Wrestling program helps kids stay in school and off the streets
Beat The Streets Toronto also hopes to overcome the stigma against wrestling in Toronto schools
Simi Jayeova leans forward to face her opponent — shoulders squared, eyes focused and feet planted. She's standing in the centre of the outdoor stage at Nathan Phillips Square, surrounded by peers and passersby.
A banner hangs over her head reading "BeattheStreetsToronto Impacting Youth Thru Wrestling."
Suddenly, the referee blows the whistle. Jayeova springs into action—grappling her opponent, side stepping and looking for an opening to take her down. Two takedowns later, she's won.
Jayeova looks confident, collected and cool with her victory. But she says she wasn't always that way.
"I've always been trying to become more of a confident person. Especially as a woman, you tend to make yourself a little bit smaller," she told CBC Toronto.
"But in wrestling, there's no room for that. Once you get on the mat you have to truly and deeply believe in yourself."
Jayeova is one of many girls aged eight to 18 who came out on Monday to participate in Wrestle the North, a festival aimed at promoting both wrestling and women in sport in the GTA.
She's come a long way since first joining Beat the Streets Toronto (BTST), the non-profit organization that held the festival.
Using wrestling and mentoring, BTST encourages athletic, academic and personal development in at-risk communities in the GTA.
Since high school, Jayeova has stuck with the program and now, after receiving a scholarship from BTST, she's going into her second year of engineering at McMaster University.
She says she could not have done it without her mentor.
Stigma in high school wrestling
Wrestling has been losing its popularity in Toronto since the 90s, according to Neal Ewers, executive director of programming at BTST.
In 1990, there were 100 programs across high schools and middle schools belonging to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). In 2016, only 18 remain.
"We want to build it back up," said Ewers.
Since being founded in 2015, BTST has introduced wrestling to more than 9,000 students at 33 schools in the GTA, started five high school wrestling programs and mentored more than 25 students.
They've partnered with the TDSB, United World Wrestling and the Ontario Amateur Wrestling association.
"The idea is to give kids the opportunity to have some activities during that troubled time at 3 to 5 p.m.," Ewers said.
But there are still many challenges facing wrestling in schools.
"It has a stigma," Ewers said, pointing to claims that wrestlers are prone to injury.
But he says that mostly a misconception and in comparison to other contact sports like football and hockey, the injury rate isn't as high.
According to figures from the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study in the U.S., football ranked highest as the most injury prone sport in high school, with four injuries per 1,000 athletes.
Another study in 2013 reported that hockey accounts for almost half of all traumatic brain injuries among Canadian children and teens.
Despite the recent decline in the sport and the perceptions surrounding it, Ewers is confident it will gain popularity once again.
"I think it's on the rise and we're trying to push that."
'Wrestling isn't just about the sport ... it's about you'
Genevieve Morrison was a wrestler for the national team in Calgary but at 28, she wanted a shift in her career, so she started coaching and mentoring kids with BTST.
"After my career, I was just left with all of these lessons I've learnt and all of this knowledge—I felt like, now what?"
So far, Morrison has mentored five girls. However, she says informally, that number is much higher.
"It's mostly about getting the girls to believe in themselves," she said. "There's something about wrestling that really uncovers a new level of confidence in kids."
As for Jayeova, she's confident the lessons she's learned in the sport will continue to help her down the road.
"Wrestling isn't just about the sport," she said. "It's about you."
With files from Grant Linton