It’s 9:30 am, and wrestlers are groggily making their way to the Walker Complex at Brock University for morning practice. Right above the doorway to the Badgers wrestling training centre, a sign reads: “Building champions.” On today’s agenda: technical work in preparation for the U SPORTS Wrestling Championships.
As the wrestlers begin sparring, the room is filled with some of Canada’s top young wrestlers. Jevon Balfour, Team Canada alternate at the 2016 Summer Olympics and silver medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Jess Brouillette, bronze medallist at the 2016 World University Wrestling Championships. Emily Schaefer, U SPORTS gold medallist and 2015 Rookie of the Year. Shauna Kuebeck, gold medallist at the 2015 Ontario Junior Championships. Two alumnae have also come to train: Jessica MacDonald (née Bondy), 2012 world champion, and Olivia Di Bacco, 2016 U SPORTS gold medallist.
Since wrestling became a U SPORTS sport in 1968, no university has won more national championships than Brock. The Badgers lay claim to 22 U SPORTS titles — 16 men’s, 6 women’s — and are the defending champions in both divisions. Graduates who have gone on to represent Canada at the Olympics include Michelle Fazzari, Jillian Gallays, and three-time medallist Tonya Verbeek.
The Badgers’ continued success, however, starts with coach Marty Calder and his staff.
Calder wrestled for the Badgers from 1987 to 1992, and helped them win their first national title in his final year. Immediately upon graduating, he would become an assistant coach for the team. He would later be promoted by Richard Deschatelets to co-head coach in 2004. While coaching at Brock, Calder represented Canada at the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics. He coached the Badgers to ten straight national championships from 1998 to 2008, but also dealt with the disappointment of losing the title in 2009 and falling all the way to tenth in 2010.
“It wasn’t a good time for us,” recalls Calder, “but the one thing that failure does for you is that it makes you hungry. We started recruiting good athletes, and once we did that, we had a nucleus here. We just had to get the athletes back and start working.”
This year’s nucleus ranges from veterans Tyler Rowe and Matt Jagas, who followed their respective brothers to Brock, to rookie Shauna Kuebeck, who started wrestling only after her high school coach Robert Huggins called her out from the rugby team. Farrantina Gatta’s father brought her to Badgers practices while coaching her at St. Paul’s High School in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Mizam Tamaradze, originally from West Springfield, Massachusetts, declined offers to wrestle at NCAA Division 1 schools as none afforded him the opportunity to compete in freestyle wrestling. Indira Moores transferred to Brock after tearing her left ACL in her first season at Laurentian to avoid a three-year wait for knee surgery.
“Every team is different, but the system doesn’t change, and that’s what allows us to be successful,” maintains Calder.
Since that fateful 2009–10 season, Calder’s system has resulted in eight additional U SPORTS banners for the Badgers — three men’s and five women’s.
What exactly is it about Brock’s wrestling program that keeps producing winners? Strong coaching and being surrounded by some of the top wrestlers in the world.
Clayton Pye, who won the U SPORTS 90kg bronze medal in 2016, despite a broken collarbone, explains how his wrestling has changed since his arrival at Brock. “I was just bull-headed and bashed people around,” he admits. “You need to flow from move to move — that’s been brought out of me more at Brock. Marty’s really good at forcing you to learn.”
“I thought I knew how to wrestle,” said Zoe Forsyth, fresh off an OUA gold medal in the 82kg division, “but Marty was like, ‘We’ll break you down, and we’ll build you back up again.’”
Ignatius Pitt, the U SPORTS 100kg silver medallist in 2016, notes the coaching staff’s emphasis on fundamentals. “It’s about making sure I recover from shots and handfight properly. Every little detail about the basics, I make sure I do properly.”
When you’re sparring against wrestlers who have competed at the international level, it’s hard to not become a better wrestler yourself.
“We get to train with Olympians, get coached by Olympians. A lot of teammates are on [national] teams — all these really good role models to push us. We get good training every day,” said Brouillette.
“The coaches are so invested, the team is so invested. Everyone is committed, and we push each other to work harder every day. It’s a really good environment to be in,” added Moores.
Considering the number of alumni who have come and gone to represent Canada on the world stage, Hannah Taylor, the 2017 OUA Rookie of the Year, knows the onus is on current student-athletes to uphold Brock’s wrestling legacy. “Knowing that I come from one of the best [wrestling] programs in Canada, I know I have to do my part to contribute to that,” she says.
Heading into the U SPORTS Wrestling Championships at the University of Winnipeg, teams will be looking to stop the Badgers from completing a fourth consecutive banner sweep. On the other hand, Calder knows that staying hungry is the best way to prevent his teams from becoming complacent about their run of success.
“There’s nothing more threatening than someone who’s hungry — someone who wants something so bad that they’re in the driver’s seat,” he explains.
Kristina McLaren, the defending U SPORTS champion in the 51kg division, knows that the U SPORTS Championships are no cakewalk. “Just know that everyone’s competition, no matter how good or bad you are, because anything can happen in a wrestling match. You have to make sure you don’t underestimate anybody and be ready for anything.”
The Badgers’ ultimate focus not on what they’ve already accomplished, but on what lies ahead.
“People ask, ‘do you feel pressure of winning the last three?’ No, we feel the pressure of winning the one that’s coming up,” said Calder. “There are some good athletes in this tournament; we’re going to face our challenges.”
The 2017 U SPORTS Wrestling Championships will take place at the University of Winnipeg from February 24 to 25.