Carolyn Failanga is on her stomach, leveraging every advantage as she, red-raced and grimacing in the gold medal bout of the 2011 senior girls provincial championships, resists the opposing forearm that pushes against her throat. A head snap put her in control and Failanga has wrapped her arm around her competitors neck and flattened her to the mat.
A voice cuts through. Hold it! Hold it, Carolyn!
The whistle blows, Failanga wins. Its the second girls wrestling gold for Vancouvers St. Patrick regional secondary school in 12 years.
She congratulates her opponent, her hand is raised in victory. The next moment is the one school principal John Bevacqua remembers most clearly from the February provincials last year in Penticton.
Failanga crosses the mat to her coach, Canadian Olympic wrestler Marc Mongeon, and hugs him.
The lasting image I have of her, shes running full speed and jumping into his arms after she won, said Bevacqua. She has that real raw emotion about her. Shes a loving kid that way. After the award ceremony, she called him a second dad.
Failanga met Mongeon, who competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Games in freestyle wrestling, as a Grade 8 student looking to pursue a different path than her artistic older sister who graced the stage and sang in the school choir. I definitely didnt want to be known as Francess little sister, she said. I didnt know what wrestling was all about. All I knew was the junk on TV. I didnt know what I was getting into. It was a challenge at the beginning. My fist year I won one match.
She wore the same maroon singlet over five years and competed consistently in the 51-kilogram weight class.
When a single place kept her from provincials, Mongeon said the shortfall set her resolve. The look on her face He doesnt finish and Failanga pipes up: Upset. Mongeon continued, Like a puppy dog. Like, I shoulda been there. Like, I can do this.
By her senior year, she qualified for the B.C. championships and beat the pack to win gold. She caught the attention of Vancouvers wrestling elite and her influence helped grow the schools program. She volunteered to coach younger athletes new to the sport, score-keep and ensure tournaments ran as smoothly as possible.
Wrestling B.C. awarded her with a scholarship for her community involvement. She graduated and earned an athletic scholarship to Simon Fraser University where she now competes as a freshman with Canadas only NCAA school. At the junior national meet last week in St. Catherines Ont., Failanga was unlucky in the bracket, drawing the eventual champion after shed won her first match. But she went 4-2 to finish fifth overall, winning her last bout in a decisive 5-0 score.
Im still working on being an offensive wrestler, said Failanga, who is studying health science at SFUs Burnaby campus. Before, in high school, I could just wait for a girl to take a shot or do a throw and I would go and counter it but in university, you have to be consistently aggressive and offensive at the same time as well as have a good defensive base.
At five-foot-two and now wrestling in the 48-kg class at what is likely her optimum weight, Failanga, whose family lives in Richmond, changed peoples expectations of wrestling when she first started.
The reaction narrowed in on her size, personality and to a very limited extent, her gender.
Youre so small, she said classmates once exclaimed. You cant beat them, you look so gentle.
Mongeon offered with a laugh, You dont look very mean!
You dont look very manly, she added. Yes, I get those comments.
For her stature, demeanour and interest in giving back, Failanga is helping attract more teenage girls to wrestling.
Chris Fuoco, a teacher and wrestling coach at John Oliver secondary, regularly takes students from multiple city high schools to SFU for training and exposure.
Weve seen her up there. Shes dynamite, said Fuoco, who elaborated on Failangas influence. I have one female student, in Grade 11, who asks, Is Carolyn going to be there? I want to work with her.
In January just a day before her 19th birthday, Failanga said she was making a smooth transition to the dual challenge of post-secondary academics and athletics.
It was a very big change. When you think youre pushing yourself hard in high school, its really about taking everything to the next level: your conditioning, your mental training, your technique and your attitude in general on the mat because I think thats one of the most important things when you go into wrestling. You have to have a good attitude towards it. A lot of people progress because thats what they really want to do. But you have to be just as hungry as they are or even more, she said.
As the head of SFUs development program, John Pineda has the keen eye of a scout and the technical tools of a coach to identify and enhance young wrestlers. He immediately liked what he saw in Failanga.
Shes definitely a gifted athlete. She has that natural feel for the sport. She can go a long way. Then Pineda made a remarkable comparison.
She reminds me of Carol Huynh, who is our Olympic champion.
Both wrestle in the 48-kg class, both are British Columbian women of Asian descent and Huynh, an SFU graduate, won gold in Beijing and has already qualified for the 2012 London Games.
They are similar in size but the good thing is that Carol will be around for a lot longer afterwards to help the girls, said Pineda.
Huynh will be in good company.
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