FIGHTING FOR HER : ERICA WIEBE'S MISSION TO EMPOWER YOUNG WOMEN THROUGH SPORT
Monday, January 23, 2017.
It’s gloomy. Foggy. Monday. It’s as if the weather is also trying to piece together what went down in the last four days but can’t commit to a final thought just as yet so it provides the city with any and all shades of gray –open to interpretation, free of judgment.
We know that Donald Trump is the President of the United States, now running one of the most powerful countries in the world. Although we are in Canada, you have your feelings towards it. We also know that women are out-of-this-world. Strong. Unapologetic. Resilient. Rock Stars. It’s Monday. The Monday after Saturday’s epic Women’s March. By now, you’ve seen the pictures. You’ve read the numbers. You’ve watched the speeches.You’ve felt the wave --the sense of urgency to do something. Monday feels different. You are up earlier than usual. You are up with purpose -- a sense of duty.
If you have a daughter and decided that she should know about what happened over the weekend, you have probably given thought to what kind of conversations she may be having at school the following week. How does she view herself? Does she feel unstoppable? Supported? The Monday after.
For 12 young women at West Humber Collegiate Institute, they may not have had a chance to answer all of the above in depth with their parents that morning. Why? An 8:00 a.m. start to wrestling practice can leave you a bit pressed for time.
Two girls had already begun their bout. The rest of the team gathered around, cheering them on. Routine practice. Well, aside from the three cameras and pack of unfamiliar faces standing in the corner of the gym jotting down notes and taking pictures. They remained focused. True professionals in the making. So focused, that they didn’t even realize Canadian Olympic Gold Medallist, Erica Wiebe had now joined the circle. Applauding. Coaching. Not too long ago, she was here.
The smiles turned into screams once she revealed why she was there. The West Humber C.I. girls team was one of 13 recipients of the Playtex Play On Grant. A program, offering up to $50,000 in grants to girls’ sports teams all across Canada, empowering young females to pursue their athletic goals.
“Every little bit helps in terms of keeping women involved in sport – especially at this age.” Wiebe said, “There is so much recognition of boys’ sports and it’s girls that need that (extra) encouragement to stay involved because there are so many things outside of the sport that pull them away.”
Just two years ago, a West Humber all-female wrestling team did not exist. There was a co-ed group with just one girl on it. As more girls were showing interest, the team didn't have enough funding. They would have to do without singlets and proper footwear, wearing their regular gym uniform. Brea Rodgers, the athlete that applied for the grant, decided that would have to change if she and her peers wanted to take the sport seriously.
“I couldn't believe it! The girls are very excited,” Rodgers said. “It’s such an amazing sport to take part in.”
You could feel excitement bouncing off the walls of the gym. Young, yet determined girls, eager to learn from one of the best about a sport they’ve grown to love. Asking. Listening. Exchanging.
Wiebe was around the same age when she too discovered her passion for wrestling: “In grade 7 and 8, I was exposed to wrestling in gym class. There was a wrestling team in grade 8. I wanted to try out for that team, but girls weren’t allowed on the team that year. I knew in grade 9 there was an established co-ed team, so I waited."
When the moment arrived, she knew she didn't want to try it alone.
“I recruited three of my best girlfriends, and I was like, 'we’re trying out for wrestling!'”.
“My best friend – she stayed with me that whole season, and it gave me that confidence.”
Eventually, the two parted ways in interest -- but never in support for one another.
“The following year, I was the only girl on the team. My best friend didn’t want to come and be my training dummy anymore,“ she joked, “but you know I loved the sport, and I loved how it made me feel and I never once questioned being fierce and what I wanted to do.“
After all, it was high school. A time when there are a lot of pressures and influences. A time, that has proved to be pivotal in shaping how a young woman views herself and her place in society. Deciding to play a sport that some—still to this day, believe has no place for girls to take part in, Wiebe quickly understood how important it was to silence all of the unrealistic ideals that society likes to whisper into your ear from time to time.
“I think it takes a lot to walk out on the mat alone in a spandex suit. For me, I had to make a choice early on. I remember the first time I had to put on my singlet, and it's like this shiny red spandex outfit, and it's not the most flattering cut that’s for sure. I was always the biggest weight class in wrestling as well. I put it on, and I had to look at my friend who was like 20 pounds lighter than me and I had to make a choice. If I wanted to do something that I loved, I had to choose that I was okay with the way I looked and I was going to focus on how I felt and not how other people saw me.”
That inner confidence she says has been the driving force for her success thus far. The same spirit she carries with her on and off the mat. “I have to make a choice that today is going to be a day that I feel confident, be myself and be enough that day.”
Two days after the Women’s March, this is the kind of energy you want to be around. An Olympic Wrestler, Wiebe knows the feeling of being held in lesser regard because she is a woman all too well.
“Sometimes I doubt my abilities, and you have to quiet that voice and remind yourself that just because I’m in a women's sport, that doesn’t make it any less valuable. That’s something that I struggle with. It’s 2017, and we still have these battles – on the playing field, in the courtrooms on the streets.There’s a renewed need every single year to have these battles, and I hope that maybe in 20 years, we’re not going to have them.”
Until then, she has made it her mission to empower and connect with as many young athletes as she can.
“That’s why I'm trying to encourage these women today. Fight for the right to play, fight for equality, fight for the right to be yourself. “
At an age when they are so impressionable, having that kind of support and motivation means the world.
Environment matters. Being where you are celebrated also helps. During the first weeks of 2017, Wiebe joined a pro wrestling league in India. Selected in an auction two weeks before the competition began, she was one of the event's highest-paid athletes.
Each team was made up of nine wrestlers. A blend of women and men, half foreign the other half of Indian descent. It was the Canadian who was named the captain of her squad, leading them into a packed house of wild fans every single night: “It was pretty cool to see that they chose to celebrate women in sport in that country. To be a part of that movement, was an incredible feeling.”
It was the first time Wiebe had competed since winning gold in Rio. A feat that sure put a target on her back in India.
“Now, I was competing as an Olympic champion, and everybody wants to beat an Olympic champion.”
She didn’t let them.
Back in North America, the chatter of the Canadian one day joining the WWE continues. Wiebe admits that there may be some interest there in the future. No, they are not looking for the next Trish Stratus. What stood out to her in their pitch was that they wanted Erica for Erica. No altering. No tweaking. No trying to fit her into any mold that isn’t that of her own.
“They recognize that they need to change that way that they are presenting women and representing women in sport. They want to bring in legitimate athletes and revolutionize the way that they are promoting the sport. The WWE is such a cultural phenomenon. It is a huge platform to have conversations such as this.That's what excites me about it .”
While we’re all looking ahead to the ground she will break if she does, in fact, decide to take them up on their offer, Wiebe has her eyes set on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“2020 is on my mind. Four years is a long time. I thought that after the (2016) Summer Games my life would go back to normal. It's something that I’ll have to adjust to.”
She recognizes that the hype and outside expectations may have heightened, but one thing has and will always remain constant.
“I realized early on that the person that I am that won gold at the Olympic Games is the same person that I am today. I make the same mistakes, and I don’t always do the right thing, but at the end of the day, I always work hard. I always know that what I have to give is enough and that kind of mentality is what allowed me to step out on the mats on August 18th at the Olympics and feel like a champion before I had even wrestled one match.”
For 12 young women at West Humber Collegiate Institute, they may not have had a chance to answer those questions in depth with their parents that morning. Instead, they will bring home three affirmations: I am enough; I will not be stopped; My " yes" is the only one in the room that matters.
After you've left a conversation with a woman like Erica Wiebe, who shuts people up daily, how can you not feel that way?
As you head out of West Humber Collegiate Institute gymnasium, on the right is a clear cabinet filled with athletic trophies and pictures from years past. All boys.
That will change.