WRESTLING: Stephany Lee faces tough opposition in her journey towards the Olympics
Stephany Lee was lucky when she started wrestling in high school. She lived in Hawaii, a state that has a separate wrestling association for girls. This isn't the case for most high school girls, who have to wrestle in a boy's world. They are on boys' teams, compete against boys, and oftentimes have to deal with the politics of being in the minority."Other girls had to worry about the politics associated with wrestling against guys,"said Lee."Hawaii is a lot more open, rather than saying you shouldn't be doing that. It was not looked down upon for a girl to wrestle. I never had people say that I shouldn't be wrestling."So when Lee joined the wrestling team as a sophomore in high school, the transition from judo wasn't difficult. Lee had competed in judo since she was seven years old. The girls wrestling coach at her high school was involved in judo and followed the sport. After tracking her on the judo mat, he recruited her to come out for wrestling. Lee has come a long way since that first year of wrestling, geographically and skill-wise. From Hawaii she traveled to Missouri Valley to compete in college and then to Colorado Springs where she is a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Now Lee travels all over the world for competition as well."It was different to be traveling a lot,"said Lee."In college I would go to one major tournament and I would have a few smaller college competitions. It was nothing like this. It was good not to stay here, to get out and compete, and then come back and train."During the past six months she has competed at the Sunkist International, the NYAC International, the World Cup, the Chicago Cup, the Dave Schultz Memorial International, and the Pan American Championships. All of this international competition has really helped Lee as a wrestler."It's really important,"U.S. Women's National Coach Terry Steiner said."I don't think you can go to the World Championships or the Olympics thinking you can do well if you haven't had international experience. For her to have gotten in so much international experience is really good for her."At the World Cup, Lee helped the U.S. squad to a second place finish. She went 2-1 during the competition, earning crucial wins against her Japanese and Chinese opponents."Honestly, the World Cup freaked me out,"said Lee."I had never been to anything that big. I got on the mat and froze. I really didn't wrestle well and lost my first match. Against Japan, it came down to me, to my match. I stepped it up, got over it, and wrestled the way I normally do."Lee also took at an individual gold at the Pan American Championships. She posted wins over Rosangela Conceicao of Brazil and Jaresmit Weffer of Venezuela to earn a spot in the finals. There she scored a convincing win, pinning Ohenewa Akuffo of Canada at 1:56 in the first period. Next up is the ASICS/USA Wrestling National Championships. There Lee will face perhaps an even tougher battle, competing in a weight class that features four Junior and Senior World medalists."This weight class has the only two world titles we've won since I have been a part of the program with Iris Smith and Kristie Marano,"said Steiner."Katie Downing has been a consistent competitor internationally. Ali Bernard has two junior World titles. Stephany has a University World title."Lee echoes her coach's sentiments, and knows that every opponent she will face on the mat is a talented wrestler."There are three women that have world medals,"said Lee."Kristie (Marano) has nine, Katie (Downing) has two bronze medals, and Iris (Smith) had a gold medal. I have a University World medal, but nothing compares to having that medal from Worlds."It's possible that the U.S. Olympic Team Trials will be harder than many of the international competitions these women compete in."They all need to realize that the toughest thing about getting an Olympic medal may be making the team,"said Steiner."I think it's good. They have a daily reminder that someone else could take their spot."At the National Championships these women will compete for the top seed at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials and an automatic berth into the final. With fewer weight classes at the Olympics, a number of wrestlers have moved up, including Downing. Lee feels good about where she is in the preparation for Nationals and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials."I have been doing a lot more, and it feels good,"Lee said."This is my first year not going to school while I am training. It's given me more time to focus on wrestling, to focus on myself and make sure I am where I need to be."Having taken part in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Lee is also better prepared this time around."I was focused on who those other wrestlers were and I wasn't mentally prepared,"Lee said."Now, I have five years of experience. That has definitely helped me understand that it doesn't matter who I am wrestling. It's whoever's having the best day that will win."The mental aspect of the sport is as important as skills or conditioning. It's something Lee knows she needs to work on to continue to improve and to do well in competition."The most challenging part is definitely the mental aspect,"said Lee."The strategies and knowing each opponent I am going to face."Nationals will show just how far Lee has matured, mentally and physically as a wrestler, and ultimately show how close she is to making it to the Olympics."Opportunities to chase your Olympic aspirations, your Olympic dreams don't come around all the time,"said Steiner."Four years from now may never come."When Stephany steps on the mat, she'll be ready to face whatever opponent she draws."I have learned not to look at the person on the mat as that person and their medals,"said Lee."I don't wrestle them for what they have accomplished. It's not her and all her stuff against me. It's just that person versus me. I have to put everything out and may the best person win."