Breaking Boundaries: Coach Maryam

We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to wrestling's unsung heroes around the world. Coach Maryam was introduced to us through our friend, Hooman Tavakolian of Tavak Partners, a sport diplomacy company. Hooman was kind enough to make the introduce us to Coach Maryam to get to know her better and spread her story. 

What was your upbringing like?

I was born in Tehran. I am the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother. My father was a wrestler. My mother was a teacher. We come from a working class family. I was raised around the wrestling mat and [my father’s] involvement. Because of this, I always wanted be involved, but on the coaching level.

What introduced you to wrestling, and who ended up teaching you?

I was introduced to the sport by my dad. I used to watch him wrestle, practice and compete. My father taught me the sport. Also, let it be known that wrestling is very popular in Iran, and is part of the culture. We are all raised in the environment and are aware of the sport as it's the national sport.

What inspired you to coach?

I was inspired to be a coach because of my interest in the sport. My dream and many of the girls’ dreams in Iran is to have wrestling for women in Iran. When Mr. Khadem created wrestling for females, I jumped on it quickly, got involved, and wanted to give back. I was lucky to have learned the basics from my dad. I was just waiting for the opportunity to jump in.

Who have been your biggest supporters in your wrestling journey?

My biggest supporters has been my mother. She always supported me and believes in equal rights for women. She always pushed me to chase this dream. My dad wasn't really too big on the idea, but now he is better since it is now available for women in Iran. Also Mr. Tavakolian (Hooman Tavakolian, Tavak Partners) has been supporting all of us and Iran wrestling, for males and females.

Has teaching and coaching others in wrestling helped your technique and understanding of the sport?

Coaching others has helped me drastically in learning and improving my technique. I also watch a lot of technique videos online from YouTube, and try to learn from great wrestlers. I am a big fan of Helen Maroulis, she is so good.

How has wrestling affected you personally?

Wrestling has helped me become stronger and get my character stronger. I also was introduced to a whole new world. It brought me to a new environment; sometimes good, and sometimes bad. I used to be a sensitive person, but wrestling has helped me become a stronger person and individual. Wrestling has helped me get thicker skin and taught me how to deal with various people.

What keeps you motivated throughout hardships in wrestling?

I get my positive energy from my students. They motivate me to continue when things don't go smoothly. As you know, it's a new sport for us, so there are many growing pains. But, I love when I see my students are so dedicated. They keep showing up for practice, even when they don't have gear, shoes, or appropriate training opportunities.

Have you competed? If so, how often?

I have competed locally in my town, and in my state. In my state I took first place. This was in the early stages of when women’s wrestling was created. I was very good in the Wu Shu style‒ I made it to nationals and the league championships. I also was very active in Kung Fu and Futsal (indoor soccer). Overall, I loved contact sports and competing. I refuse to lose.

Would you recommend this sport for everyone, or do you think it requires a special type of person to fully appreciate the sport?

I recommend this sport only to those who are dedicated. The sport is for those who have goals, big goals. I recommend wrestling to girls who are driven and don't accept loss. Girls that when they are told NO, they  challenge it and ask why, or say yes I can. Done for success, I mean. Also for those who need to be built, I  recommend wrestling to them. I recommend for them to try it, to help them overcome issues and challenges.

What do you think of the advances made for women’s wrestling in Iran (all styles)? 

I believe it's great. I believe it's moving forward thanks to the hard work of Iran Federation. But, there are growing pains. I am confident there is a bright future for Iran. Iranian women are full with national pride. They train hard and want to be the best.

It is reported that there is a critical need for more female wrestling coaches. What do you think is the best solution?

Yes, we need better coaches. Currently men are not allowed to coach us. We need more training by greats like Kori Icho from Japan. I also believe we need joint training camps. This brings us experience and interaction. We are being coached with limited knowledge. We have a coach for our national team from Ukraine. But we need more great technical coaches for local gyms to help us so we can learn and teach our students the correct techniques.

What is the typical background of the women you coach?

Most females who are in this area come from families who's fathers and brothers wrestled. All come from working, blue collar families. Most wrestlers are 18-25 years old. There are older wrestlers, but they are not allowed to compete on the national level. We hope age restrictions will change so older women can one day compete on the national level. Iran is planning to start a cadet and junior national team as well as the sport grows in the next few years.

How is belt wrestling tied to the success of bringing Classical wrestling to Iranian women?

Belt wrestling has helped on the macro level, but I believe it has also hurt wrestlers in learning. As you know, it is hard to change one’s style. Belt wrestling has its own ways and techniques. Unfortunately many have brought their belt wrestling style to classic wrestling.

What has been a major pushback for female wrestlers in your country?

Lack of support from sponsors and help with growing sport. We need more funding, and I also think getting rid of the age restrictions will help. There are many many interested females who are above 23 and who can be great.

What do you think the impact will have on muslim women throughout the world?

This is great progress for all muslim women. Many girls around the world also shared the same dream of wrestling. This has now created an opportunity for all to participate and help empower themselves. It is also great that they have their own specific clothing, so they are not bothered by cultural and religious restrictions on gear. I am very happy for the future of the sport and the opportunity for ALL females, not only muslim ones. Together we are united and can grow the sport.

In closing I would like to thank the Iran Wrestling Federation and Dr. Rasoul Khadem for all their support and in helping make this dream a reality for the many girls in Iran, and now around the world. We still have a long way to go, but I am certain and I feel confident that with your help we can build awareness and support. Thank you for your interest in us and thank you for writing this article to build awareness. We are all sisters on and off the mat.

Olympian Kelsey Campbell: Be Resilient in the Face of Injuries Part 1

By Kelsey Campbell

Kelsey Campbell has been a pillar in the sport of women's wrestling. From famously beginning her wrestling career late in high school, becoming ASU's first female wrestler ever, and making the 2012 Olympic team in historic fashion, Kelsey has had a long and full career. But it hasn't been without setbacks. She has continued to find a way to make it look easy to someone on the outside, but is able to reveal the hard work and resiliency that is the backbone of her career. Kelsey brings us up close and personal with her injuries in sport and how they have made her tougher. 

"Some days I couldn’t walk without a limp, but I’d be taking a 45 minute bus ride to practice"

A Career of Resiliency 

I don’t think I’m unique in saying I’ve definitely faced my share of injuries, especially since making the switch to ‘full-time’ athlete. For almost 8 years I’ve trained anywhere from 2-3 times a day. That’s not including extra work, rehab, or training done off the mat. You have two options as an athlete: you can get to point where you are hurt and need to adjust things, or you are truly injured. At that point more drastic measures are taken like rehab sessions, major training modifications, and in some cases surgery. This is normal for athletes, and I haven’t necessarily had more than the average high level wrestler. However, I’ve certainly had some unique ones. I landed wrong while demonstrating a throw my second year in the sport and have struggled with back ‘problems’ my entire career.

For my first 5-6 Years, before I ever made a national team or had real resources, I would have major flare-ups with my lower back. Excruciating. Some days I couldn’t walk without a limp, but I’d be taking a 45 minute bus ride to practice. Not knowing any better, I just chalked it up as nothing more than normal stiffness, would pop a few Tylenol and push through it. It was much more than that, but I wouldn't find out until later. But being a young athlete (I actually started at 17 so I was basically an adult) and ignorant about sport-related injuries, I rarely sat out because of it. In high school I was a four sport athlete. The major injuries I faced were stress fractures, as I was a regular runner. This primed me for my later athletic years by planting a seed of wisdom to be smart, know what I could and couldn't handle, and the balance of trusting my gut and the professionals around me. However, it really wasn’t until I was almost 24 that I was treated for the back problems I had accepted for years as part of the ‘daily.’

Following my move to the Olympic Training Center in 2009, the volume of training increased significantly, but so did my recovery, so my bumps and bruises weren’t anything extraordinary. I started having neck pain that’s now graduated into something degenerative but also manageable, I would eventually tear both LCL’s, mildly sprain my mcl, a couple jarring bone spurs in my hands, injure both shoulders, and on a few occasions I had to give extra attention to my lower back, but it was all fairly structured protocol as far as rehab.

Comeback kid

I feel like my entire career is saturated with comeback stories. Every major team- world and olympic- that I made was as an underdog. Prior to both Olympic Trial wins I had a couple of injuries that forced me out of training for a significant amount of time. Before making the 2012 Team, I lost in the first round at the World Championships at a non-Olympic weight. My back had a severe flare up that took me out of training for nearly three months in 2016. My story isn’t over and I feel like the best chapter is yet to come.

A new game plan

As my career has continued, I've increased my commitment. When I was a young athlete, I had less knowledge but I was still extremely motivated. I didn’t have access to the best physicians in the country, and I’ll say this next part with caution: I found a way to understand things. I wouldn’t typically recommend random internet searches to find out ‘why does my knee hurt?' I represent a lot of athletes that don’t have a club, school or parent to vouch for them. Yet. Because of this, you use the resources you have. You find ways to treat what’s hurting and you ask a lot of questions. I no longer fall into the inexperienced category, but I still remain coachable in order to work closely with my strength coach and physical therapists. I still ask a million questions. I spend more time preparing myself physically and mentally. Everything I do with my nutrition, strength training and on the mat is with purpose. I’ve worked with a few of the same medical professionals for a while now, coupled with an amazing strength coach- Joe Micela- I feel like even if I’m not 100%, I can still evolve and improve every day.

Stay tuned for part 2 next week!

Connect with Kelsey:

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Instagram: @KelseyCamp

Twitter: @worldchanger55