News / Africa

Female Senegalese Wrestler Beats Opponents, Critics

Nick Loomis
THIES, SENEGAL - Wrestling matches in Senegal usually take place between large men on a sandy surface in front of massive crowds. 

But a petite woman on a mat will be representing the country in front of the world at the London Summer Games. At 48 kilograms, six-time African champion Isabelle Sambou is one of the country's best chances for an Olympic medal in London.

Sambou started wrestling in the southern region of Casamance, where women sometimes participate in the traditional matches.  There, she was recruited by the coaching staff at an Olympic training center in the northern city of Thies.

"They saw me down there and they brought me up here.  They said that I can do Olympic wrestling, because I was good at traditional wrestling," said Sambou.

Nearly 12 years later, she qualified for her first Olympic Games at this year's African Championship and will represent Senegal in London.

Even with her success, the gender barrier persists in the male-dominated sport.  But like her opponents, Sambou overcomes challengers off the mat as well.

"People here criticize women who wrestle a lot," said Sambou.  "They say, 'you are not a man, so you can't do this.'  But they're wrong because it is a sport like any other sport, so a woman can do it and there's no harm in it."

Her coach, Victor Kodei, says the women at the center do better than the men on the world stage, partly because male wrestlers focus on commercialized traditional wrestling.  He has particularly high hopes for Sambou at the London Olympics.

"Isabelle is one good wrestler that I am hoping to get something from," said Kodei.  "Gold medal, silver medal, bronze medal…one person is not winning all at a time.  We must take one.  We must take one, by the grace of God."

Sambou agrees that God will decide her place on the podium.  But for her part, she says she is ready.

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