersfield. He competes on the men's wrestling team in the PAC-10 conference, but they have no women's team.

José graduated from Selma last year after winning a Central Sequoia League title and qualifying four times for the state tournament. He finished his high school career as a state finalist with a 49-4 record.

Biri hopes to compete on the women's team at Menlo College. She admits working out with the boys is difficult, but believes the payoff will be huge when it comes to finding a college team.

"I enjoy being on the guy's team. It's a lot more challenging and it makes you better. Guys have a greater advantage because they're stronger than girls," she said. "If I was a little bit stronger, I could probably do so much better."

Biri is currently 15-3 with the losses coming against boys. Her overall high school record is 65-19.

"She has great technique but the guys are so much stronger," said Quintana. "Skillwise, she's as good or better than most guys. As for girls' wrestling, she's one of best tacticians around."

Her parents are supportive and hope a wrestling scholarship will eventually pay for a four-year degree.

"I think this could lead to better things for her, just like it did with José," said Biri's father.

The Mendozas plan to introduce Biri's younger siblings, Tony, 10, Chelsy, 8, Melanie, 7, to the sport.

Alex Cisneros, Selma's 103-pound state champion said, "She's really competitive and strong. Biri pushes herself to the limit and I think she can get everything she wants."

In last weekend's youth wrestling tournament for kindergarten through fifth graders presented by the Selma Wrestling Club several females competed, including Madi Ramírez, 9, of Dinuba.

"She really likes it. She's getting stronger wrestling against the boys," said her mother, Noelia Ramírez.

Alleida Martínez won the 53-pound division after she defeated José Moreno.

"He was the hardest (to wrestle)," said Martínez, 9.

"Sometimes we worry that she might get hurt, but everything in life is hard," Alleida's mother, Esbeide Martínez.

"I want to let my daughter do the things she wants to do," responded Esbeide Martínez to some parents' pulling their daughters away from wrestling boys.

"I used to train with four-time world champion, Tricia Saunders. She's probably one of the pioneers of women's wrestling," said Eric Albarracin, an assistant to Olympic gold medal winner, Henry Cejudo. "In the local area, there's not a lot of support, but as you go toward the national level, there is women's junior nationals, and they do have women's rankings."