Wrestling, largely, is not something that evokes images of articulate, pretty young women. It is an intensely physical sport that, across the world in general and in India in particular, reeks of machismo and muscled-up men moving around languidly. The advent of woman wrestlers into public consciousness — especially following the success of the Phogat sisters, Geeta and Babita, and the movie inspired by them — only reinforces the belief that they are, in some way, less feminine.
That is until you meet Erica Wiebe. The reigning Olympic champion is everything a woman is supposed to be — tall, lithe and with a flawless skin — and nothing that a wrestler is presumed to be. As part of the Pro Wrestling League here, the blonde Canadian has been one of the most-recognised faces on television, helped partly by her ever-agitated presence near the ring as captain of the Mumbai Maharathis and the fact that she is one of a handful of wrestlers conversant with English.
Sitting down for an interview with Sportstar , the 5’ 9” Canadian can’t stop smiling and laughing while recounting her experiences as a wrestler. Erica also speaks of how she shifted from football and how she loves to shatter the misconceptions around women in the sport.
“My goal forever was to move it to university in the USA and play football (she prefers to call it soccer to make sure there is no ambiguity vis-a-vis American football) there. I wrote my SATs in the 11th, I was talking to universities for scholarships even as I was wrestling more and more since the 9th, so for those years I was juggling both. And then I made my first national team in wrestling and travelled to Europe for a competition and I was hooked.
“I had travelled a bit for football in North America but with wrestling I could go see the world. But most importantly, it was the sport itself — it’s so visceral, so intimate and physical, and yet it is so mentally tough and strategic. I was into it from Day One, but it took me some time to come to terms with the fact that maybe I could go a lot further in wrestling than football and I finally decided to take that risk and pursue my passion,” Erica says.
Travelling was also about experiences that only confirmed the general perception of looks and the kind of assumptions people make, and Erica loves breaking them. “There are always these misconceptions about what it is to be a wrestler. I keep getting these comments that I don’t look like a wrestler and I am always like, ‘I am an Olympic champion and I am the best wrestler in the world and this is what I look like, so get used to it’.
“In my first international competition, when we won the Junior Pan-American Games, we got this big trophy that we carried home. Walking through the airport with it, there was this little girl who she asked, ‘Are you Miss America?’ and I was like, ‘No, I am a wrestler’! She saw this tall, blonde girl and assumed it was a beauty pageant winner. Sometimes, it’s annoying because there are so many different ways to be a wrestler. But it feels good to shatter the misconceptions,” she laughs.
It is evident in the way Erica speaks about wrestling and the Olympics, and training for it all these years. Unlike many sportspersons, who prefer to let their sport do the talking or stick to talking only about sport, Erica loves to explain the process of becoming a champion. The mental and emotional part of it is as important for her as the physical, perhaps even more, she insists, and believes that results are both impossible and immaterial unless the focus remains firmly on the process. “It’s the Olympics, it’s not like anything else in the world — people crumble under the pressure, people are burdened by the expectations, distracted by the lights and the heights. It’s crazy — the people are the same, the athletes, the mats, the referees and officials — everything is the same and yet it is this massive stage, this big show that comes once in four years.
“Ranked in the top-three for the last four years I was THE medal expectation for Canada but there was this huge process I went through in preparing. When I set out on the mat, I did not think about the outcome but the process, simply thinking about wrestling my best. The thing is that everyone wants to win a medal; everyone is focussed on the outcome — it is there in the Pro Wrestling League here also. It’s a very result-oriented ideology.
“The funny thing about sport or life is that you have to think of the first step, and then the next, and so on to reach the outcome, not the result itself, to succeed. A lot of people make the mistake of being transfixed on getting a medal rather than on what you need to do to get there,” Erica says. She adds that she had been trying to bring the same here (at PWL) but admits it wasn’t easy.
That she went through personal losses and an emotional period between 2014 and 2016, including a split from her partner, only made it more difficult and Erica wells up talking about her struggles. She admits they only made her more determined to succeed at the Rio Olympics but not at the cost of losing her sanity.
“I actually went to London as a training partner with Team Canada and got to experience it all. I took mental note of every moment there, how the athletes prepare mentally and emotionally; I snuck up to the wrestling mats and felt them and they felt exactly the same as the ones I train on, and I made a promise to myself that I would be there in four years. I also went to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to support my ex-boyfriend. It’s the Olympics, it’s not like anything else in the world — people crumble under the pressure, people are burdened by the expectations, there are 10000 athletes there and they are all the best in the world.
“So I was lucky in Rio because even though I was competing for the first time, I had two previous Olympic experiences and I had been able to prepare myself for what was to come,” Erica says.
What followed was, in her words, the weirdest experience of her competitive career.
“I woke up and went to the stadium that day at the Olympics and just felt so alive and unburdend and I felt that I was already a champion. It was, basically, 3000 days of hard work for one day’s performance, and warming up, I couldn’t stop giggling. When I walked out to the mat, I was ready to battle, but in my mind I didn’t care if I won a medal or not. I just wanted to do my best, make no mistakes, be there for the whole six minutes. I knew if I did all those things I could be the best in the world, but I also knew that if I did all that and didn’t win a medal, it was still OK,” Erica explains.
All the craziness of the Olympics, she says, is being repeated here in the PWL. “I came with an open mind and it’s definitely surpassed any expectations I had. Being on a team with people from all over the world is amazing. It creates relationships beyond what you normally experience on the international circuit. I have grown as an athlete and as a person, it is unlike anything else,” gushes Erica, who is only the third Canadian to win gold in Olympic wrestling.
The one thing Erica wants to do here before returning home is to try traditional kushti on mud. The team (Mumbai Maharathis) trains at a local akhada and even though it has wrestling mats, Erica is keen to experience mud wrestling. “I haven’t done it ever on mud but I really want to do it. May be we will do it after the PWL gets over. I think it will be very different, and anyway who doesn’t like getting dirty in the mud,” signs off Erica with a laugh.
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