Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

History made at Cleveland wrestling tourney

Sports history was made over the weekend in an arena in Cleveland. No public announcement or trumpets were sounded, no press reports appeared in the local papers, and the sparse audience in attendance was for the most part unaware of the significance of the event transpiring before their eyes. But in little more than a minute's time, the interval between two shrill blasts of an official's whistle, the walls of intolerance in the sports world lost one more brick. When Donna Rose, who last wrestled in a tournament bracket match in 1970 during the Canadian Olympic trials, pinned Missouri Valley wrestler Paloma Basulto in the U.S. Open Women's Freestyle Wrestling Championships Friday at Cleveland State University, it was believed to be the first time a transgender woman had competed in a mainstream-sanctioned women's wrestling event.

The victory in the women's 72-kilogram (158.75 pounds) quarterfinals, followed immediately by a congratulatory hug from her coach, Olympian Melvin Douglas, and a celebration in the stands with her own personal cheering section, ultimately secured Rosen a berth in the world team trials this summer in Iowa.

"I'm just so happy to be here," Rose, 51, told the Bay Area Reporter. "I just love this sport. My goal was to win a match here and I've done that. Melvin said, 'You know, this qualifies you for the world trials,' and I just said, 'That's a lot to think about.' I have no idea if I will wrestle in that.

"I was just so excited to be here. I'm a member of AARP, I'm a single parent, and I have a female partner. I certainly never expected to be in anything like this at this stage of my life," she added.

As required by USA Wrestling, Rose was registered for the tournament under her legal name of Donna Rosen, not the surname Rose by which she has identified herself for the past decade. Her unexpected presence created a quiet buzz among her competitors even before she got on the mat. It is seldom that a woman appears in an event of this stature without racking up a considerable tournament record. Wrestlers who Googled the name "Donna Rosen" had no luck getting the scoop on the new girl in town.

Had they known, they could have checked the blog on her personal Web site ( and learned that after being out of the sport for nearly three decades, Rose returned to wrestling in 2006 in Golden Gate Wrestling Club's Memorial Day weekend tournament, then competed later that year in the Gay Games in Chicago, where she had no official opponents en route to her gold medal but did wrestle two impressive exhibitions.

Then nothing until Rose resumed training a few weeks ago to prepare for a return to the Gay Games.

"This shows that anyone from our community can compete with anybody at any level," Rose said after her tournament was over. "I just came here to win a match and I did that."

Impressively. She stepped into Basulto perfectly at the beginning of their match in the quarterfinals, securing an underarm spin that tossed Basulto to the mat, Rose following Basulto's right shoulder tight as glue to the mat and holding it there. For close to a minute Basulto arched her back with Rose on top of her, struggling to keep her left shoulder from touching down and ending the match. Then, with most of the fight in her opponent squelched, Rose spun around in front of Basulto to hook her arms and finish off the pin.

Rose could have been discouraged after losing the next two matches, the last one a quick pin she stumbled her way into and was berating herself for afterward, but in her fourth and final match she showed another flash of her former technical mastery that had her fellow Wrestlers WithOut Borders members in the stands riding a new high.

That match was a battle of the old – Rose was the oldest competitor in the entire tournament by decades – and youth. Karra Stratton, a silver medalist at last year's junior nationals, took the first period when Rose failed on repeated attempts at an underarm spin. That had Rose's cheering gallery urging her to try it again, but to secure the grip above Stratton's elbow rather than lower down on her forearm – a technical correction very much on her mind after her chat with Douglas in the corner between periods. After countering Stratton's first attempt at a takedown for a point, Rose nailed her underarm spin and had Stratton in danger of being pinned. But after holding her there for most of the period as she had earlier with Basulto, Rose was unable to maintain the position. After both wrestlers were on their feet, Stratton was able to expose Rose's shoulders for three points in the final two seconds, securing a 6-5 victory.

Rose trained for the tournament with Sunkist Kids in Arizona for several weeks. "They didn't really have a program for adults until I came in," she said.

About a week before the meet, she told Douglas about her transition a decade earlier after 40 years as a man. Reassuring her he would be in her corner for her matches and proved to be a stout supporter during the tournament, he said the surgery didn't matter when she was on the mat. "What matters is up here and here," he said, tapping her head and her heart.

Although there were the usual tensions that inevitably surround competitors at a high-profile tournament such as the open, Rose was treated well throughout. Warmly even by the end.

"After I wrestled the first match, the other wrestlers started to warm up a little more," she said. "A couple of them came up and wished me good luck."

Rose also got words of encouragement before her matches and congratulations afterward from San Francisco's Abraham "Alex" Ostrovskiy – a former Soviet national champion who coached GGWC in the 2002 Gay Games and was officiating on a neighboring mat during Rose's first match in Cleveland.

Now, the significance of that last sentence may not resonate with the uninitiated, but it is rife with significance for wrestlers. Ostrovskiy was a victim of discrimination when he was a wrestling star decades ago but not allowed to travel to foreign tournaments because government officials feared that as a Jew he would defect. After he emigrated to San Francisco about the same time Rosen was undergoing sex reassignment surgery, Ostrovskiy decided to coach GGWC in the 2002 Gay Games because he despised any form of discrimination in his sport.

Ostrovskiy has the highest rating for a mat official given by the international sanctioning body, and when you walk into a tournament with him, you are treated like a rock star even if people don't know you from Adam. Trust me, I know from personal experience.

And that underarm spin Rose was using? That's a move that Ostrovskiy had spent time teaching to GGWC wrestlers years earlier and they in turn worked on with her in 2006. So a technical karmic circuit was completed with Rose's victory Friday.

She was cheered on by three of us from Wrestlers WithOut Borders, in town to help the Cleveland Synergy Foundation stage a mini sports festival to promote this year's Gay Games in Cologne and the 2014 Games in Cleveland. I was there as chair of WWB. Greg Lines, whose WWB club San Diego Bulldogs will help Rosen continue to train for Cologne, and GGWC President Gene Dermody, who worked with Rosen after the 2002 Sydney Gay Games on the Gay Games transgender policies, were with me in the stands, front and center.  

"She made this weekend all about wrestling," said Lines. "I really enjoyed that. This weekend was special."

"The significance for me is the fact she did this by playing by the rules, right down the line," Dermody said. "She didn't make an issue of the rules; she respected them. It shows how you can deal with an issue that the governing bodies have tried to avoid. She's done it without fuss or fanfare.

"When she worked with me after Sydney, she totally made me see how transgender policy should be sports specific. She's shown how it works," Dermody added.

I asked Rose why she made her way back to wrestling after so long, and why she hadn't done it sooner.

"When you transition," she said, "there is a lot of pressure to disconnect from everything in your previous life. There was a lot of pressure to emphasize the 'feminine' in everything.

"But I simply love this sport. There is a special camaraderie in it. It's just something about wrestlers. I really missed that. That was what was so special about the Gay Games and the San Francisco tournament. You go into a major tournament and people are very guarded. But at the Games I felt welcome immediately."

Rose said she hopes to compete in San Francisco this year in the 25th annual Don Jung Memorial Tournament in May, and then there's the Gay Games in August.

"I've never been to Europe before," she said. "I figured this was the perfect chance to go."