- Sponsorship -

Wrestler first to commit to GVSU’s new women’s program

A ‘warrior on the mat’ aims for national recognition 

Forest Hills — As a wrestler herself, Eastern High Senior Emma Donovan admitted she has been a fan of national champion wrestler Sage Mortimer for a while. And she is still in shock that, come this fall, the two will be teammates.

Emma, the only female wrestler for the Eastern High wrestling team, was the first to commit to Grand Valley State University’s women’s wrestling team, which will have its inaugural season in the winter of 2024. Mortimer, a transfer from King University in Tennessee, was the second.

“I sent a text to my coach right after she committed and I think I sent it to him in all caps, “No way, Sage Mortimer is also going there. This is so cool. I’m like her biggest fan,’” Emma said. “He was like ‘Well, next year, she’s gonna be your teammate.’

“It’s just so cool that now we’re going to be competing at the same level and we’re going to be in the same wrestling room.”

From Never Winning a Match to All-State

It was in seventh grade and at the encouragement of another student, Josiah Thomas, that Emma decided to join the wrestling team. 

Coming out victorious from a match is senior Emma Donovan (courtesy Michigan Sports Photo/Kathy Hoffman)

“I kind of like the idea of trying something new and going out of my comfort zone,” Emma said, adding that she went to some wrestling club practices to learn a few moves. “When I first started, I didn’t win a match my whole first two years of wrestling, I didn’t win a match in seventh grade. I didn’t win a match in eighth grade until the very last match of our eighth-grade season, I won my first match.”

It was that win that kept the momentum going, with Emma wrestling all four years at Eastern High School, along with participating in track for four years, cross country and soccer, and playing soccer so she could be a 10-letter athlete.

Emma was the first Eastern wrestler in 10 years to earn all-state honors, which she did in her sophomore year, and the only Eastern female wrestler to receive such an honor, said varsity wrestling coach Brian Maksimowski. As a junior, Emma dislocated her shoulder and collarbone, which removed her from the state competition, and for her senior year, she did not go to state due to a big upset on the mat.

“It was tough not to go to state this year, especially knowing that I was supposed to be there and I was supposed to finish high,” she said, “but I’m okay with it because I know I have four more years of wrestling and I know that I can achieve way bigger things next year at Grand Valley.”

Despite not making it to state, Maksimowski said Emma embodied the role of student-athlete and because of her dedication and leadership was selected as captain by her teammates. 

“Emma is one of the most improved wrestlers I have coached over the course of my career,” Maksimowski said. “She is a warrior on the mat and is both physically and mentally tough.”

Emma Donovan strikes a powerful pose before a match (courtesy Michigan Sports Photo/Kathy Hoffman)

Being tough and advocating for yourself is necessary when you’re the only girl on the team, Emma said, adding it is not uncommon for a high-school wrestling team to have only one female. In fact, both the Central and Northern wrestling teams had one female grappler. Emma said the reason the numbers are so low is that most high schools only have a boys wrestling program, so a female athlete has to join that team to participate. 

Coaching girls is different from coaching boys, Emma said, noting a number of factors, such as hormones, can cause females to gain or lose weight.

“Because there is no other girl on the team, they are not staying in the sport,” Emma said, but added that things are changing. 

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls in high school wrestling has quintupled since 2013 and nearly doubled from 2022-2023, as cited in a recent report by USA Today. In fact, 45 states — Michigan being one of them —  now have sanctioned high school girls wrestling meets with state championships. 

The sport is also on the rise in the collegiate level, with the NCAA recently announcing wrestling is on track to secure championship status by 2026. Currently the only Big Ten School that has announced it will have a sanctioned women’s wrestling team is the University of Iowa. In Michigan, smaller colleges and universities, such as Davenport University and Grand Valley, have added the sport to their roster, with Davenport adding it in the 2021-2022 school year.

‘There’s such an uproar with women’s wrestling that this is something that you want to be a part of. It’s a movement.’

— senior Emma Donovan 

Becoming GVSU’s First Women’s Wrestling Recruit

“I had known since maybe my sophomore year that there was a Grand Valley women’s wrestling team potentially in the works and that its first year would be the year that I would be a freshman in college,” Emma said. “So it was like perfect timing.”

Finding out how to be considered for the team did take some tracking down.

Senior Emma Donovan was the first commit to Grand Valley State University’s new women’s wrestling program, which starts in the 2024-2025 season (courtesy GVSU)

Emma said she tried finding information on the internet but all she could locate was an article about a donation to bring wrestling back to GVSU. According to GVSU’s student newspaper The Lanthorn, the university ended its men’s wrestling program in 1993 but brought it back last year. It also announced hiring Jake Short, who has previous experience coaching women’s wrestling, as coach for the women’s program. 

Emma did find the recruiting questionnaire for the men’s team, so she filled it out and sent it in. When she did not hear anything back, she learned of a wrestling camp in Lowell and that the GVSU men’s coach, Joey Simcoe, would be in attendance. After the camp, Emma approached Simcoe and he took her information to pass along to Short, she said.

Finally, she got the call from Short about coming to GVSU and the recruiting process. She met with him and was informed she had a spot if she wanted it. Emma decided she needed to think about it — but she did not think for long.

“I went home that night and I was like, ‘I could be, you know, the first commit here’ and I knew immediately this was it,” Emma said. She sent Short a text message announcing she wanted that spot. 

Since Emma and Sage committed, the team has added several other nationally ranked female wrestlers, which Emma said she believes will make the GVSU women’s squad the “team to watch.”

Be Part of the Movement

“I tell any girl that’s thinking about joining wrestling to join,” she said. “There’s such an uproar with women’s wrestling that this is something that you want to be a part of. It’s a movement.

“I’ve grown so much as a young woman in wrestling, because it’s taught me so much with losing matches I was supposed to win. It taught me that no matter what happens, no matter what the outcome was supposed to be or what it is, you’ve got to keep your head up and there’s a plan for everything.”

Eastern High senior Emma Donovan said she looks forward to four more years of wrestling at Grand Valley State University

As for being the only girl on an all-boys high-school team, Emma said it went from her being scared and the boys not wanting her there, to earning their respect and being voted twice as team captain. She also has learned to advocate for herself. 

“I wouldn’t change my experience for the world,” she said. “A lot of girls like to hear the story that I was absolutely terrible at wrestling and didn’t win, to now being the first female at Grand Valley and being an all-state wrestler, and, hopefully, next year I’ll be a nationally-recognized wrestler.”

Read more from Forest Hills: 
Teamwork made the dream work for first state win
One for the record books: team reflects on win

- Sponsorship -
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU