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EL ALTO, Bolivia – A new generation of athletes is coming to one of the world's more colorful sporting spectacles: the fighting cholitas of Bolivia, who take to a wrestling ring in the traditional billowing skirts, bowler hats and leather shoes of Aymara women.
The sport — known by the English-derived name catchascan — has delighted foreign tourists and photographers for years while building a sense of pride among indigenous women. But the group of competitors has gradually dwindled over time to just seven.
Among the most famous is Reyna Torrez, the ring name of Leydi Huanca, who has entertained spectators for a dozen years, her moves inspired by Mexican wrestlers such as Rey Mysterio.
Now 29, Torrez is training a new cohort of wrestlers, ages 16 to 19, in hopes of keeping the sport alive.
"I love those leaps of Reyna, and it's a dream that she's teaching us," said 17-year-old Nieves Laura Tarqui, who wrestles as Nelly Pankarita, a last name that means "Little Flower" in Aymara.
Pankarita and the other trainees are still a year away from their full professional debuts while training in matches against the established athletes.
"It's hard to wrestle," said 19-year-old Noelia Gonzalez — aka Natalia Pepita. "You need a lot of bravery, strength and training to make a good fight. We fall and we hurt, but that doesn't matter because the public has fun."
As a match is about to start, the contenders peer into a mirror, apply makeup and perfume and then enter the ring dancing to folkloric music. This time it's Pepita taking on her teacher. And of course it doesn't start well.
As the audience chants "Pepita! Pepita!" the rookie finds herself paralyzed between the ropes as Torrez strangles her with her own pigtails. Then the tide turns. Pepita slips away, leads Torrez on a race around the ring and then uses a flying kick to the chest — a move Torrez taught her — to knock her down. Within minutes, Torrez is pinned to the floor and the public rises to applaud as Pepita pulls at her pigtails in emotion.
"The girls who want to do this sport have to have guts, will, because this is a sport that demands a lot of discipline," Torrez said.
About 50 young women are training at three schools to take up the sport, some at an institution known as Independent Wrestlers of Enormous Risk.
"Time is passing, and you have to make way for a new generation," said Benjamin Simonini, director of the school in the sprawling highlands city of El Alto, which has seen a boom in recent years and where the fighting cholitas have emerged as a tourist attraction.
Tatiana Monasterios of the city's tourist department said the shows "also assert the role of the Ayamara woman, showing her as enterprising, that she, too, can take part in a risky sport."