I landed into Mumbai at 3:30am. The streets were empty, it was dark, the air thick and humid but in general quiet, serene.
The scene a couple hours later was much different and my experience in general since that arrival has been anything but serene. The next day we had a press conference with all the major Indian news outlets and in between yawns I tried to convey how excited I was to be here.
That night at 10pm, I flew with the team owners to Delhi where we are stationed for the remainder of the league.
I am in India from Dec 30 - January 22nd wrestling in the Indian Pro Wrestling League for the Mumbai Maharathi. This is a true professional league complete with team owners, managers, and coaches. It is a huge production with millions of viewers across India (or so I'm told).
They have recruited some of the best wrestlers in the world and everyday we practice together in this tiny room in the basement of the hotel. Each team competes in dual meet against the others over the course of the 3 weeks and so everyone is on different schedules.
Each team consists four women's weights (48, 53, 58, 75) and five mens weights (57, 65, 70, 74, 97) on each team. On my team we have Carolina Hidalgo (COL) at 48kg, Jabraiyil Hasanov (AZE) Rio Bronze medallist at 74kg, Pavlo Olynyk (multiple times world medallist) at 97kg, and the rest are Indian wrestlers.
The days are relaxed and consist mostly of training, relaxing, I haven't been here long enough to get into a routine nor have I had the courage to explore beyond the hotel. We wrestled our first match yesterday against the Haryana Hammers.
Overall, everything has been an amazing experience so far. Hotel is nice, food is good, the training parters are amazing. Of course, there is a lot of stuff I would include on the list of "If I knew then what I know now" but I am learning something news everyday and trying to take it all in stride.
Nine years ago, I had moved across the country to chase after my big, crazy dream, I was wrestling at the University level club for the first time, and I was completely and utterly pointless. Literally.
I had not scored a single point in the past two months, I was sore in places I never knew existed, tired, worn out, and questioning everything I knew about myself. That feeling continued throughout my first season at the University of Calgary. I didn’t make the roster to wrestle at the Canada West and Canadian University Championships and everyday was a grind as I was pushed to my limits, mentally, physically, emotionally.
I had worked 10 hour days all July and August that summer to afford the move and I was still taking on massive student loans. I had left behind my friends and family to chase after this dream of being the best in the world in my sport. I loved wrestling but on this day, nine years ago, I was uncertain I could manage the demands of university classes, the distractions of first year residence life, and most importantly the grueling training that the sport of wrestling requires.
I was tired, sore, homesick and unsure of myself but every night for two hours I got to forget about everything and do what I loved; wrestle.
I moved to Calgary in the Fall of 2007, about 3 months before the 2008 Canadian Olympic Team Trials. There was a number of bodies in the wrestling room vying for one sport in each of the 4 weight classes at the Olympic Games. I was a young, fresh-faced rookie and I entered a room fraught with tensions as my teammates were preparing to compete against each other and the rest of Canada and earn the honour to represent Canada at the 2008 Olympic Games.
Failure is a natural part of the sport of wrestling. You get taken down continuously and it takes strength of body and mind to keep getting up and keep coming back. There are no cuts in the sport of wrestling. Whoever survives the training earns the right to be on the team but there are numerous “legends of the Fall” as we refer to them, who come out and can’t adapt to the constant testing of limits. I remember running up and down the stairs of the Olympic Oval one particular morning, and weighing the pros and cons of intentionally falling down the stairs; because that seemed like a better alternative than finishing the workout. I simply didn’t think my body could do it.
But those are the moments that come to define an individual.
I never threw myself down the stairs. I just kept moving one foot in front of the other. I got up when I got taken down. Covered in sweat, often with tears; but always upwards and onwards.
I got up every morning focused on what I could accomplish that day, on what my best effort would be. I didn’t quite understand at the time but I have slowly discovered, that whatever is my best effort on each day; is and will always be enough.
There is no secret formula. Fear, doubt, struggle, failure; they are all part of the secret to success, to true, deep, rattling in your bones joy. Without experiencing all those emotions, I wouldn’t have been able to stand tall on top of the Olympic podium and sing with pride the words of the Canadian anthem.
On July 21st 2016, 13 days before our flight left for Rio, I went into practice feeling those same feelings of fear, doubt, struggle, facing the very real possibility of failure. I had been pushed in the build up to the Olympic Games in a way I had never experienced. My coaches had promised they wouldn’t ask me to do anything they didn’t think I was capable of but there were many times when I didn’t think I could make it.
On that day, after another tough practice; my teammate, coach, and friend Carol Huynh shared with me her journal entry from this day 8 years prior. She had been one of the women I had been training alongside when I first moved to Calgary. I had seen her struggle and fail but continue to push forward. I had also woken up at 4am that Summer to watch her win Canada’s first Olympic Gold Medal ever in women’s wrestling.
She shared with me her journal entry about how much she was struggling that day and on one of my darkest moments, one of the most uncertain times in my life; I felt a glimmer of hope that it was going to be okay.
Because that same day, in my journal I wrote;
“I fear for the uncertainty of what is ahead. I am scared. I know I am a good wrestler but I am scared that on the day when it matters most, I will not be ready. I’m scared that I’ll be overcome with fears, nerves, anxiety with what is ahead of me,” I wrote down all these feelings and continued, “For me, ready means when I step on the mats, embracing these feelings and knowing that I’ve done everything I could and that I’m ready to go into battle and give it my all.”
When I woke up on August 18th, 2016, the day I compete at the Olympic Games, I already felt like a champion. I had done everything I could to prepare, I had pushed my limits, and spent every day pursuing excellence. I was never perfect and I will never be, but in my pursuit, I had given it my all and that had to be enough.
I was ready to stand tall and walk out onto the world stage and to let the joy and power of being myself course through my body and do what I love most.
We strive to be the best, to win, to stand on top of the podium; but those moments are so fleeting, so out of our control, so rare. We spend the majority of our lives in pursuit of our goals only. I spent roughly 3000 days training for the one day I competed at the Olympic Games.
So, can we not also be defined by each and every one of those days? Are we not defined by the accumulation of each and every day we spend in pursuit of our goals rather than the one day we achieve them? Winning can be fickle and tenuous. Instead of worrying about winning; make each day a day you wish to be defined by; and I guarantee you will be successful.
Apparently, not me.
I meet someone, out and about in the world and inevitably, they ask me what do you do? Then the awkward moment of telling someone I wrestle for a living begins...
More often than not the response that I get is infused with a mixture of disbelief, intimidation, awe, and confusion.. because quite often, they say something like; "well, you sure don't look like a wrestler..."
So what does a wrestler look like?
What is your idea of how an Olympic athlete should appear?
Why do we have these conceptions of what a female athlete must look like?
The conflicting images of the female and wrestler is something we have well, wrestled with, for many years. My identity as an athlete and woman is something I negotiate on a daily basis as we are increasingly inundated with constantly evolving conceptions of what the ideal female body should be.
These negotiations often occur in the back of my mind and yes, if you are waiting for me to get to the point, I struggle with how I look and how I feel about my body.
But in the same way that I struggle in the pursuit of excellence within my sport everyday, I overcome these challenges, expectations and pressures of societal expectations around body image by replacing the negative with positive and by focusing on what I can control.
The image of the ideal body has been distorted and altered to an unbearable degree within the media and increasingly on social media. The creation of #fitspo and the pornification of the athletic female body is increasingly problematic as the focus on athletic pursuits have shifted away from the sheer joy of movement and towards likes and shares and followers.
Mandy Bujold talks about
I'm white and heterosexual (among many other things) and I navigate a space as an elite Canadian athlete that is abundant with privilege.
The strongest metals are forged from the hottest fires.
It’s not the easy times that define a champion, it’s how you act in the face of adversity.
2015 has come to an end. It took me from Siberia to Spain and from heartbreak to happiness ultimately ending with me being one small step closer to realizing my childhood dreams.
In 2015, I reminded of the importance of excellence rather than success. To give you some back story, I went on a tear in the 2015 season and won seven international tournaments closing out the year with a 37-2 record which matched my successful 2014 season. But somewhere early in that journey I began wrestling not to lose… I was obsessed with success and I pulled off tight wins against some of the best in the world but ultimately I felt so unsatisfied and out of control of my own performance.
I was focused on success and I had lost my vision for excellence. These two are not the same thing. Excellence is something that is lasting and dependable and largely within a person’s control. Success, on the other hand, is perishable and is truly outside of our control. People who put excellence first have the patience to end up with success. I had put success first for a while and losing the 2015 Canadian National Championships was the first step in going back to the drawing board and deeply reflecting on what I want in this life and how much I truly cared about excellence on and off the mats above all else. The pursuit of excellence takes courage, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to the daily grind.
The next major step was watching the 2015 World Championships in Vegas. I finally was liberated to pursue excellence. Not sure why but watching from the bleachers was the final straw. I was ready for the next step which meant entering the Olympic Team Trials Preparation phase… We, the Dinos Women’s Wrestling sat down as a team of individuals and committed to one another to going through this process as one team. I sat down individually with my coaches and support staff here in Calgary and we committed to doing everything to prepare for each match. And I sat down with myself and committed to the journey. To waking up every morning hungry for more and willing to put it all on the line and to going to sleep every night happy with what I had done that day. The end result was that we left no stone unturned and I entered the day of the trials content with whatever was to happen that day.
Losing the Canadian National Championships was also a really cool (and harsh) way of realizing that the closest people around me didn’t care about my performance on the mats. I had defined myself by what I accomplished but for the most important people around me, winning or losing, they only care about me as a person, not my performance as a wrestler, and that was an incredible feeling. I am so blessed to be surrounded with love and support and I truly have the best friends and family. I wouldn’t do it without them. This support network includes my coaches, teammates, the IST staff, the Calgary Sport Institute staff, the Calgary and Ottawa wrestling community at large and my sponsors; John and the crew at KPMG, Nelson and his team at Genethix, Jason, Carissa, and the family at Main Dish/Fit Kitchen, Mike from Takedown, and my newest partnership, Grant and his good people from Nike Wrestling.
I am truly supported, supplemented, fed, shoed, and clothed by an incredible team of people and I CANNOT WAIT FOR WHAT 2016 HAS IN STORE!
Ps. If you are a fan and want to stay more closely updated, you can subscribe to my newsletter! Either send me your e-mail and/or sign up at the bottom of the Blog!
Rather than talk about the boring wrestling stuff, I’ve decided to write down some small anecdotes from each event! I am so lucky to have the opportunity to travel the world and represent Canada with some amazing people. Here are the off the mats highlights from the past year of international tournaments….
Nordhagen Classic Calgary, Canada
Christine Nordhagen puts on an incredible event every year and it was super fun hosting the Norwegians and Americans who attended this year! I was honoured to win the outstanding wrestler award and received a little wrestling charm necklace. Who knew they even made those!?
Ivan Yarygin Memorial Cup Krasnoyarsk, Russia, January
A small group of 6 national team athletes made the long trek to this forbidden land nestled deep in Siberia. Needless to say, Siberia is AMAZING! We stayed at a Holiday Inn and were wined and dined in a way I have never experienced before. The finale banquet was a highlight with a fine array of Russian delicacies and culture. I also won and was handed an envelope of 150,000 roubles all in 1000 rouble notes which was pretty cool!? I’m still waiting for the giant cheque prize though… That is really the only reason I’m doing this…. (Just kiddinggg)
Klippan Open Klippan, Sweden
This is our second year travelling to Sweden and this tiny town called Klippan is renowned for it’s wrestling and it’s blanket factory. The highlight was spending the week training with the Chinese national team who are these hilarious, fun, and super athletic women. We are housed in this beautiful mansion built in the 1600’s (and luckily renovated more recently than that…) and it is quite magical. The big event most days during the camp is walking to the gas station to get treats on the daily.
Olympia Open / German Grand Prix Olympia, Greece & Dormagen, Germany
We did a combined tour of Greece and Germany competing in Olympia first then heading to Germany for a mini training camp and competition in Dormagen. I stayed an extra week longer all by myself and did the big European camp in Hennef. SO thankful for my German and Hungarian wrestling friends who took care of me, especially my old Dinos teammate Vanessa Wilson.
The Greek tournament was set in Olympia and every day we walked past the historic site of Ancient Olympia. This was an unforgettable moment and truly exemplifies the enduring impact of sport throughout history.
The German coaches ran a typical German camp with every session outlined in an excel document and distributed at the beginning of the week. You gotta love their precision to detail.
Canada Cup Guelph, Canada
The Cubans and the Brazilians came to Canada Cup this year for a little pre-Pan American Games competition and camp and I had a blast training with the girls and watching the guys train with their shirts off…
Spanish Grand Prix Madrid, Spain
This tournament may go down in history as United World Wrestling’s longest tournament… we started the day at 9am and I wrestled my finals at midnight. There were over 500 athletes wrestling in Greco, and men’s and women’s Freestyle on only four mats! My secret to surviving the day was I spent most of the day lounging around in the air conditioned training room across the street (this isn’t my first rodeo…). We stayed for the camp in the blistering heat of Madrid and I spent a lot of time training with Guzel Manurova (a 2x Olympic Medallist and Kazahkstan Coach/Athlete).
The Spanish coaches ran a cool segmentation of wrestling blocks that were short and intense. Which may have been necessary in the 40 degree heat.
Watching the World Championships in Vegas
I had been toying with the idea of going to Worlds as a spectator for awhile, after all it was in Sin City… then when my best friend, Jasmine Mian was named as the 55kg representative for Canada I knew I had to be there. Going was the best decision ever because I sat and watched and I knew I could be among the best there. It ignited a fire deep within.
NYAC Open New York, USA
Once again, held at the iconic New York Athletic Club located right in Manhattan. I ended up cutting an extra kilo just because I didn’t want to leave the beautiful sauna overlooking central park! The tournament is well run but I will admit my highlight from this trip was the interactive theatre experience we attended called ‘Sleep No More’. It is a dark adaptation of MacBeth and is set in the old historic McKittrick Hotel … you essentially wander in and out of rooms following various storylines and have your mind blown. Satan Blood orgies anyone??
Canadian Team Trials Strathcona County, Canada
We arrived into Strathcona County on the Wednesday afternoon and I didn’t wrestle until Saturday at noon. Needless to say there was a whole lot of Netflix and chill. I looked forward to the ritualistic saunter over to Starbucks for breakfast with Breanne and Jasmine every morning. We would just sit there for a couple hours, sip our coffees, discuss the problems of the day and secretly convince ourselves that this vibrating tension in our bodies was normal. On the day of competition I found it very difficult to keep my breakfast down… I was nervous but I felt as if the outcome was already written. Day of competition did go as planned and I couldn’t imagine a better way to cap off this year.
As September looms closer and closer and Summer edges further and further away, I am reminded about my move to Calgary and the path I have been steadily marching on ever since I showed up to this beautiful city. Eight years ago I moved to Calgary and was thrown immediately into an intense training environment unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was the Fall of 2007 and the senior women's team was gearing up for the 2008 Olympic Trials. The coaches wanted so fresh energy in the room and I was asked to step in (whilst engaging in Frosh Week at U of C) and be an extra body. The following months I quickly adapted to an entirely new level of intensity in the wrestling room and despite not scoring a point for the first couple months I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed the process. I didn't attend the trials but I was there on that journey and I remember vividly waking up at 3am that following August to watch my teammate Carol Huynh win a gold medal.
Fast Forward>> Four years later and this time it was Fall 2011. I was finishing up my Degree of Kinesiology and prepping for my own chance to step up and represent Canada at the Olympic Games. I was still young at the time and was ranked 4th in Canada going into the trials. I was familiar with the process but this time I was experiencing it with a heightened level of pressure and personal expectation. It was an interesting experience with wrestling one of my main competitors in the room everyday. Surprisingly, despite the violent intimacy of our sport we kept things civil and pushed one another towards greatness. I came up short at the 2011 Olympic Trials but was honoured to be selected as a training partner and I travelled to London and soaked up every second of my Olympic experience knowing that this opportunity will come again and four years which seemed like an eternity at the time would pass by in the blink of an eye.
And so, over the last four years it has passed by, my memories are organized into sporadic spurts of time, moments of joy and the occasional but most deeply resonating moments of struggle. Especially this past year.
But it seems that September is now slowly creeping upon us and we will once again start this crusade towards December 4th,the Canadian Olympic Team Wrestling Trials. Only one person goes per weight class and from this perspective another four years now seems like a long time to wait. It is just over three months until I step onto the mats and I am more excited than ever about this last leg of the journey.
So many things have changed over the past eight years but the team I will go through this journey with remains the same and (although I'm now slightly more mature and less prone to making bad life choices) I remain my crazy, going after it with everything I got self.
Today in the spirit of this reflection I will end with the quote, "the only time you should look back is to see how far you've come".
Well today I wrestled in the finals of the German Grand Prix and had a convincng win against Estonia 5-1. This is the athlete who I lost to at the World Championships last year.
It was tough preparing to stand across from her once again, to relive that heartbreak especially with some fresh, uprepared-for winds in this road.
Last week in Greece I still didn't quite have my head screwed on right and I left my silver medal in the room when we packed up and left the Olympic Academy dorms where we were staying.
Everything about the trip had been picturesque and perfect. We would run everyday on the road beside the ancient Olympic track. It doesnt get much better than that. But I stepped onto the mats and I still didnt quite have it.
For so long I had been so unsastisfied with my wrestling. I remember when I won the University World Championships I had to force myself to smile because I was upset with my performance.
One thing I am working on this trip and especially this past weekend, is to remember to smile and to rejoice in each moment.
We had a two day tournament in Germany and so I weighed in on Friday and saw my draw that night. I had picked #2 which meant i was at the top of the bracket; with the other two Russians, and a whole whack of other tough girls from Eastern Europe. For some reason a lot of the good heavyweights come from Eastern Europe (and no, unfortunately they do not all have unibrows. Most are quite awesome people). I ended up wrestling the two Russians again in he quarter and semi-finals and wrestled with some spunk I had been missing for awhile. I had two big 4-point takedowns in my semi-final that I was pretty proud of!
This set me up for a final the next day. The one major problem with being a heavyweight wrestler is that my final is always last so I miss so many exciting finals but don't get my wrong, I do prefer to participate rather than observe.
I was so nervous heading into that match that I mustve done a hundred sprints to try to loosen up my boody. I wrestled a sharp tactical match at the beginning and built off an early lead.
I finished the match trying to brush away the dissapointment of not executing my game plan as well as I would have liked. I'm still trying to find that fine balance between always being hungry for more and being confident in my abilities and just going after it without any fear.
It is a long road ahead and I am continually moving forward, stumbling everyonce in a while, but always progressing towards my goal.
That work starts tomorrow!! I have chosen to stay in Germany for a couple days extra and take in the training camp in Hennef. It is a great camp with over 90 female wrestlers so I will have lots of fresh meat to work with. Unfortunately I am the only Canadian who is staying...Now you know why this blog post is so long...
This also means I will most likely write an update sooner rather than later in my boredom...
I have already finished off the stash of Milka chocolate bars that were supposed to get me through the week... What to do next?!
A select group of the Canadian national team gathered together last week in Montreal for our annual TOPS camp. It is an off-mat camp where we do a whole whack of physiological testing, in-class information sessions, as well as get in a little team bonding away from the focused, intensive atmosphere of camps and competitions.
I was in a very different space this year compared to the past TOPS camps as I am not preparing for the Pan Am Games nor the World Championships later on this Summer.
I was apprehensive walking into camp this year, still coming to terms with this new position and still trying to find the silver lining.
At the end of the week however, I walked away rejuvenated and with a new intentionality leading into the next couple months.
At the end of the week we got the results back of our physiological testing and we were introduced to a new technical analysis system we will be using. We are continually moving forward as a National Team to address all the small gaps that together can make the difference.
I am so excited by the gaps in my wrestling, on and off the mats, because it gives me a new direction to focus in on and I have already developed into some short term goals I want to accomplish.
Over the long term, this Summer schedule will allow me to address all the areas in which I need to improve and to be ready to wrestle how I want to wrestle in December, at the Canadian Olympic team selection tournament which will be held in Strathcona just outside of Edmonton, Canada.
In one week, I head off to Greece for the first international tournament of the Summer where I will compete on the historic grounds where my beautiful sport all began in Olympia. We then head to Germany where we will be training for a week and then competing at the Dormagen Grand Prix. I have opted to stay an extra week longer after the tournament to get in another week of training camp in beautiful Hennef. a sportschule just outside of Cologne, Germany.
I have been waiting to post here as I slowly tried to find a way to process what happened. I thought maybe after a couple days or perhaps a week, I would be able to articulate what happened. Clearly that's not the case. It has now been twelve days since I competed at the Canadian National Championships, coming second, and all the emotions are still there.
Don't get me wrong I am able to keep things in perspective and can function like a normal human being 99% of my day but that is the cruelty of sport sometimes when you give it you all and come up short when it all counts. That's why I do what I do to put it all on the line...
I had a small weight category at the nationals and had what would be my toughest opponent early on in the day. I had a great preparation leading up into the nationals and was so incredibly well supported by my coaches, teammates, friends, and family. But when I stepped onto the mats that morning, I just didn't have it. I didn't wrestle the way I needed to in order to win and I came up short.
Although I will not be competing at the Pan Am Games in July nor the World Championships in September, I will still be training and competing internationally this summer and I am still committed to becoming the best.
This past weekend I had the privilege of competing at the Ivan Yarguin International Tournament in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. This event is touted as being the "world's toughest tournament" because of the Russians dominance on the international scene. Instead of only having to beat one Russian enroute to victory, there is always more than a handful in each weight, all of whom who are top calibre competitors.
In international tournaments, we draw numbers at weigh-ins to decide the order of the bracket. I drew number 10 which slotted me in to face the number one russian, Ekaterina Bukina first match! Last time I was competing in Russia at the 2013 Universiade Games in Kazan I also wrestled her first match! That time I lost and ended up winning a bronze medal for Canada. Two years later, we had wrestled a couple more times, each taking a win off the other, but the hard work is really paying off...
I went into the match confident and poised knowing what I needed to execute technically and sticking to my game plan tactically. I forced her to make some errors early on and caught her on a counter-attack, putting her to her back with 15 seconds left in the first period. I sneaked a peek at the clock and knew this would be my chance to put her away. Nothing sounds more blissful than haring the referee's hand smackdown on the match signalling PIN!
First one down... and on to the next.
En route to the finals I wrestled another Russian and a Belarussian, before facing the number two Russian, Alena Starodubsteva in the finals. I have never wrestled this opponent before and I was excited to match up with her for the big finale!! And man, did I ever feel the anticipation. The whole day was very long... with only three matches and huge weight classes, I spent most of the day relaxing in the warm training room just a 2 minute walk from the competition area. I don't like to watch too much wrestling on the day I am competing as I like to stay focused on what I'm there to do... So I listened to music, hung out with the girls, and watched the American doctor drain Michelle's ear on the side of the training mats.... (Yuck!)
Leading into the finals, there were repechage matches and intermissions in between every final with rhythmic gymnastics performances! The finals started at 6pm but I didn't step onto the mats to compete till around 7:45pm. It's an intricate dance knowing just when is the right time to start warming up so that you're ready to go and not too stale.
I stepped onto the mats in front of the big crowd at the Ivan Yarguin Wrestling Palace and this is the reason I train so hard. So that I can step out onto the mats and put it all on the line with zero regrets. I stuck to my same game plan as I had all day, being offensive with my hands and dictating the pace and capitalizing on her mistakes.
In the last minute, I took over the lead and weathered an onslaught of attacks, defending hard and staying in good body position. After six minutes, the referee blew the whistle and I won a close match 2-1. He raised my hand but I was so disappointed!!!
I wanted so much more.
Coach Leigh Vierling was ecstatic in the corner and couldn't help but feel proud of my effort and tenacity but as he said, we are just scratching the surface. I always want more and this is definitely a reminder for me of how I want to feel when I wrestle and what I want to make happen.
I am heading off to Sweden next weekend to compete again at the Klippan Open and am once again stoked for this opportunity to start afresh!! We will be having a training camp beforehand with the Chinese national team and I cannot wait to get my hands on some fresh meat!
I'll keep you updated on that, till then, Erica
Erica Wiebe is a Canadian freestyle wrestler and Bachelor of Arts student at the University of Calgary. Her passion for wrestling and writing combine in the words of this blog, sprinkled with a strong opinion on certain matters and a hint of feminist thrown in for good measure.