For years now, Patricia Miranda has heard the same response when she tells people she is a wrestler. "They say, 'Do you do that in oil? Or mud?'" Miranda said, shaking her head.

She has put up with such comments for more than a decade, helping to create an environment in which such women as Ali Bernard can field more-enlightened questions. Miranda, bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics at 105.5 pounds, will be trying to return to the Summer Games when the U.S. Olympic trials for wrestling are held this weekend in Las Vegas. Bernard, of New Ulm, will pursue her first berth on the U.S. team.

Bernard, 22, has charged through the doors that have opened in her sport.

Unlike many female wrestlers who came before her, she earned a scholarship to compete on a college women's team, and she found support and encouragement while wrestling on her high school boys' team. She enters the trials as a surprise national champion at 158.5 pounds, ready to lend further legitimacy to a sport still seen largely as male-only territory.

"I've been lucky, I guess," said Bernard, the trials' top seed in her weight class. "New Ulm was an ideal little town to be a female wrestler in. Most everyone was real supportive of me, and I've had really good coaching all through high school and college.

"Right after 2004, I realized this was going to be a peak year for me. I've worked really, really hard for this."

More girls involved in the sport

Women's wrestling will make its second appearance as an Olympic medal sport in Beijing. In 2007, 5,048 girls participated in U.S. high school wrestling. That's more than twice as many as in 1999-2000.

While inclusion in the Olympics has boosted the numbers of girls involved in the sport, opportunities still lag at the college level. Miranda competed for the men's team at Stanford, and the trailblazing Minnesota-Morris women's team was discontinued for budgetary reasons in 2005.

Bernard found the ideal situation in Canada, where she was recruited to wrestle for the University of Regina. She followed her brother, Andy -- the only boy among the five Bernard children -- into wrestling when she was 12. Strong, flexible and technically proficient, she wrestled for the boys' team in New Ulm and in age-group tournaments around the country.

A two-time junior world champion, Bernard was named the 2004 girls high school wrestler of the year and received a scholarship from Regina coach Leo McGee.

"I played softball and volleyball, but wrestling is such an addicting sport," said Bernard, who has won three Canadian national college championships. "It's so competitive, so individual, I just loved it. And it's been great to be in Canada, where women's wrestling is much more developed. It's been a great atmosphere."

Clearing her mind for big year

Bernard took last summer off to revitalize herself before the Olympic year. She worked at South Dakota's Custer State Park as a campground attendant, and the time in the great outdoors cleared her mind for the most important season of her career.

After piling up experience in tournaments all over the world, she upset veteran Katie Downing to win the national title at 158.5 pounds in April. That allowed her to automatically advance to Friday's finals at the trials. She will wrestle the winner of the 10-woman challenge tournament in a best-of-three series for the right to go to Beijing.

One barometer of how far her sport has come can be found in her competition. Bernard has been ranked fourth most of this year behind No. 1 Kristie Marano, a two-time world champion; second-ranked Stephany Lee, a Pan Am and world university champion; and No. 3 Iris Smith, the 2005 world champ. The weight class promises to be one of the toughest among the four that will be contested at the trials.

The other measuring stick: No one asks Bernard whether she prefers oil or mud. "I think our sport has come a long way, and that's exciting," she said. "We're seeing more acceptance and more girls getting involved.

"Last time at the trials, I went in to have fun. This time, I'm ready."

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com