By ADRIANA ALFARO
“Girls don’t wrestle!”
That single sentence was all it took to create determination in the Cunningham sisters of Sea Isle City.
They have been wrestling for the Upper Township youth team since then and also compete in South Jersey tournaments throughout the year.
Keira Cunningham began the sport at the age of five, while her older sister, Brynn, began at the age of seven. Brynn wanted to try the sport after being inspired by Keira and fell in love with it right away.
“It is awesome that we’re at the forefront of a rapidly growing sport,” said Joe Cunningham, their father and coach.
The popularity of women’s wrestling has exploded in recent years. Since 2018, 25 states have added individual girls wrestling championships.
Keira and Brynn showcased their skills at the national level in November by competing in the 26th annual World of Wrestling Tulsa Kickoff Classic Tournament in Oklahoma.
Keira took home the title for 75 pounds in the girls’ 9-and-under division.
Brynn finished fifth at 73 pounds in the 12-and-under division.
“I used to wrestle, but I never reached this level,” Joe Cunningham said of his daughters competing on the national stage.
To win the title, 9-year-old Keira received a first-round bye and then won three matches by major decisions.
In the quarterfinals, she defeated an Oklahoma state champion, 11-0. In the semifinals, she defeated a Trinity Award winner, 9-0. Her final score was 11-0.
“The very first girl I ever competed with is still my friend,” Keira said.
Brynn finished the tournament with a record of 3-2. She placed fifth after winning three consolation matches following a loss in the semifinals. In her division, 18 girls competed, with the top six receiving medals.
On Dec. 27, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio and City Council presented the sisters with proclamations to honor them for their wrestling achievements.
“I have a special presentation today for two special young ladies that are here with us,” Desiderio said as the ceremony began.
Just before the ceremony, Desiderio looked at the girls and joked using a wrestling term.
“Don’t take me down,” he said as the girls and their parents laughed.
When asked what their goal is for the coming year, the sisters said in an interview that it is to win the Tulsa nationals
Keira and Brynn train at least three times a week and see themselves advancing in wrestling as time goes on.
Before going out to compete, the girls make sure they are mentally and physically prepared by completing stretches and pacing the mat.
“It’s not about who you’re wrestling, it’s about how you’re wrestling,” Brynn said.