“That feeling of fear, of discomfort, of not being sure that you can do it; means you are doing exactly what you need to do. Stare down that fear and take one step confidently into the unknown with the certainty of power within.”
When thinking of the epitome of strength, determination and grit, Erica Wiebe easily comes to mind. Growing up in Ontario, Erica developed an interest for wrestling in her teenage years. Although some regard wrestling as a male sport, that didn’t stop Erica from pursuing her passions and competing hard – shattering the stigma that a women’s place is on the sidelines, as opposed to on the mat.
With a laser focus on perfecting her craft, Erica did whatever it took to get herself to the top – even when that meant working two jobs, attending school full-time, and you know, training to compete at an international level. In 2016, Erica’s years of work, perseverance and blood, sweat and tears paid off when she won an Olympic Gold medal for wrestling at the Rio Olympic Summer Games.
But even after donning a gold medal around her neck, Erica still felt the pressure to prove herself – and often, her biggest opponent was herself. Over the years, Erica has worked hard at silencing her inner voice of doubt, and instead, use it to motivate her to conquer her biggest challenges. And when it comes to her critics, Erica has also adopted this mentality.
Women are accustomed to being scrutinized on their physical appearance, and unfortunately, the realm of high-performance sport is no exception. Instead of placing attention on the physical abilities of the body and the strength it can withstand, women are criticized for looking too muscular, or in some instances, not muscular enough – something Erica can attest to firsthand.
However, Erica has learned to feel empowered by her body, something she considers her greatest reward as a female wrestler. Now, she is using her experiences and talents to teach young girls how to push themselves out of their comfort zones, and become proud of their bodies and what they can endure, instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed.
In honour of Women’s Equality Day on August 26th, we’re celebrating women across the country who are not only bad ass, but who are helping to empower and lift up other women, creating progress towards gender equality and helping to break down the barriers that face women every day. We talked to Erica about what equality means to her, what keeps her motivated and how she keeps fighting the good fight – both on and off the mat.
ACE: Tell us about how you first got into wrestling. Were your friends and family supportive of your choice?
Erica Wiebe: “I remember hearing later that my mother was rather upset that I had decided to start wrestling. She didn't understand why her nice daughter would want to do a sport like wrestling, but my parents were extremely supportive all throughout my career. In grade 10, no one from my high school or wrestling club was planning on attending the Canadian Wrestling Championships in St Johns, NFLD, so my mother took it upon herself to plan our trip and give me the opportunity to wrestle the U16 nationals. I was an athletic, young optimistic kid who didn't know how to wrestle, but I knew how to compete and I went out there and won.”
ACE: When you first got into the sport, did you face any criticism from your male or female counterparts?
EW: “In wrestling in Canada, boys and girls train alongside one another and training partners are chosen based on a combination of size, strength and skill. I always wanted to compete against the most challenging opponents in practice. Throughout high school and university, I faced that stigma of the boys not wanting to wrestle a girl. My attitude has always been, ‘Okay, well wrestle me and show me that I'm not good enough to compete with you, and I won't ask again.’”
ACE: Was there ever a time where you wanted to give up on the sport because you felt you didn’t have the resources, support or opportunities to succeed in the same way other athletes did?
EW: “I think what it takes to survive in wrestling is a 'make it happen' attitude. I have been incredibly fortunate to have great mentors, training partners, friends and teammates along the way, but there were many times when it wasn't easy for a variety of reasons. Throughout my 20's, when I first moved to Calgary, I took a full-time course load, wrestled with the national team and university team, and worked two part-time jobs to make it work. It was challenging, but I made it work. I remember prepping for World's one year, when I had decided to spend less time working and more time focused on preparing my best. I secretly borrowed money from my sister to pay rent for a month in between cheques.”
“That ‘make do’ and self-sufficient attitude makes it hard sometimes as a sport to work for sponsorship money as individual athletes and as a national wrestling program. Wrestling isn't a high-profile sport – even though we are one of the most successful Summer Olympic Sports in Canada. Wrestling Canada doesn't have a sponsor, and this year, athletes will have to pay for our own uniforms. It is tougher and tougher for younger athletes in our sport to be successful because of the lack of funding – especially at the development levels.”
ACE: After you won a gold medal at the Olympics, did you feel like you still needed to prove yourself within the sport and as an athlete overall, or do you feel like the pressure was somewhat removed?
EW: “Ha ha, I felt like I had more to prove. Every day I feel like I have to prove myself worthy of calling myself an Olympic champion. In training, and at competitions, I often think people will watch me and find out my secret that I'm not as good as they think. That sense of doubt in some ways motivates me to work harder every day and to push beyond my limits, but it is also challenging. I constantly need to work on quieting that voice and reminding myself that I am enough.”
“Outside of my sport culture, in the 'real world' I have always faced questioning and sometimes bafflement when I tell people that I am a wrestler. They sometimes say, ‘A wrestler? You don't look like a wrestler.’ Maybe it’s because I'm not muscular enough or because I'm not tough enough looking. In some ways, after winning the Olympic Games, it was a validation because I could think to myself, ‘Well I may not look like a wrestler, but I am the best wrestler in the world, so that's got to mean something!’ Ha ha.”
“As women, we face this pressure to look a certain way in the world and the same is true in the world of high performance sport. The body becomes a tool through which we pursue our passion and earn our livelihood, scrutinized by a team of specialists, where data is accrued, and the body becomes this thing that we are judged by. I've always felt a little bit of shame about my body and how it looks. I wished I had biceps like my teammates, and I was long and lean like the track and field women we train alongside. But then, simultaneously, ultimately I make a conscious effort to adopt an “IDGAF” attitude. All I can control is how happy I feel, how hard I work, and how well I wrestle, and that's what I put my energy towards.”
ACE: You speak about a lot challenges but what would you say is your greatest reward?
EW: “The biggest reward is the feeling of empowerment I have in my body and in the person I have become. There's this saying by a great American wrestler, ‘Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy,’ and I truly believe that.”
“I do clinics all the time with young women (aged 10-15) and to get them out of the comfort zone of their own bodies and to realize their own power, agility and strength is so powerful. I have seen young girls not want to be piggy-backed because they don't feel comfortable with their body and it breaks my heart.”
ACE: What’s the one piece of advice you’d tell your younger self and why?
EW: “Be yourself. It will always be enough. Someone send this to me in an anonymous letter when I was 23. I wish I had received it earlier.”
ACE: What advice would you have for any girls or women interested in getting involved with wrestling?
EW: “That feeling of fear, of discomfort, of not being sure that you can do it; means you are doing exactly what you need to do. Stare down that fear and take one step confidently into the unknown with the certainty of power within.”
ACE: What is your proudest accomplishment (personal or professional) to date?
EW: “2018 has been a big year for me. I started a new job at Deloitte in a flexible work arrangement, I am representing Canada at the World Championships in October after injuries caused my 2017 season to derail, and I bought a house with my partner! My proudest accomplishment is finding my happiness and my centre and reminding myself to live it every day.”
ACE: What does equality mean to you and what do you think are the most fundamental steps to achieving it?
EW: “Equality is making sure everyone gets to the start line. Changes need to be made on a small scale in the way we (women and men) treat one another and stand up for one another, and with big changes to the way systems and structures are currently designed and maintained.”
ACE: Which women inspire you and why?
EW: “My teammates. My coaches. My friends. My co-workers. The kids I coach. Pretty much every woman and girl today who is making it through this challenging world we live in and who lifts up those around them by living their authentic selves. I'm pretty lucky to be surrounded by a strong fearless group of women who constantly challenge and inspire me.