Is Wrestling for the Military Right for You?

There are many opportunities opening up for women in the sport of wrestling. One you may not have been aware of is wrestling for the military. Female wrestlers have been competing for the military in the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) since 2001. The first woman to do so, was World Champion Iris Smith. From 200-2012, there has been a WCAP athlete on every Olympic team. Needless to say, the Army creates results. Jenna Burkert, who trains with the WCAP team at Fort Carson Army Base in Colorado Springs, Co, is one of the athletes who has taken advantage of this opportunity.

By Jenna Burkert

Making the best decision for me

I joined the military because I wasn’t happy about my training or my financial situation while I competed as a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center. I knew about WCAP because of Iris Smith who was a world champ in 2005, and was still competing for the team. The Army program has developed women world medalist and many world team members, so their success was validated. In 2015 I decided to join the Army National Guard because it had a delayed entry. I shipped out to basic training May of 2016. This meant I could leave for basic training after the 2016 Olympic Year. I graduated my basic and AIT in October of 2016. I am a past a past world team member and am top three in the nation in my weight class, so I was immediately approved to be a part of the Army World Class Athlete program. 

What is required

I can’t speak on behalf of the other branches of the military, but do your research to find what’s available. For the women, the army team is the most developed program. Within WCAP, there's criteria to get into the program. Typically the requirement is top three at the cadet, junior, or senior age levels, or if you have a world medal. This would allow you to join the Army Active Duty or National Guard and get on WCAP orders.

From there, the opportunities are huge. I get paid to do what I love, I get health insurance, my school is paid for, they even pay for my housing. All while wrestling, I am still a soldier, I still go to my military schools, I still learn how to do my military job (92Y-Unit Supply Specialist)

If you don’t meet that criteria yet, there's still a way you can join and develop. You can join the National Guard/ or Active Duty, and request from your unit to attend the All Army wrestling Team, which begins early January. The next step would be to get approved. Once you are here you would have to meet certain criteria so that you could stay longer. The orders usually keeps you at wcap at least until Us Open(Jan-April), then depending on if you qualify there, they would keep you until WTT(May/June).

How do you know if you are right for the military?

The Army is a great opportunity to further your wrestling, and to have the privilege of becoming a United States Soldier. They say some people aren’t meant for the military lifestyle, I just think it is all about your mindset. That’s why wrestlers thrive in all the military branches. For me, I believe in structure, loyalty, selfless service, so I adjusted extremely well in the military.

Greatest achievement

My greatest takeaway from joining the military is learning about my own resiliency. Basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) was tough, but it made me so much stronger. Many people believed basic training would be easy for me as an athlete. I got through basic, because I leaned on my battle buddies for help. I quickly realized that it didn't matter how good I was if the person to my left or right wasn’t as strong. For me, a month after i got home from AIT, I was sent to the U.S Open to compete, I won that tournament after not being on the mat for 8 months. I had my Drill Sergeants to thank for that. I knew there wasn’t anything I was not prepared for. After all, six minutes on the mat, is nothing compared to my fellow soldiers fighting in the war.

Military goals

Currently, my near-term goal for the military is to be promoted to Sergeant. First I need to go to Warrior Leadership School, and then to the promotion board. This will take about I’d like to keep climbing the Non-Commissioned Officers ladder for as long as I am in the army. While I am still competing, my goals for wrestling are to achieve world and olympic medals. I’d love to be the inspiration for other female wrestlers interested in joining WCAP. The Army is a great opportunity to further your wrestling, and to have the privilege of becoming a United States Soldier. Its a great opportunity that I know many women can benefit from.

Jenna’s steps to take to join WCAP

If you’re interested in joining WCAP, or just want to learn more about your options, communication is key and I can’t stress this enough. There are so many different options or ways about going into the army and wrestling for WCAP. First, contact myself or my coaching staff. If you meet the criteria of being top 3 in your age level (cadets, juniors, or seniors), you are able to join immediately. However, if you aren’t top three or have a world medal, there are still options for you:

  1. You can join the Army National Guard in whatever state you live in. From there, you would go to basic & AIT just like every other soldier. 

  2. Once you are Army NG, you would do your military job one weekend every month. 

  3. Contact WCAP and tell them you are interested in the all Army program. 

  4. Submit your interest packet, and then once that gets approved, you would be on orders for approximately the next 4-8 months. 

  5. Even if you are not officially a part of WCAP yet, this is an incredible opportunity to train with WCAP and get better, which would put you in a better position to attain top three at the World Team Trials.

  6. If you still didn’t reach that, you would go back home and attend your NG Weekend once every month.

  7. Resubmit your packet and don’t give up!

Jenna Burkert is a 4x National Team Member, 3x Junior World Team Member, and a 2x Senior World Team Member. She wrestles for the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and was 4th at the Military Worlds in 2017. She was 5th at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games as the only female representing the U.S. 

Jenna wants you to reach out to her through social media! She loves working with and answer young athlete's questions, so send them her way!



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Making the Transition from Folkstyle to Freestyle

cheapseats photography

cheapseats photography

By Sarah Bollinger

I began wrestling when I was 4 years old, but didn’t start competing until high school. I was aware of freestyle because my older brother competed in both freestyle and greco during the summer. Besides that, I knew very little. I didn’t know it was the Olympic style, I didn’t know it was the style in college for women, and I didn’t know it was the style for high school national tournaments like Fargo. My junior year of high school, I was allowed to wrestle in a college open tournament. I did not have a coach and freestyle rules were different. I just wrestled. I thought I was winning the match, but it turns out I was loosing by a technical fall! This is how I learned you cannot expose your back in freestyle at all, or else risk giving up points (I tried to granby...a lot). Now as a college coach and former college athlete, I can say with confidence that freestyle is my passion! I always encourage young ladies at camps to continue working on freestyle because it is their future. Once you graduate high school, you compete exclusively in freestyle. Even during high school, you have the opportunity to become a freestyle world team member. Even at a young age, there should be nothing stopping you from dreaming of being the greatest! If you put the work in, you can be an Olympic Champion!

The fear of changing wrestling styles

When it came to transitioning from folkstyle to freestyle I didn’t think it would be hard or easy, I just knew it was going to be different. Many wrestlers are scared to try a new style, but I was excited to learn more. Mostly, this was due to the challenges of my first freestyle tournament. I also had the opportunity to work with some great wrestlers and coaches because my brother was already in the freestyle and greco world. I knew that if I wanted to succeed in college and on the senior level, I would need to focus on freestyle.

Making the transition

The two steps I took to help my transition to freestyle were to practice as much as possible, and to compete as often as possible. Putting time on the mat is a major factor that you can control completely.  I discovered who were the best coaches and athletes around me and found a way to train with them. My high school didn’t invest much time into freestyle, but I was committed to improving. During the summer I would drive two hours to practice at Laguna Hills with coach Valentin Kalika in the morning, then drive another hour to practice at Mark Munoz’s gym at night. In between those sessions, I added another workout. I went to any camps or practices offered by 2008 Olympian Marcie Van Dusen whenever I could. I attended three competitions my first summer, then countless the following year. I developed a passion for freestyle and never wanted to stop. I figured out how to make it happen, and took advantage of every opportunity.

The lessons from freestyle

I learned quite a few lessons from freestyle. I learned how to be a student of the sport. It is important to watch freestyle competitions and understand the history of the greatest sport in the world. I began to recognize the importance of someone you can look up to, follow, or learn from. Every great mentor/teacher was once inspired by their own mentor, past wrestler, or coach. Whether it is Helen Maroulis or your high school coach, always look for ways to grow. My toughest lesson was that it’s ok to fail. Failure is always an opportunity to learn, “Look straight ahead, and fix your eyes on what lies before you.” Proverbs 4:25 NLT. Focus on your goals. Don’t get sidetracked with little setbacks. Lastly, just wrestle. I always had so much fun being on the mat because I was doing what I loved, no matter the style.  

3 steps to jump in to freestyle fearlessly

  1. Be a student. Don’t be ignorant and think you know everything. No one knows everything about wrestling. Put the work in and always be ready to learn with an open mind. Freestyle is just another way to grow your talents and explore the sport you love so much.

  2. Make opportunities, don’t wait for them. I used to pity myself and think, ‘Well, I would be as good as her if I could travel like that.’ YOU are the only one that holds you back! Don’t compare yourself to others. Use your resources and become the best version of you. Watch video, practice in your living room with your little brother or sister, work on visualization. There is always something you can do to be better. Don’t let external factors keep you from being great!

  3. Enjoy it. I got injured my sophomore year of college and couldn’t wrestle for 8 months. I never took it for granted again. When I finally let go of worrying about external factors, I had the best year of my college career. I may not have won every match, but I did everything I could and gave 100%. It didn’t matter who was on the mat, I just wrestled. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your passion alive. Passion is what drives your motivation, and will ultimately allow you grow.

Sarah Bollinger is the Head Women’s Wrestling Coach at Southwestern College in Winfield, KS. She was a 3x WCWA All-American with Missouri Baptist, and graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science and Physical Education. She was an Assistant Wrestling Coach at Missouri Baptist for three years, where she helped produce six All-Americans and a national champion.

Should I Redshirt a College Year?

By Cliff Cushard

If you are approaching college or already in school, you may have heard from coaches or teammates about the option to redshirt a college year. But what does this mean for you as a student and as an athlete? How does it change the coarse of your college career? Through advice of Cliff Cushard, current head women's wrestling coach for Adrian College, this blog aims to give you the best tools to make an educated decision. 

What is Redshirting

Redshirting is the practice of taking a year off team competition. In most instances these wrestlers are training and doing limited competitions during the red shirt year, but some may take the year off entirely. This is allowed through the current WCWA rules which state a wrestler can compete in a maximum of four years of competition within a five year span.

The current rules define an student-athlete's training and competing restrictions. An athlete is allowed to train with their team and compete in open tournaments (non-team specified competition). They cannot compete in a dual meet for their team or at the WCWA National Championships while red shirting. Red shirt athletes cannot compete in their team singlet or under their school name, but the team is allowed to pay all of their expenses to travel and compete. This is still up to an individual school and if the they are willing to do so - as they are not required. In some instances, the red shirt athlete might be invited to compete at their own expense. They are allowed to compete as a member of a club however, in essence, the competing red shirt wrestler is competing as an unattached, independent person with no college team.

Why an athlete would want to redshirt

For the athlete, they may decide to take a red shirt year for several reasons:  

  1. If they know they are going to take 5 years to complete their degree and/or to get a Master’s degree, they may want to spread out their competitive life to cover all five years.
  2. If they know they are going to have a challenging academic year and want to focus more on schoolwork.
  3. Some athletes burn out and need a year to recover their passion for the sport. (Though this rarely works. In my opinion, burn out should be avoided at all costs. Once burn out sets in, most athletes do not seem to recover well.)
  4. If the athlete feels they are going to have a better run at becoming an All-American by having an additional year to train, they could make the strategic decision to do their school work over 5 years in hopes that they can get the highest possible finish.
  5. On a similar note, some wrestlers make a strategic decision to sit out a year to allow a rival in their weight class to graduate and get out of their way.
  6. Some coaches may suggest that an athlete take a red shirt year to better align the team's best wrestlers. This could create the best situation to make a run at a team title.

What are the pros?

  1. When an athlete trains during the red shirt year they should, in theory, be a better wrestler the next year. Training without the pressure of competition can lead to jumps in skill that aren’t possible while working on competition, weight management and everything else that is involved in a normal competitive season.
  2. If they don’t train during the red shirt year, it might have a big impact on their success in class. An improved GPA can be a positive result as graduation is of highest priority.
  3. A higher placing at WCWA Nationals is a possibility - though not a guarantee. Just because the wrestler takes a year off, it doesn’t mean that rivals don't do as well, that other women don’t also get better during that time, that incoming freshmen don’t slip into some of those positions, or that injuries or illnesses don’t become a factor - anything can happen in this sport.
  4. The team could place higher with it's best wrestlers competing on the mat. There is no guarantee that red shirting wrestlers to best align a roster for success will actually achieve that success.  

What are the cons?

  1. An additional year of school. If your degree does not require it, an additional year of school means additional classes, potential stress, and additional payments and/or loans. 
  2. Delay of beginning your life after college. Depending on the economic climate at the time, redshirting could mean missing out on better job opportunities. It certainly means one less year of earning potential in your lifetime. This can have an impact on retirement, family and additional unforeseen options down the road.
  3. The potential emotional cost of a red shirt year. During the red shirt year, some athletes feel left out or even ostracized since they can’t be part of the team. These feelings have lead to wrestlers quitting the sport if the isolation becomes too much to bear.
  4. Even training and competing in opens, bitterness could arise when watching wrestlers you have beat place at Nationals or other tournaments. During a red shirt year an athlete could become injured or underperform, which could lead to feeling time or potential was wasted. It is crucial a red shirt wrestler is prepared for these types of feelings.
  5. There is a potential social cost. What do your friends and family think of your choice? What does the delay do to your development after college? Again, this is something that should be carefully considered. Is it worth it to YOU?

How is the decision of redshirting being advised to athletes?

To my knowledge, there isn’t any standard way of advising a red shirt year. It varies by athlete, coach, and school. Some programs seem to have no red shirt athletes, while others seem to have several every year. Discussing red shirting with your prospective coach before signing is probably a wise decision so you know what to expect and can decide accordingly.

How to decide

My advice is to weigh the pros and cons and decide what is best for you. Spend some time thinking about why you want to red shirt, or why your coach is advising the decision. Are those reasons worth the costs for you? In many cases they certainly can be, but in other cases they may not be at all. This is a personal decision you are making for yourself and I would be careful to make this decision rather than be pressured into it by other people. It might be that others want what is best for you or your team, but you may decide that the additional money and time isn’t worth it to you. Like many things in life - choose wisely.

Cliff Cushard is the head women's coach for Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan since. He has been an assistant coach for the men's team, and for the women's team since it was established in 2015. He also serves as Michigan's USA Wrestling Women’s State Director. 

Cushard has coached Michigan women's national teams since 2010, developed over 20 wrestlers who have competed at the college level and/or represented the USA in international competitions; and mentored several All-Americans who have won national titles. All of his daughters wrestle, including the two oldest having placed numerous times as All-Americans. Samantha was the first-ever female All-American for Adrian College at the 2016 Women's Collegiate Wrestling Association national tournament.

How to Evaluate a College Wrestling Program

For parents and athletes, making the decision to commit to a college wrestling program can be daunting. There are numerous factors to consider in order to choose the right school, let alone the right coach and team. We know that the academic needs are most important. It should be a huge factor in choosing a college. When I attended Menlo College, my father Lee Allen coached and directed all the athletes towards success in the classroom. Graduation was priority and the goal was to find a career after sport. This article specifically focuses on analyzing the team and coaching aspects, which will be important in deciding a program that fits you. 

Wrestling Goals

You should make a list of your goals for wrestling in college. There are plenty of factors which go into how to evaluate a good fit based on what your realistic goals are for wrestling. Don't tell a coach what you think they want to hear. Not everyone wants to take the journey to make an Olympic team and that's perfectly fine! A coach wants to support your athletic goals because they can bring out the best in you.

First time doing freestyle

If you are pretty green to the freestyle world, it would be best to talk with a coach who is excited to help develop your skills as an athlete. It is important to distinguish the appeal of a successful team with a wrestling team that actually meets your needs. That could mean a smaller and newer team environment may suit your needs. A large and well established team could mean you get lost in the practice room and have to rely on teammates correcting your mistakes. A smaller wrestling team could mean more individual time, and more opportunity to compete. 

photo by al case, ashland daily

photo by al case, ashland daily

Wrestling schedule

Does the team travel more or less than your goals or interests allow? When do you need to be at school for pre-season training? Is the team more or less involved in the senior level wrestling schedule than you would like to be? Adding senior and international competition will make the season much longer. If your plan is to make Junior and Senior world teams, then find a coach and team who supports those goals. If you only plan to wrestle the college season and focus on school and cross training, be sure the coach and program will support your level of participation.

Wrestling coach and team

Do your goals for your career line up with the coaching philosophy? Does the school have alumni wrestlers you can connect with to help your success on and off the mat? Have you visited the school and do you enjoy the practice structure? Do you enjoy the team dynamics? Does the team do outside wrestling activities together or team bonding? For many wrestlers (myself included), they meet their best friends on their college wrestling team. Be sure you give yourself a chance to stay with the athletes and find a connection with your potential teammates when you visit the school. 

Athlete amenities

Does the school have a strength and conditioning professional? Great weight room? Does the mat space match up with the number of athletes? Do they have sports medicine and recovery amenities for athletes? How does the school work to support their athletes to ensure graduation success? Rest, recovery, repeat along with eat, sleep, breathe, wrestle will be essential to support your longevity as a college athlete. College wrestling is about becoming a well rounded athlete and learning how to properly train. But you also must be supported academically. 

Advice from a college wrestler

Menlo College alumni and current South El Monte High School girls head coach Monique Cabrera talks about the best type of advice she gives to parents and athletes. She says that even though every coach wants to win, they should be looking at the bigger picture of getting an education, developing skills to be productive in society, and to be successful in life. She believes that knowing and understanding the program's history and background will give the parent and athlete a better understanding the institution and to help you know if its a good fit for the athlete.

"Student-athletes get caught up in wanting to win and life being all about wrestling. They forget important factors like cost of college, majors available, and classes needed to get a degree. Ultimately, they must decide if this program is a good fit to make it a new home."
-Monique Cabrera

Your selection will be entirely individual. Someone else's decision to be a part of one program will most likely not be the same for you. Take the time you need to fully understand what a program is offering you and if it fits with your goals. Remember, a happy wrestler is a dangerous wrestler. When you are happy with your school and wrestling team, you will find growth!

What do you think are MUST HAVE steps athletes and parents need to go through in order to properly evaluate a program to see if its right for them? The three must haves for a program in my experience was do they have my major? Even undecided something similar to what I was gearing towards. Resources is another huge must have meaning does the program have the resources and connections to support me in getting my classes, jobs, clubs and accessibility of internships to networking with others to advance my status and future. To finally actually liking my campus, the environment provided as well as the coaching staff and current student-athletes. It’s scary but most of the times student-athletes get caught up in wanting to win and it being all about wrestling that they sometimes forget the cost of college to the major and classes needed to get a degree and ultimately if this program is a good fit to make it a new home.


Advice when it comes to meeting coaches and the team for the first time

The best type of advice I would give to parents and athletes when evaluating college wrestling teams are the philosophy of their program and the outcome they would like to produce for the athlete as well as the team. For example, every coach wants to win granted; but if the coach looks at the bigger picture on having your athlete get an education, develop his/her skills to be productive in society and to be successful in their adult life that’s always a plus. Also taking part in the programs history and background will also give the parent and athlete a better understanding of program and the institution as well to see if its a good fit for the athlete.

  1. What does learning about the history of the program teach you? Did you talk with current wrestlers at menlo or alumni? I didn’t learn much about Menlo College beforehand. It was my Junior year in high school and I was at the state tournament in Vallejo, California when Lee Allen and Sara Fulp-Allen approached me after I head and armed a girl in the semi’s and Coach Allen said I should wrestle in College. I didn’t even know there was women’s wrestling in college until I met him. When I decided to go to college for wrestling it was between Menlo and Cumberlands out of the whopping 5 colleges that had wrestling in the United States. Menlo had my major, Coach Allen’s approach and philosophy wasn’t only to develop me as a wrestler but to develop a program and to grow the sport of women’s wrestling. If Coach Allen never approached me I don’t think I would of wrestled and be an all-American at the collegiate and senior national level to owning my own business and developing young lives through wrestling.

  2. What kind of non-wrestling values were important to you in choosing a program? The support and trust of being part of a family to make it my home away from home which helped me leave the inner-city. Menlo’s wrestling program in my experience supported the development of women’s wrestling as well as the growth of young women to become great women to impact, inspire future generations and those around them.

  3. What do you think are MUST HAVE steps athletes and parents need to go through in order to properly evaluate a program to see if its right for them? The three must haves for a program in my experience was do they have my major? Even undecided something similar to what I was gearing towards. Resources is another huge must have meaning does the program have the resources and connections to support me in getting my classes, jobs, clubs and accessibility of internships to networking with others to advance my status and future. To finally actually liking my campus, the environment provided as well as the coaching staff and current student-athletes. It’s scary but most of the times student-athletes get caught up in wanting to win and it being all about wrestling that they sometimes forget the cost of college to the major and classes needed to get a degree and ultimately if this program is a good fit to make it a new home.

Carlene Sluberski: How to Balance Academics as a Student Athlete

Learning new strategies to stay on top of your game is extremely important as a developing athlete. But what about trying to balance life as a student athlete? That can often add a new challenge to an already full schedule. These tips can apply to someone new to athletics, those thinking about becoming an athlete, those transitioning to college, or student athletes who need extra support on how to balance their current world. Carlene Sluberski has been in unique positions while creating her wrestling career. She first competed at the United States Olympic Education Center (USOEC) where the main focus was to bring in athletes in to live, train, and compete full time. This program was located at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. She later transferred to  finished her degree and wrestle at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. The lessons she learned from her journey has helped her understand what is required in order to fulfill her own passions and achieve her goals. Carlene is currently working on her masters degree and is a graduate assistant wrestling coach at the University of the Cumberlands. 

When does a athlete make time to prioritize academics?

There is always time. It may not be conveniently blocked off at one time, but it's there. Weekends are always good to catch up on work, but once the season starts, weekends are usually spent traveling, so any spare time should be utilized to get school work done.

While I was at the USOEC, I did not do a stellar job at balancing wrestling and school. I did not have an academic plan, and I was taking classes just so I could wrestle. I didn’t have any sort of guidance from an advisor either, so my intelligent 18 year-old self decided I could properly advise myself. Up until that point in my life, I had never had so much freedom of choice (and apparently for good reason). Naturally, all I cared about was wrestling and socializing. I was not thinking about getting a degree so I could get a job and be an adult. I’m not sure how I managed to spend 3 years at the USOEC with little achieved academically other than general credits. Someone recently described this time in my life as “the scenic route.” I don’t recommend too much of anything I did here, it was all about wrestling and very little emphasis on the academic aspect. The general mentality at USOEC was that wrestling is the top priority, and that became my mentality too. Surround yourself with people and teammates that make both wrestling and academics their priorities. 



Tips to stay organized

Get a calendar and fill it out at the beginning of the semester. Talk to your professors or teachers ahead of time and show them you care about your studies. You will be traveling often for sport, and those relationships you build with your educators will be valuable when you have to miss assignments. If you take the time to talk to them, they will be more willing to make adjustments and work with you to help you succeed academically.

Work-life-social balance

Prioritize your time! Get the important things done first so you have free time to enjoy other social aspects of college and school. Like so many aspects of wrestling, It comes down to discipline. Know what you need to do, and come up with a plan and get it done. If you want to have free time you have to make it happen.  

I wouldn’t trade all the friends and memories I created for the world while at the USOEC. However, at that time in my life I needed A LOT more guidance and chose not to get it. Luckily for me, I transferred to Brock University and found a family in a team that I loved. I was able to save my academic life through the use of my newly acquired time management skills. Academics became a top priority, and the environment I was in reflected those values. 

How to make time for yourself so you don’t burn out from the study-athlete life?

Having a support group outside of your wrestling community can help keep you grounded. Wrestling and athletics can begin to take over all aspects of your life so balance is important. Find the types of hobbies or social actives that keep you sane and make it a part of your life. For me, it couldn't be wrestling all day everyday and I enjoyed time with friends who didn't wrestle or know much about wrestling at all. Most days I didn't want to talk about anything wrestling related at the end of the day. This gave me the mental break I needed to train at my best. 

In short, don’t do what I did the first time around. Get help as soon as you feel like you’re falling behind or lost in the shuffle because school is important! It really just takes the discipline to devote enough time to your academics. It’s all a balancing act and you have to find the strategies and resources that will help you succeed.

Carlene Sluberski is a 2x National Team Member and Junior National Champion. She was part of the USOEC program at Northern Michigan University from 2009-2012. She has her undergraduate degree in Kinesiology from Brock University where she wrestled 4 years on the team. In 2014-2015, Carlene was named Female Athlete of the Year. She is currently seeking her masters degree in teaching and is a graduate assistant for the women's wrestling team at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky.