As her friends watched with amusement, 12-year-old Joy Sepieh struggled to remove a bundle of medals from a green shopping bag at a high school wrestling gym in the Montreal borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro.
Don’t expect her to know how many medals she has.
“I don’t know,” Sepieh said. “I didn’t count.”
She’s has competed and won in numerous city and provincial championships, including the Jeux de Montréal this year.
The former basketball player, who also boxes, started when she was six years old. Her father, a former wrestler, had signed up her brother at the Riverdale Wrestling Club in the borough.
“A year or two later my coach asked if I wanted to start wrestling and I started wrestling,” she explained.
That was about six years ago. Four years later, Sepieh got her friend Samara Dhanesar to join the club.
“She used to play football,” Sepieh explained. “She seems very sporty and like she might like combat sports.”
Dhanesar, who is also 12, doesn’t have as many medals yet as she’s only been at it for two years. But she has also won multiple championships, including a gold medal this year at the Jeux de Montréal.
The best part about wrestling for Dhanesar is that she has to meet her adversary face to face and be able to predict how her opponent will move.
“When you’re done, you feel good that you did combat,” Dhanesar aughed. “That’s what I feel every single time I’m done, even if I lose.”
Though the pre-teens are having fun with their sport, their achievement is significant in that they’re helping to change the face of a sport in which there are so few women competitors.
According to Josef Azam, a former wrestler at the club and who restarted the youth program, there are more than 30 youth in the group.
“There are three girls in the class now,” he noted. “Joy and Samara are like the pillars of the girls’ program.”
Azam stressed that since there is still a perception that the sport is for men, it’s important to change that idea and that starts with the girls in the group.
“In fact some of the greatest wrestlers in this country are not the men,” he said. “It’s the women, like Martine Dugrenier, executive director of the Fédération de Lutte Olympique du Québec (and former Olympian).”
Azam hopes more girls will follow in Sepieh’s and Dhanesar’s footsteps.