Part 3 of 4: Gaining strength mentally

Female wrestler finds strength in her father’s voice
Tuesday, August 5, 2008 | 4:00 p.m. CDT
Missouri Valley College wrestler Amberlee Ebert signs autographs during the Dave Schultz Memorial Invitational in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The buzzer blares. Everyone knows who won this wrestling match.

Except for the winner.

Wrestling glossary

DUAL: When two teams compete for the ultimate victory.

MATCH: When the contestants oppose each other to earn points.

PIN: Holding the opponent on his or her back with one or both shoulders touching the mat for two seconds. It determines the winner of the match, awarding a team six points.

TAKE DOWN: Placing and controlling the opponent on the mat earns two points.

ESCAPE: Getting out of or reaching a neutral position from a take down earns one point.

REVERSAL: Gaining control of your opponent from a submissive position earns two points.

WEIGH-IN: The official record of a wrestler's weight at the beginning of a match to guarantee he or she can compete fairly in his or her weight class.

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"Is it me?" Amberlee Ebert mouths to the Missouri Valley College bench.

The cheering transforms the Valley sophomore on this evening in late January in Marshall. She is glowing. Her blue eyes radiate. She breaks from a determined glare into a gleaming smile, gives her opponent a perfunctory handshake and dashes off the mat.

The loser, Ashley Sword, slinks away and rejoins the Oklahoma City University team. The veteran, nicknamed "Mama Sword" by her teammates, has lost to her younger opponent.

The two switched roles from their first match two weeks earlier. Sword dominated Ebert at a tournament in Iowa, not yielding a point. But their battle hasn't ended. They will face each other three more times this season.

Wrestling not only punishes the body; It also toys with the head. Ebert, 19, is talented and tough. But her nerves can cost her more in a match than any tactical error. Doubt can overwhelm her, especially when she faces someone as experienced and confident as the 24-year-old Sword.

Ebert's teammates swarm to congratulate her. Samantha Schuman points to Ebert's head and tells her, "It's all up there."

A voice resonates within Ebert.

It pushed her when she was young. It now contests her continual doubt.

"I know you can do this," it says. "I've seen it."

The voice belongs to Bob Ebert, Amberlee's father. He knows his daughter is gifted. He saw her talent when she first started the sport in Reedsville, Wis. Although he cannot attend all of her matches now, his words have stayed with her.

"That's the only voice I heard for how many years," Amberlee Ebert said, "so I can always hear him encouraging me and telling me to go on because he knows I'm a mental head case sometimes."

The voice is part of Ebert's story. The affirmation appears when she tells it, drowning out the negativity.

Ebert started wrestling in third grade, competing in tournaments along with her younger brother, Austin. The two accumulated medals for their homemade plaques and pins for their hats.

But every year, she thought, would be her last.

Her father suggested otherwise. "You can do what you want, but, look, you're doing so good. Why don't we try just one more year, see how you do?" he would say.

She agreed, but was also devoted to other activities. She took tap dancing, ballet and jazz for 11 years and played softball and ran track in high school.

But she knew what she excelled in. Wrestling brought victories and recognition. Her father showed her the newspaper clippings. "None of your friends have this. Isn't that good? Isn't that good seeing that you're an individual doing your own thing?" he asked her.

When she was a junior in high school, Amberlee Ebert started competing against girls. She placed third in the 152-pound weight class in her first tournament, the high school national championships. "Wow. That's what I wanted to know - how you would do against the nation," Bob Ebert said.

The victories piled up. "You know, you are really good. You're not just doing this for fun," her father kept telling her.

Success followed Ebert to Valley. Last year, she won the 67-kilogram (147.5-pound) title at the Pan Am Junior World Championships in Venezuela.

When Ebert takes the mat, her father is never far. The two talk on the phone before and after every match. If she can't reach him before a bout, she listens to his phone messages over and over again. "Who wants this? I know you want this. How hard do you work every day?" the messages say.

Her voice instantly gives away the outcome afterward to her father. "I'll be real excited or be like, ‘Oh, Dad, I'm so sorry,'" she said.

But the most intimate moment occurs minutes before each match. Ebert doesn't jump rope or move around like most wrestlers. Her mind, not her body, warms up.

Ebert peers into the distance. Her pale face starts to flush. Her father enters her thoughts. His voice tries to subdue any doubt.

"I pray and then I just think, ‘Do you really want this? And how would it feel if you won it?' I try to think what my dad would say if I won," Ebert said. "I always try to think positive because if one, little negative thing happens, it will bust everything out."

Negativity overcame Ebert before her first match against Sword in Iowa at the start of the season. She heard rumblings from her teammates that Sword was annoyed and talking about her, saying she was better than Ebert. But the individual preseason wrestling rankings said otherwise.

Ebert was ranked ahead of Sword in the 67-kilogram weight class in that poll. But when the USA Wrestling national women's rankings were released three weeks later, Sword was ahead of Ebert. The OCU wrestler felt vindicated.

"I was like ‘OK, so now we have the BCS of women's wrestling,'" Sword said, referring to the Bowl Championship Series, the controversial system that determines the national champion in college football. "That's exactly how it felt."

Sword is an experienced veteran in collegiate wrestling. She trained for more than four years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. But without any club sponsorship, she decided to join OCU's inaugural women's wrestling team last fall.

Sword's grumblings psyched Ebert out in Iowa. Sword won easily that day, preying on Ebert's weakness - her neck. She latched onto it repeatedly. Ebert was helpless.

"I've never had anybody do that to me over and over and get me every time," Ebert said.

But Ebert defended her home turf with a close victory in Marshall. Their rivalry will continue on neutral ground.


• • •


It's an unseasonably warm February weekend in Colorado Springs, Colo. But wrestlers from around the world are stuck inside a noisy gymnasium festooned with flags. They are competing in the Dave Schultz Memorial Tournament at the Olympic Training Center.

Some of Valley's most talented wrestlers - Ebert, Samantha Fee and Angelee Homma - have made the trip to take on international competition. Some of the top Americans, including former Valley wrestler Stephany Lee, are also participating. So is Sword.

Many athletes such as Lee are training at the OTC in preparation for the Olympics. They are aiming to peak first in June, when the Olympic Trials take place. Added in 2004, women's wrestling is one of the newest Olympic events.

Only four U.S. wrestlers will travel to Beijing in August. Although there are seven international weight classes, only four are contested in the Olympics because the number of medals awarded in the Games is limited.

The national team has invited Ebert to train at the OTC, but she is content to stay in school for the moment. The competition with Sword is grueling enough.

The two meet in the first round. Ebert squeaks by her rival and ends up taking third. After receiving her medal, she finds a quiet place to call her father.


• • •


One week later, on its way to OCU, the Valley wrestling team is lost in rainy, cold Oklahoma City. Wrestlers have been munching on Chex Mix and watching "Surf's Up," a movie featuring computer-animated surfing penguins. But the team is now anxious to arrive and get ready for its dual.

The bus finally pulls into a parking lot. Wrestlers trudge through drizzle and soggy grass to get to the gym. They quickly change in the locker room and warm up on the mats.

Once the dual is underway, Ebert rises from the bench and begins her unorthodox but effective routine. Sword is animated, slapping her thighs and shaking her head.

When the two take the mat, the teams start to cheer. Ebert and Sword stare at each other in the center circle for the fourth time. The whistle blows. Sword immediately attacks Ebert's neck and controls her in a headlock.

"Head up," her teammates yell. "Keep your head up."

That refrain is repeated during the match. Sword keeps grabbing Ebert's neck and jerking her body to the mat. But Ebert keeps her back arched, avoiding the takedown.

The wrestlers split the first two periods. But in the third, Ebert's head is down. And stays down. Sword gains position and does not give in. She wins without facing trouble.

The two quickly shake hands. Ebert slumps away and crumples to the floor away from the bench. Her blond hair is mussed, but she doesn't try to fix it. Valley huddles around its next wrestler, but she doesn't join the team. Tears start to slide down her cheeks.

The voice had told her, "You beat her already. Stop thinking she wants it more than you. You want it."

She hadn't followed through.

But Ebert will get another opportunity to hold her head high. Her chance will come at the final tournament of the collegiate season.


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Julie Whitney August 7, 2008 | 1:45 a.m.

Excellent article..... fabulous photos! I feel just like I am there! Such emotion!!!

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