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  • Photo: Mark Lundy

    Photo: Mark Lundy

    A Wrestling Debut 25 Years in the Making

    Billie Sims' intro at Stalemates Street League 2 (Photo Courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)

    You may have seen Billie Sims lead off the Stalemates Street League card on October 29th, with a 7-1 win and heard it was her first actual wrestling match. While that part is true, it's only a small fraction of her time around the sport and it isn't even the final chapter for a 47-year-old mother of four. Billie's bout on the Stalemates card was 25 years in the making and even that number errs on the low side of things.

    Sims grew up in rural Stanardsville, Virginia, a town with a population of under 400 in the 2010 census. An active young girl, Billie participated in a variety of sports, even football. Like many wrestling sisters of her time, Billie was first exposed to the sport through her little brother Bobby and spent plenty of time as an unofficial wrestling partner. While Billie had an interest in wrestling, she was a standout in softball. She went on to play it at the division one level at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. While at Mason, Billie took up lacrosse, as well. The first lacrosse game she ever saw, was one where she started as a DI athlete.
    Billie (right) and her son Dyson wearing the same football number, 30 years apart (Photos Courtesy of Billie Sims

    At GMU is where Kevin McGuigan comes into the story. You may recognize Kevin today as the Director of Operations for the University of Pennsylvania, the Marketing Director for the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center and a fierce advocate for any and all things Philly Wrestling. At the time, McGuigan was the head assistant coach for the Mason wrestling team. For a few extra bucks, McGuigan also did PA announcing for the softball program. Between his announcing gig and normal fraternization between sports at the weight room and GMU's field house, McGuigan and Sims' paths crossed.

    Neither is exactly sure how the dialogue started, it's likely it was spurred by Billie talking about how she grew up around the sport because of her brother, but at some point near the end of Sims' time at George Mason, she and her softball teammates asked McGuigan if he could teach them how to wrestle. While this may not seem too unusual in 2021, remember this was the mid-1990's in Virginia. To this day, girls' high school wrestling is still not sanctioned in Virginia. A few years later, (1998), Hawaii would hold a girl's state tournament for the first time. The point is, that outside of a few states, there were very few opportunities for girls to compete in wrestling, especially against other girls.

    Interestingly enough, this wasn't McGuigan's first foray into this type of training with female athletes. In his last stop, at Upper Darby High School in Pennsylvania, some of the girls on the competitive cheerleading time got into a playful argument about "who works harder," them or the wrestling team. He welcomed the cheerleaders into the wrestling team's conditioning workouts (stadium stairs/buddy carries). After a while, McGuigan thought, "you're pretty athletic; you should wrestle." That was his first hint that women's wrestling could take off. The girls were invited into the practice room and McGuigan taught them some basics, the girls enjoyed it, but even in wrestling-crazy Pennsylvania, there weren't many competitive outlets for the girls and their interest waned.

    At George Mason, McGuigan enlisted some of the Patriots star wrestlers, Bryan Hazard (now one of the co-voices of the NCAA Championships) and Sean Carrigan (who went on to star on the Young and the Restless, as well as the film Ford v Ferrari) to work with Sims and her teammates. McGuigan asked if Hazard thought they could teach the girls how to wrestle and Hazard replied, "Yeah, absolutely.". The Patriots head coach at the time, Brian Schaffer, was supportive and said they'd have to do it after practice and see what the administration says.

    McGuigan went to the GMU administration, who ok'd an idea of a women's wrestling club and the group hit the mat. They did the same workouts the men's team did, with very little live wrestling. He and the Patriot wrestlers went through the basics (stance, motion, level change, penetration, lift, back arch). "They went hard," said McGuigan. "We're talking accomplished division one athletes that wanted to learn something new. I was impressed by it."

    The women's wrestling club lasted for less than a year as there were no tournaments for the young women to enter. McGuigan reached out to some of the smaller schools in the state and region, but none had a women's wrestling club. He still believes in the saying "If you build it, they will come," referring to girls and women who will show interest in the sport if opportunities are available to them.

    As the George Mason women's wrestling club faded away, McGuigan would leave the area a few years later to move back to the Philadelphia area and start a family. Sims did the same as she married Jason Dunham and had four children.

    Fast forward to the early 2020, as Billie's then-high school sophomore son, Dyson Dunham, had just finished third in Virginia's 6A state tournament. Dyson was ready to enter his mom into the "Bald and Fat Classic," a tournament that featured such age groups as 25-35, 36-45. He was just as excited about his wrestling-crazed mom about getting her on the mat for an official match. As with many things in 2020, Covid prevented the tournament from being conducted. Without that tournament, Billie figured her dreams of wrestling would go unanswered.

    More than a year later, Zach Bogle of "Stalemates" fame, announced his company was putting on a second "Street League" event after the first was such a hit with fans. He made it known on social media that he'd like to feature a match between two people that have never wrestled before and also wanted to incorporate a women's bout into the fold. When Bogle made such a statement, McGuigan tweeted, "he nominates Billie Sims."

    Billie's first thought after seeing McGuigan's tweet was, "Yeah, I'd love to wrestle." Once Sims found out they were looking for a woman around her size, she reached out to Bogle and the rest was history.

    Billie Sims and Becca Roper (left) (Photo Courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)

    Shortly after, Billie agreed to wrestle Rebecca Roper, an employee at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum and wife of Northern Iowa assistant coach Lee Roper. Sims had no hesitation about going from Virginia to Iowa for a single match.

    Once McGuigan heard Billie was wrestling, his first thought was, "I don't care who she's wrestling, Billie's gonna kick some butt," and that was before an opponent was announced publicly.

    In the lead-up to the match, Billie's husband, Jason, produced a series of videos showing her training regiment and the first included one of her favorite pastimes, barrel racing. She has been barrel racing "ever since she could walk' and has a long list of accolades in the field. Billie was an IBRA State Champion Open and Masters (40+) in 2020, beating out a field that included over 100-plus horses. This year she was an NBHA State Reserve Open Champion.

    One of the biggest positives from the entire Street League experience was the bonding experience between Billie and Dyson. Now a VMI signee, Dyson "not only supported me, but pushed me to do it. Anything you can do with your teenager, where they're interested in it, is cool...especially wrestling," Sims added.

    During Sims' training for her match, Dyson relished the opportunity to turn the tables on their usual wrestler-mom dynamic. The night before the match, the two were working out and Dyson performed a mat return, which made Billie hesitate. Less than 24 hours away from competing, she didn't want to get hurt and told him to, "Chill out." Dyson replied, "You think this is hard? Guess what, wrestling's hard! You're going to battle for just four minutes of your life. If you're not ready to battle, you're gonna regret it." While Billie may not have appreciated the tough love and hard wrestling at the time, she looks back and admits, "I needed it."

    The two both needed to train as Dyson competed at USAW's Preseason Nationals at the same time, a short distance away from the Stalemates event. He would go on to make the finals of the 132 lb weight class.

    While Billie watched one of Dyson's matches, she received a call from former George Mason All-American Johnny Curtis. Curtis' FCA Wrestling Club is one that hosted Billie during the lead-up to her match. Curtis told Billie, "It's ok to be nervous," to which she replied, "Is it ok if I'm not?" as she was totally at peace with herself and excited for the opportunity.

    Since Dyson was still wrestling at Preseason Nationals, Billie had to go over to the Stalemates venue by herself because her brother and longtime friend and club coach, Tyler Atwell, were still in Dyson's corner. Once the two arrived, they were looking for a good drill partner for her and stumbled upon someone who fit the bill. That, someone, was the #1 120 lber in the nation, Nate Jesuroga, who was fresh off a win at the Super 32 the previous week. Jesuroga didn't hesitate to warm up the 47-year-old mother, who had never officially stepped on the mat before.

    Billie's brother Bobby (right) and Tyler Atwell in her corner (Photo Courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)

    Sims and Roper's bout was the first bout of the night on the Street League 2 card. After she was introduced and was waiting for Becca to take the mat, Billie received some last-second words of wisdom from her son's coach, Atwell, and brother Bobby. "You're the underdog," said Atwell. "You're the bad guy. Everybody's gonna be cheering for her. Embrace it," Bobby added. That sat well with Sims, who thought, "That's right..this is cool, I'm the underdog, I'm the bad guy."

    As expected, the partisan Iowa crowd was behind Roper. The two of them spent the first period looking for an opening and Roper's length gave Billie some issues. "She was so long and kept in such good position, I couldn't see where I could shoot under her."

    In the second period, after she got on the scoreboard with an escape, Billie pushed the pace with an underhook, then used an arm drag to a snatch single. Not only was she able to convert the takedown, but Roper went straight to her back.

    Billie couldn't believe she scored from an arm drag. "It was something I had drilled, but not something I thought I'd go to. McGuigan interrupted and said it was muscle memory from 25 years ago. "It was one of my favorite setups and I know we worked on it," he chuckled.

    Billie Sims' in action at Stalemates Street League 2 (Photo Courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)

    Roper rode Sims for the entire third period, but it wasn't without some excitement. Billie had a brief scare as Roper sank in a half nelson and rolled her through her back, though no points were registered. A riding time point for Roper brought the final score to 7-1 in favor of Billie.

    After she got off the mat and was decompressing, her drill partner, Jesuroga, came up and said, "Hey, nice arm drag," which really tickled her.

    As we're reliving her Street League experience, Billie recalls her last practice before the competition. As she unlaced her shoes, she felt upset. Not only had she just finally broken-in her wrestling shoes, but she realized "this may be it." After the match, it would be all over.

    But as Billie likes to say, "God's funny."

    About a week after her match, Sims invited Chad Hoffman and Doug Fisher out for dinner and drinks to thank them for their support. Hoffman and Fisher are coaches at Fauquier High School and their Birds of Prey Wrestling Club was one of the handful of local clubs that embraced her with open arms while training for the match.

    At one point, during dinner, one of the two told Billie they "needed one more assistant coach and they were looking for someone smaller to roll with the guys," gauging her interest. At the time, Billie laughed it off as a joke, but over the ensuing weekend, she confided in her brother, who had already thought she should get into coaching. On Monday, she followed up with Hoffman and told him, "she was interested if he was serious." Hoffman responded with, "Woo-hoo, see you at 3:45."

    Since then, Billie has been in the Fauquier wrestling room working with a handful of young lightweights, new to the sport. Having someone her size has been perfect for them. She's already preparing for a dual meet between Fauquier and Benedictine College Prep, her son Dyson's school, which will take place on the campus of VMI.

    Initially, before Billie's involvement in Street League, I wanted to write this article about her and McGuigan's relationship through the short-lived George Mason Women's Wrestling Club; however, McGuigan was a bit hesitant due to his humble nature and the lack of traction that the venture gained. Billie, on the other hand, feels it is an essential part of her story and calls McGuigan a "seed planter. He planted the seeds for women's wrestling with the conversations he had with the administration and other people. You may not harvest or see the rewards, but you need the seeds planted before anything can grow. He was a visionary and he supported women's wrestling before it was a cool thing to do."

    So after getting on the mat, training then competing, how does the experience impact Billie's feelings about the sport? "I love it even more! I'd love to compete again, though I can't imagine another scenario." She hopes that this experience will help her push more young girls towards the sport, including her daughter, Bradie, who is seven years old and has expressed some interest in wrestling.

    Billie and Becca Roper embrace after their bout (Photo Courtesy of Mark Lundy; LutteLens.com)

    I remember the final seconds ticking off the clock in Billie's bout with Becca, seeing the pair embrace and the crowd showing their appreciation for the two. It felt like a special moment. Stalemates often focuses on the lighter side of our sport or off-the-mat drama; however, in this instance, Bogle and company helped set the stage for an authentic, emotional moment between two women who love wrestling and didn't have the opportunities to compete in their youth. For Billie, it was a moment more than 25 years in the making.

    "You couldn't find someone that would feel more thankful, grateful, or blessed. It was more than a wrestling match. It was a life-changer," said Billie.

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