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
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.
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!
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.