By Liam McKenna
This is the first time — the only time thus far — I have a quote as my lede. This girl, a wrestler for Pinelands Regional, drove the interview.
Typically, interviewing kids is tough. They are usually reserved. In sports, they may speak only in cliches — emulating their favorite athletes.
This story was not the case. Her voice wrote the lede:
1.28.2015 — “All I know is I plan on being remembered at this school,” Olivia Mena, a wrestler with Pinelands Regional School District’s 7/8 program, bluntly stated.
Her brother, Jacob, had a far more reserved response regarding the goals he has set for himself. He is currently a freshman wrestler for Pinelands Regional High School’s varsity squad. Record-wise, he’s not anticipating being the best — the kid is going against seniors, full-grown dudes with hair on their backs, as his father says. For Jacob, he just wants to improve, learn how to compete at the varsity level and endure the growing pains that come along with that.
Jovan Mena, their father, hopes his daughter’s and son’s careers can help show off the program at Pinelands.
Olivia was asked to describe what her goals are going into a match.
“I try my best not to be cocky, but I keep it in my head,” Olivia said. “I say to myself, ‘I know I can win. I know I can win.’ And that’s when I go in and toss the kid.”
She added that, while she knows she is looking far off into the future, she wants wrestling to carry her into a good college.
At that moment, their mother, Amy, noted how different Olivia and Jacob are. She calls Jacob the unsung hero of the family: very mellow. This is contrasted by Olivia, who will pace back and forth, staring down her opponent prior to a match.
As for the most recent results: Olivia won the New Jersey USA Wrestling Girls State Championships over the weekend.
This is a quite an accomplishment for a girl who nearly picked the basketball court over the wrestling mat.
When Olivia was deciding between wrestling and basketball at the beginning of the academic year, she wasn’t hesitant to pick wrestling despite the potential of being hated on by her peers. She came to the conclusion that as long as she was enjoying herself, there would be no reason to concern herself with all those outside perceptions.
Amy said she is not concerned about her daughter’s ability to wrestle. She concerns herself more with everyone else’s thoughts about her daughter being a wrestler. Olivia quickly stepped in to say that she does not care one bit how others perceive her. She added in that, if anything, she’s been praised for being a wrestling girl. She provided the example of a school pep rally, when the wrestling team had its members called out to decent applause. Yet when her name was called, “everybody in the stands clapped like crazy.” She felt she got the most noticeable cheers because she was a girl.
However, Amy is still concerned with how her daughter will be received in a competitive setting. Jovan clarified that the athletic staff at Pinelands has been very supportive of his daughter. This includes ensuring Olivia has her own space to change and such.
As for Olivia, she said she doesn’t think about safety very much during a match. At the time, she just thinks about how to maneuver herself out of different situations. Jacob said he takes the same approach: “If I’m hurt a little, I don’t want to give up.” Both added that they have never been truly hurt during a match.
Amy conceded that worries about safety are exacerbated for her and Jovan because they are the parents on the sidelines. She even added that, at times, she could just be seeing things. Jovan commented that he actually gets concerned for other kids when Olivia faces off against them. Due to her background with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, one of her moves is essentially a choke hold. That’s when Jovan gets concerned for the other kid.
“It’s when the ref doesn’t really see it just yet. He just sees the other kid on the ground, flailing his legs — doesn’t know how to get out,” Jovan said. “She’s hurt people before.”
“With me being a girl, people expect me to be weak. It’s the stereotype,” Olivia said. “I don’t want to show weakness towards other people because I don’t want other people to think less of me. The reason I pace back and forth and stare down my opponents: I don’t want them to think less of me because I’m a girl.”
Jovan has posted many videos of Olivia’s wrestling. Amy hopes that with every view each one gets, usually a bit more than 100, the idea that girls can wrestle becomes a bit more popular. Olivia, to her, can hopefully send an empowering message: “You can defend yourself. You can be strong. You can win.” Jovan sees the area as becoming more progressive because, from his perspective, folks have demonstrated tolerance toward their daughter’s wrestling.
Regarding the old concern of “are men naturally stronger than women?” and the impact that could have on others competing against her, Olivia said she’s just a wrestler, and she wants to be treated with the same respect every other wrestler gets. She feels her sex does not make her different.
Olivia also attacked the question of the potential awkwardness some guys may experience fighting a girl.
“Some people would say things like ‘How would you not feel anything when you’re going against a guy?’” Olivia said. “I look at it as a sport, not as a female and male interaction or whatever you call it.
Olivia’s mother added that she has been going against boys since her time in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and all that time has made her feel equal to her male competitors. Amy said there is a perspective in wrestling that guys are bigger and stronger, putting girls at a disadvantage. However, with technique on her side, Amy hopes Olivia will prove everyone wrong.
“If you’re calling me weak — ,” Olivia interrupted.
“I understand the boys’ dilemma. Nobody wants to lose to a girl, and nobody wants to beat a girl,” Amy said. “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
Amy just hopes that Olivia’s opponents give an all-out effort against her. And she is inclined to believe they do because, in the end, no one wants to get pinned.
When Olivia was growing up, her father starting getting into and teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This is a sport Jovan has been doing himself since 2003, and has earned his black belt while also coaching. At the time, Olivia was also pondering possibly putting on pompoms and partaking in cheerleading. Yet, she opted to tackle the martial art of tae kwondo at age 8. That was followed by more martial arts: jiu-jitsu and judo. So, by the time middle school rolled along, Olivia had become immersed in wrestling.
“Growing up, not to sound selfish or anything, but I think I did pretty good,” Olivia said.
It was a similar story for Jacob, who followed his father’s lead around age 5 and got involved with jiu-jitsu. He, with a shy stutter, admitted he wasn’t very good starting off. He said that though everyone at that age is small, he was particularly tiny.
“You were just a big kid,” Jovan said.
“No, he was little,” Amy replied.
“No, he wasn’t, Daddy,” Olivia said.
Amy added that it was hard to watch the kids wrestle at a young age — not necessarily over safety concerns, as one may assume, but over the crying that would follow a loss.
About when Jacob’s age hit double digits, he quit the sport, having been frustrated with a lack of progression. So he picked up a guitar — an instrument he still dabbles with. For the next three years, he maintained his distance from the sport.
A similar story played out for Olivia, despite her success. She moved to dance, though just for a matter of months.
“Once I came into junior high, I decided to go back and give up basketball because it didn’t come naturally to me,” Olivia said. “With wrestling, I saw myself with a future in it. I decided to stick with it, and I’m doing really well right now.”
Jovan commented that his daughter’s background with Brazillian jiu-jitsu gives her an advantage because she understands how to leverage her body against her opponent. So, while she may not be the biggest person in competition, she has the technique to make up for what she loses regarding strength. In layman’s terms, she has good headlock, among other things.
The same applies to her brother, who, Jovan said, has an ankle pick that few can counter.
Jacob said that his sister and he will work on their wrestling techniques together sometimes. He provided the recent example of Olivia swinging by his room, asking if she could try a new move out. She added that he can be a coach of sorts with her, too. She said at a recent tournament, she found her legs being locked down by an opponent. She didn’t know how to get out of the position. She asked her brother, watching from the stands, what she could have done. Thinking of that story, she called Jacob “a coach away from the gym.” Now, both were asked if Olivia has taught Jacob a technique or two. Olivia thought so — Jacob, not so much. Amy said her son also helped out with the entire 7/8 team during the recent winter break. She joked that the duo doesn’t have your typical bro-sis relationship.
For Jacob, middle school proved to be a time when his love for wrestling and related activities was rekindled. For him, this moment came in seventh grade. He wrestled his way to an almost perfect record as an eighth-grader. Now, he is on the varsity wrestling squad as a freshman.
Jacob believes winning is the most rewarding part of the sport. As a freshman, he notched his first victory just a few Wednesdays ago, and he appeared relieved to be able to say that. As for Olivia, she said the most rewarding part of the sport is just after practice when she can relax. For her, practices are tough because she wears all sweats in order to help keep her weight down so she can participate in the appropriate class. She further said that the competitive drive she gets on the day of competition is also thrilling.
Whether being a girl in a male-dominated sport or a freshman on the varsity team, the brute, lonely competition that is wrestling can put one in the spotlight unlike any team sport.
“I said something to her: In volleyball, you have a team and teammates who you rely on to do their job. In wrestling, you have a team, you practice together, but when you go out on the mat, it’s just yourself,” Jovan said. “You’re out there, under the spotlight, being scrutinized by everyone to win or score for the entire team.
“It’s grueling — mentally, physically,” he added. “There’s all this stuff put together. So, you come back and do homework, eat dinner, do chores — it’s just an incredible amount of stuff they have to do.”
So an obvious question arose: How do Olivia and Jacob keep themselves grounded? Olivia jumped on the question to say that weekends are her “best friend.” For her, this is a time for friends and an opportunity to distance herself from wrestling and schoolwork. She quickly sidetracked to the moment Monday rolls around. She described how her mindset reverts to the rigors of taking honors courses. It appeared to be a schedule many students can relate to: get home at 5:30 p.m. while homework lingers until roughly 9 p.m.
Jacob’s schedule is rather similar, adding that the high school varsity schedule takes up even more time. To adjust to this heftier time requirement, Jacob has cut out “social time.” Even over winter break, he said that while his friends may have wanted to chill at night, he knew he had practice awaiting him the following morning.
“Not that I want the season to be over really bad; I just want to be with my friends,” he said.
“He’ll just come home and pick up his guitar,” Amy said, chiming in. “I feel like it’s almost like his moment of Zen for the day. Right? Don’t ya think? Besides homework and all that other stuff — I always come home from work and he’s playing his guitar. Do you think that’s how you unwind a little bit? I just noticed you’ve been playing a lot more during the season.”
“My unwinding is going on my phone for a really long time,” Olivia said, bringing in her side.
Amy and Jovan have noticed a certain level of heightened stress in the kids as the wrestling season carries forward. Olivia did concede that she freaks out when she has too much homework. Amy said it can be tough, noting the different scenarios in which wrestling can inconvenience the family.
She also noted the fundamental stress of being a parent, sitting in the stands, watching another child trying to take down her kid.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” Amy said, “especially being a girl.”
“It’s a contact sport,” Jovan added. “You’re seeing Olivia get literally — someone’s trying to throw her. Someone’s trying to manipulate you to try and get you on your back. It’s a difficult adjustment. But I’ve trained her. I’ve coached her.”
Amy said she has never gotten used to the stress, and speculated that it’s a feeling every other mother must endure. She reiterated that with wrestling, it’s just some random kid and your kid matched up against one another. Olivia agreed with that sentiment, and said that can put stress on her as an athlete, too. She compared that stress against team sports such as basketball and volleyball.
“You see them get injured,” Amy said. “You see them get bloody noses and such. At the last match, her arm was bent back, and I almost wanted to say stop.”
Olivia interjected that her shoulder was still hurting from that.
Jovan provided an example of an opposing situation. He explained how nervous he was for his daughter’s first match. However, within a few seconds, Olivia “launched” the boy onto his back.
Amy said that everyone in the audience appeared to have a similar level of nervousness for Olivia at the time. Then the takedown happened. Amy noted that spectators had a look on their faces of actualization: That girl can wrestle.