“First of all, thank you.”
That’s how Sarah Hildebrandt began her answer as I interviewed her following a dominant performance in the women’s freestyle 53kg. final. When I say dominant, I mean it.
Her opponent, Betzabeth Arguello of Venezuela, hardly lasted a minute on the mat. Hildebrandt sized her up, took her down, and gator rolled her four consecutive times to win the gold. At times during the roll, Hildebrandt only had to use one hand to keep her opponent wrapped up. It was the clearest display of superiority I had ever seen on a wrestling mat. And this was the gold medal match, no less.
She was riding high following one of the more impressive and convincing victories I had ever seen, and her priority was to thank me for showing attention to her sport. That’s when it struck me: while it was a tremendous feat for me to witness, so much of the world will never even know it happened.
Had a man dropped a dominant move like that in an international wrestling competition, the crowd would have erupted. He would have undoubtedly been featured on SportsCenter. Who knows? Maybe the UFC of WWE would come calling, looking to capitalize from his 15 minutes of fame.
Instead, in an arena that was barely half filled, Hildebrandt executed her devastating move to the tune of indistinct murmuring from the crowd. The applause following the end of the match came solely from United States fans and wrestlers in attendance. There was more noise for the men’s Greco-Roman bronze medal match later in the day.
Since the concept of women in wrestling was first floated, it has been scoffed at. Wrestling was well-established as a “man’s” sport and the world wanted it to remain that way. There are whispers and finger pointing when a female competes against the males in high schools.
Women aren’t meant to be strong. Women aren’t meant to be physical. Women aren’t meant to be intimidating. Women aren’t meant to be dominant.
The United States wrestling trio of Hildebrandt, Whitney Conder and Jenna Burkert are changing that narrative. With their performances on Thursday, they proved that women in wrestling can be all of that and more.
Conder showed patience in her dominance. Her opponent, Yusneylis Guzman of Cuba, took Conder the distance in their match. Conder won the gold in the 50kg. final in a 10-2 decision thanks to her ability to sit back and wait. Every time Guzman made a lunge at her, Conder was ready with a sprawl or a quick reversal. Guzman could hardly get Conder on the mat because she was smart.
Burkert was able to lose with grace. Her opponent in the 57kg. final, Lissette Antes of Ecuador, played dirty. She pulled Burkert’s hair and gouged her eyes. Instead of retaliating, Burkert showed the maturity to fight on. Though she lost in a 2-1 decision, she set a great example for girls back home to keep their cool, even when things aren’t fair. A silver medal won with integrity is better than a gold won maliciously.
Then there is Hildebrandt. The superstar. She just made it look so easy. Her opponent was completely helpless as she wrapped up and rolled. It was a culmination of years of training a preparation. She is a shining example of what a strong, empowered woman looks like.
And hardly anyone saw them.
The road to notoriety and respect will be a long one. But Thursday was proof that the road exists. Strong performances at international events like the Pan American Games will add to the conversation. The upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan will also feature women’s freestyle wrestling. Depending on how they perform at the World Championships, any of these three could qualify. Tune in. Get behind something that truly deserves your respect.
By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_