Not only is sumo wrestling a non-traditional sport, it’s also a historically male-dominated one. But the women competing for the United States Sumo Female National Team are working to change that. In 2018, the International Olympic Committee fully recognized sumo as an Olympic sport, and the team is representing not only the U.S., but the continent of North America as they train for competitions, and hopefully the Olympics.
After becoming 2019 recipients of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Travel & Training Fund, we caught up with two members of the team – Cody Stout and Mariah Holmes — to talk about breaking into an unconventional sport and how they are working to change the stereotypes of female sumo athletes to get more women into the sport.
WSF: How did you get into sumo?
CS: Originally, I had no real interest in a contact sport. However, I loved watching my son do judo. There was something so beautiful about the melody of the throws. So, I took him to practice religiously. He had a coach named Andre Coleman. Turns out Andre is some hotshot Amateur Sumo Wrestler and he was hosting a sumo camp one weekend with some of the most well-known amateur sumo wrestlers in America. He asked that the judo kids come out and support. So we did. Let me just say, Andre can get a group of strangers off the street to try sumo. So, when he encouraged the parents to try it, I was the only one, and the only mom at that! But I did it, and fared well. Then I started going to practice every week. I was hooked, from the sport, to the culture. Now I am a World Team Member – and Andre and I will be married at our Dirty South Sumo Tournament in July!
MH: After years of playing rugby, I started coaching a youth club. One of the coaches at the club had been doing sumo for years, and after seeing me show the kids a tackling drill, invited me out to a practice. I went and instantly fell in love with the sport.
WSF: Sumo is such a traditionally male-dominated sport. How are you and your team working to expand the sport for women?
CS: All of the women on the American World Sumo team are very active both in competition and in the United States Sumo Federation (USSF). I am Chair of the Women’s Committee and Mariah also serves on the committee. Our overall goal is to create and promote a common culture that produces Olympic quality training and opportunities to compete. We have hosted a female only training camp, and continuously open the door for young girls to compete and train. Women in sports matter, women in sumo matter.
WSF: Sumo was recently recognized by the International Olympic Committee as an Olympic sport. What would it mean to you to have the sport included in the Olympic program? Do you see that on the horizon and if so, what will it take to get there?
Without women, sumo would not be considered an Olympic sport. That is a fact.
MH: It is my biggest hope that sumo will be included at the next Olympics. It’s been my childhood dream to compete at the Olympics and this would be one step closer to that dream for me. I think it’s definitely a possibility, especially with how inclusive the amateur side of the sport is trying to be. They’re really focusing on expanding the sport for women and youth, which I think is key.
CS: To have the sport of sumo officiated in the Olympics would be validation that women in sumo matter. Not only would it give recognition to those that invested their lives into the sport in America, but it would be confirmation that all those lost matches made the difference, those wins were divine, and all the physical and emotional tribulations were not in vain. We are at the level where it is not just a hobby anymore. I believe that is what makes us a good candidate for the Olympics.
WSF: What do you love about sumo?
MH: Sumo is a lot harder physically then it looks, and I love the challenge, but most of all I love the mental component. It’s a lot like a physical game of chess, and that aspect is what keeps me hooked!
WSF: What does the Travel & Training Fund grant mean to your team and what will it be used for?
CS: Being awarded the Travel & Training Fund grant from the Women’s Sports Foundation is probably one of the biggest milestones for women in sumo. Because amateur sumo is athlete-funded, it does not allow a lot of opportunity for women to train, travel and compete. As a mother, I have missed out on several opportunities to compete internationally because of limited resources. I know that I am not the only one. In fact, sustaining women in the sport of sumo is our federation’s biggest obstacle. With this grant we can help secure female participation in the sport of sumo in America – that’s huge!
MH: Since sumo isn’t a largely recognized sport, there really isn’t any funding, so to be able to have any kind of financial support means everything to the competitors, most of whom have to fund all travel and competition expenses out of their own pockets. This funding is being used to help the women travel and also for uniforms to make sure the U.S. is competing with its best foot forward.
WSF: What is it going to take to get more women into sumo? Why is that important for the sport?
CS: To get more women into the sport, women need to be present in the sport. It’s that simple. We need to continue to have active female members that train and compete. We also need women in the governing body of our federation. As long as we are present, the sport will grow. Without women, sumo would not be considered an Olympic sport. That is a fact.
It is important to commend Helen Delpopolo, our President. With her formulating the Women’s Committee, we now have a greater chance of taking on positions in the USSF.
MH: Without strong competition, practicing with individual competitors can only progress so far. And with only one or two women at practice, there isn’t a lot of variety and competition to practice with. Recruiting and keeping strong female athletes is imperative to growing a strong sport. And having a welcoming community and availability of practice locations is a key aspect to gaining and retaining those female athletes.
WSF: Cody, you also run a sumo/martial arts gym. What has that been like and how are you working to introduce more women to sumo?
CS: I do own and operate a martial arts gym in New Orleans, and it has been an amazing opportunity. The work never stops! We hold a monthly event called Beer and Sumo, as well as regular practices. Beer and Sumo has introduced sumo to many people but most importantly many women. In our last event, we had three women show up and try sumo for the first time. We encourage female participation as well as the participation of any youth that may be interested in sumo.
We want to see the sport grow and we want to see women as a relevant participant in the sport.
To learn more about the Travel & Training Fund, click here.