Wrestling is a battle of wills.
There is technique and stamina involved, but ultimately, the sport is about one athlete trying to submit another using nothing but their physical strength and desire to win.
Tatum Acker has both of these in spades. The 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Charles Hays Secondary School (CHSS) rolled on a mat for the first time in November, but quickly discovered that she was passionate about the pursuit. Four short months later, she is the Northwest zone champion for the 75 kg weight class after winning her first competitive match.
“It feels great to have won,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s going to feel like competing.
“Practice is practice, but when you’re actually there it’s much different.”
Acker participated in a number of different sports growing up before her transition to wrestling. She took jazz, ballet, acro and modern dance classes from Grades 7 – 9. Acker said she enjoyed the social aspect of dance, but time commitment — she would sometimes have to dance for a few hours a day, five or six days per week — was something she didn’t always enjoy.
“I wanted to be able to get a job and do other things,” she said.
After giving up dance, Acker tried her hand at team sports like basketball and rugby. While she only played for half a season, she said the physical nature of rugby appealed to her and she enjoyed her experience on the field.
“I liked how aggressive it was,” she said. “The tackling part really appealed to me.”
At the beginning of her Grade 11 year, Acker was introduced to wrestling by Dane Waldal, a new teacher at CHSS who was excited to begin a grappling program at the school.
The school’s first practice drew approximately 40 students who were curious to find out what amateur wrestling is about. The group began that practice with a series of movement drills that included somersaults, cartwheels and handstands. These exercises, while seemingly strange, are standard wrestling movements designed to develop agility and body awareness.
Acker found that her background in dance prepared her well for her first wrestling class, as she had already developed the mobility, core strength and flexibility required to complete the movements without too much difficulty.
After the warmup, the group divided into partners where they practiced positioning and using leverage and technique to get their opponents off balance. Acker said at first, she was conscious about trying not to hurt the person she was practising with but eventually it began to feel more normal.
Of the original group that came to that first practice, Acker was one of a dozen students that continued to come consistently to hone and improve their skills.
“It intrigued me,” she said. “I knew I could get better at it, and I knew it was something I can do.”
Waldal said Acker displayed the characteristic unique to all people who excel at wrestling, the desire and drive to overcome a challenge.
“What I find with good wrestlers is that those kinds of adverse situations are what get them more excited,” he said. “It gets them more excited and more focused. Tatum definitely has that trait.”
By the time zone championships came around, Acker had put in hours of time on the mat, but was still nervous about her first official match.
“There was a lot of adrenaline going into it,” she said.
In a wrestling match, each competitor is awarded points for gaining an advantageous position over their opponent. They can do this by pinning their opponent on their back, taking their opponent down, getting on their back or a variety of other methods. Acker’s opponent was slightly larger than her, so her objective was to stay calm, not rush and take advantage of any openings given to her.
Acker said she doesn’t remember a whole lot of what happened, but she remembers hearing Waldal calling out instructions.
Eventually, she was able to execute an arm drag — a technique that involves pulling on an opponents arm to close distance and attempt a take down — which led to her scoring the points to win the match.
“I was relieved, but I was so happy,” she said. “I was so tired. It felt like all the energy out of my body was gone.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to work on my cardio after this.’”
Having tasted some success, Acker said she is eager to get back on the wrestling mat to prepare for next season. She said her goals are to be in shape and ready to compete for the season by the time the school year starts.
Hopefully the same drive and determination that won her the zone championship will propel her to the provincial championships.