Part 4 of 4: Gaining strength physically

Attention to female wrestlers too often focused on gender
Wednesday, August 6, 2008 | 4:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:24 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 7, 2008
Missouri Valley College wrestler Samantha Fee weighs in at the Women's College Freestyle Nationals on March 14, 2008, at Oklahoma City University while an official writes "59" (her weight in kilograms) on her arm. Fee was depleted after having to lose three pounds the morning before weigh-in.

Amberlee Ebert is calm the day before the final collegiate wrestling meet of the season.

Her blue eyes are not glaring on this Friday afternoon in mid-March. The Missouri Valley College sophomore is not thinking about her rival, Oklahoma City University's Ashley Sword. The 24-year-old veteran, known as "Mama Sword," dominated her one month earlier, but Ebert has shrugged off that match for now. Her current opponent looms ahead of her.

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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The scale.

Ebert is not worried about making weight, but her teammate Samantha Fee is anxious. The light auburn-haired sophomore is minutes away from breaking her fast. She will soon face the five seconds that have plagued her for the past week.

Fee and her teammates are weighing in for the Women's College Wrestling Association Women's College Freestyle Nationals, the culmination of the women's collegiate wrestling season, which started in January for Valley. Winners will be crowned in 10 weight classes - from 44 kilograms (97 pounds) to 95 kilograms (205 pounds). None will be as contested as the fifth and deciding match between Ebert and Sword. The two have split four matches during the year.

But the scale comes first. If you're over, like on "The Price is Right," you're out and don't win anything.

Scores of wrestlers are lined up on the second floor of the Freede Center at OCU. Fee is confident. After checking her weight, she knows she's not over 59 kilograms (130 pounds). But she is still fidgety. This day has depleted her. She started it three pounds too heavy.

In the past 24 hours, she has only eaten one energy bar and consumed a trickle of fluids. But at least she doesn't torture herself any more while cutting weight. "Last year, I'd watch the Food Network all the time," Fee said with a laugh.

Wrestlers pine over food. The Valley wrestlers raid convenience stores on road trips, loading up on Twizzlers and Chex Mix. After a dual against OCU earlier in the season, they kept talking about going to eat pho, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup, like the dish was the new hit movie.

"I just love food," Fee said with a laugh. "I think most wrestlers do. Most people take it for granted. But when you're a wrestler, you learn to appreciate it more because you really have to sacrifice it."

Fee eats all the time when she doesn't have to cut weight. "Don't you ever stop?" her fiance, Jason Doxstader, teases her.

With practice and her additional workouts, she can afford to eat well.

"I think girls get scared of eating too much, but if you eat the right stuff, and you treat your body good, you'll be all right. It's not like I'm shoving junk food in my mouth all the time," Fee said.

But when she has to cut weight, Fee starves her body and drains it of fluids like she did this morning.

At practice, the majority of the wrestlers were lazing around, strapped for energy from already making weight. But Fee was pedaling on a stationary bike, dressed like she was going for a winter run. She wore a light jacket over her sweat suit. Her face was hidden. Her black hooded sweatshirt was tied tightly around her head. She wore a plastic top and pants underneath everything to tease out the sweat. It was like she was wearing garbage-bag long johns.

Fee kept on the outfit while she tried to squeeze every ounce of liquid from her body. When she got in the team van, she blasted the heat in the front seat. Back at the hotel, she steamed up the shower. Then she got on the team's scale. All the activity had worked. She could finally lie down and rest.

This day hadn't been that bad for Fee. She had suffered much worse when she was almost disqualified at the girls' high school nationals in Michigan. She was over 0.1 pounds on her first of two weigh-ins. With only a few minutes between attempts, her coach, Chris Jones, created a diversion with the officials. Fee sprinted to the bathroom and ripped off her sports bra underneath her singlet. Then she materialized and nailed her last try.

"She was the biggest crab. We wanted to kill her," Jones said.

Now, at the weigh-in, Fee doesn't need to play any spy games. She steps on the scale, weighs in under the limit and gets "59" scrawled on her arm in black marker. She smiles to Valley coach Carl Murphree and walks directly to her bag. She grabs a bottle of lemon-lime Gatorade and chugs half the bottle.

Fee then joins her teammates for a feast of snacks and drinks. They finally get to replenish their bodies for tomorrow's meet. The wrestlers share everything: a family-sized box of Wheat Thins, Chex Mix and Starbursts, water, Gatorade, and Pedialyte, a drink for dehydrated babies.

ν ν ν

"You wish you could wrestle like a girl," boasts one of the many T-shirts wrestlers are wearing at the Freede Center. College athletes aren't the only ones competing this weekend. Hundreds of girls, starting with boisterous 46-pound girls in elementary school, are participating in the USA Wrestling Girls' Folk-Style National Championships.

Dozens wait in line to get posters and T-shirts autographed by Tricia Saunders, the sport's superstar. The throng at the tournament is astonishing to her. She used to be the only girl at competitions. But now she is surrounded by hundreds of girls.

"It's something that I just almost never could believe," she said with a big smile.

Growing up in a wrestling family in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saunders was 8 years old in 1975 when she placed third in her first meet. She won state and regional events, but later switched to gymnastics when her middle school and high school didn't allow her to wrestle.

She returned to the sport in the late 1980s when women's wrestling emerged internationally. Her four world titles and undefeated record against Americans, among many achievements, earned her induction as the first female in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Saunders also waged bureaucratic battles. As the first woman on the board of directors of USA Wrestling, she was the visible but reluctant fighter for the development of women's wrestling.

But now with girls firmly established on the mat, Saunders, 42, could teach them what they all love - how to wrestle. She led a clinic before getting out a permanent marker.

"They can focus a lot more of their attention and identity on themselves as an athlete, not as a pioneer or a ground-breaker. I was all of those things, but my love of it all was just wrestling. It's a great sport. And all these girls will tell you the same thing. It's got all these other issues swirling around it, but it's this much of what we think," Saunders said, bringing her thumb and index finger close together.

But that gap is still gaping for some coaches. And journalists, too.

"Every article that's written about a lot of women is still about ‘you're a woman in this guy's sport,'" Saunders said. "Don't you want to ask me about my match?"

ν ν ν

Sword is confident when asked about her probable rematch against Ebert.

When the OCU junior lost to Ebert, the margins were slim. But when Sword defeated her twice, she dominated. "For me, I feel like it gives me mentally a little bit of an edge," Sword says the day before the final collegiate event of the season.

Their styles differ when they face each other. Sword, 24, is loose and aggressive. Ebert, 19, is nervous and defensive.

Ebert starts out the tournament like a pitcher with early-inning jitters. Her first opponent opens the match with a one-point takedown. But the thud wakes her up. She advances, not giving up another point.

The rest of her team is not faring as well. Ebert is the only Valley wrestler to make it to a final, where she will face Sword. Fee places third in her weight class. While the University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) and OCU are fighting for the title, Valley will finish third out of eight teams.

The season is winding down. The finalists march onto the mat. The "Olympic Hymn" booms from speakers. Ebert tries to stay composed. But she cracks a smile when her teammates scream her name in unison.

Ebert's family also cheers her on. Her parents and three younger brothers made the trip from Reedsville, Wis. Her father, Bob, has coached and coaxed her during her career. When she doubted herself, he praised her abilities.

The two briefly talk before the final. Bob Ebert demonstrates a hold and the way to escape to his daughter.

When Ebert and Sword start their match, the Valley team charges onto the adjacent mat to watch. Their cheers suddenly turn into gasps.

Sword has thrown Ebert on her back directly in front of her teammates and coaches. She can see the distressed look in their eyes. Her left shoulder is glued to the mat, but her right shoulder is inches off of it. Sword grimaces while she tries to get the pin. But Ebert, with her body flailing, somehow wiggles toward the edge of the circle. The referee blows the whistle. Ebert is safe, but ends up losing the first period.

An official herds the Valley wrestlers back into the bleachers. Their cheers erupt again in the second period, which Ebert wins easily.

Those screams subside halfway through the third period. Sword scores a one-point takedown. Ebert's teammates get more frantic while the clock winds down from 60 seconds to 30 seconds to 15 seconds. She only needs one point to win, but she and Sword are in a stalemate. Ebert is not making any moves toward Sword. But she seems eerily patient, confident in her defensive posture.

Suddenly, with 10 seconds remaining, Ebert lunges forward, overpowers Sword, takes her to the mat and scores one point. The clock runs out. The season is over.

Her teammates start screaming and jumping. Ebert rushes off the mat and hugs all of them. "You had me scared there for a little bit," Jenny Germany said.

Ebert walks down to meet her family. She hugs her mother. Then she embraces her teary-eyed father. He holds on to her, saying nothing.


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