I was a young girl in the small town of Olds, Alberta when I first developed a big dream. I wanted to be an Olympic champion in the sport of wrestling.
“August 18, 2016. 7 a.m. Today is the day I have been dreaming of for over a decade! I have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to be able to compete here! I am certain I am going to win today. My preparation leading up to this event has been flawless, and I have never felt mentally or physically better. I will be the first women’s wrestling match of the day against Ukraine- she is tough but I am better. You are an OLYMPIC CHAMPION!”
That excerpt was taken from my personal wrestling journal, written in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the Olympic Games. Three hours after it was written, and just ten minutes before my first match, my Olympic dream ended with a devastating injury.
In pursuit of The Dream
I was introduced to wrestling at my middle school. I was always athletic and abnormally strong. Because of these qualities, I was fairly successful in whatever sport I tried. But wrestling was where I first found success on the national stage.
In 9th grade, I attended my first national championships — the first time repping my town at a national level! I didn’t medal, but I met a coach from Calgary, who convinced me I could be on the top of that podium the following year. I believed him. The next year I won my first national championship. My dream developed into wholehearted belief that I would be an Olympic champion in 2016. It would all fall into place. I would have been the ideal age for optimal performance in wrestling. I would have had enough training and competition to realize my potential. Every thought from that moment on involved the 2016 Olympic Games. Every choice I made, every wish I had, every relationship I developed, involved the prioritization and expectation that I would accomplish my Olympic Dream.
After a successful high school wrestling career I moved to B.C. to attend Simon Fraser University. Although I had wrestled for a few years at this point, I hadn’t really trained to be a high performance athlete. That changed at SFU. I trained twice a day, and wrestled five or six days a week, 12 months of the year. For the first time I was strength training. For the first time I was learning how to shoot leg attacks. For the first time my technique grew beyond my one and only (and beloved) head and arm throw.
In 2009 I made my first junior national wrestling team, which meant I would attend my first junior world championships. I went to the worlds that year, unbelievably nervous, and feeling like I didn't belong. I remember watching the competition, telling myself I wasn’t ready and wasn’t deserving to be a champion. I had already lost before I wrestled my first match. I placed 8th. But as I watched the finals, and analyzed my performance, I realized my mistake. I was ready. I was a champion; doubt had been the difference between a gold medal and my 8th-place finish. In 2010, I told myself someone had to win the junior worlds, why not me?
In 2010, I again won the junior nationals and went to my second junior world championships. This time though, I believed I deserved to be the world champion. I stepped on the mats and at the end of the competition, I was the 2010 junior world champion.
In 2012, at the Canadian Olympic Trials, I lost to the eventual 2012 Olympic Team member. I remained optimistic, and focused on 2016 — my time, my dream.
In 2014, I had a breakout year on the senior circuit, winning senior nationals for the first time, winning university worlds, the Commonwealth Games, and placing 8th at my first senior world championships. I finished that season excited and confident.
I took two weeks off after the 2014 World Championships. On my first day back, I tore my ACL. It was devastating. My first serious injury and my first surgery. I was forced to do a lot of soul searching. For the first time I was tasked with figuring out who I was without wrestling. If not “Danielle the Wrestler”, who was I? This question was one of the hardest, yet most valuable problems I ever solved. By critically looking at myself, my values, and desires, I became comfortable, confident, and proud of who I was. I came to value myself based on the kind of person I was, rather than on external factors such as what it was that I did to fill my days (and how well I did it). Developing an identity separate from sport was invaluable — to my mental health, performance, and happiness.
The Olympic Dream remained unbroken and undisturbed through the physical struggles of rehab from surgery and identity-searching. I was convinced the comeback would just make my story that much better — right?
In December 2015, part one of my Olympic Dream was realized. I was able, against all odds, to come back from ACL surgery and win the Canadian Olympic Trials. That moment was indescribable. Euphoric. A success accomplished in front of all my close friends and family. I was so proud. I had experienced some difficult challenges and heart-breaking losses, but generally, my wrestling career was progressing flawlessly towards the realization of my Olympic Dream.
My preparation for the Olympics was ideal. I spent most of my time with the same small group of people — my Olympic teammates, support staff, and coaches. They would come to be some of my closest friends. We shared a singular focus — to perform at the Olympic Games. And we knew we had what it took to make the dream a reality.
I was scheduled to compete at the Olympic Games on August 18, 2016 (my Dad’s birthday!). The morning of competition I was so excited and so confident; the realization of my Olympic Dream was SO close. I was meant to be there. I felt so much pride in representing my hometown, my family, and my country. The Opening Ceremony was surreal, in that moment I finally felt it. I was an Olympian. My parents were in Rio. Their first trip in 15 years, all the way to Brazil to watch me compete. Success at the 2016 Olympics — that moment — felt like my destiny.
My warmup was always identical before each wrestling competition. At the Olympics it was no different. I felt energized, powerful, excited. I was in the ideal physical and mental state for my wrestling performance.
In my second last technique, my partner made a slight movement and I felt a surge of agony in my left butt cheek. I collapsed to my back on the warmup mat. As I lay there, I told myself to look calm, as my competition warmed up ten feet away from where I lay. I whispered to my training partner to go get the medical staff. They came over to me, kneeling beside me to ask what happened. I didn't know. They helped me up and I limped to the team Canada change room to be assessed. I had no strength to even lift my left leg but no one knew what was wrong. I was given two Advil. At that moment, an Olympic organiser knocked on the change room door looking for me. They were waiting on me to begin the day of competition. I walked very slowly to the entrance, attempting to hide my limp and my pain. My competitor was waiting. My coaches were whispering in my ears, trying to encourage me with stories of wrestlers who had performed with major injuries. I was trying to pump myself up with these stories too. They called my name — “Danielle Lappage, Canada.”
I managed to walk out from backstage and onto the wrestling mat. I crouched, getting into my wrestling stance. The whistle blew. My competitor snapped my head; as I posted out my leg to defend the action I collapsed, having no strength in my leg. The ref again blew the whistle, asking if I was okay. He was confused because nothing appeared to have happened. I walked to my coaches, big-eyed and scared. I was pinching myself, thinking that this moment has to be a nightmare. I looked out into the spectators, instantly finding my parents in the crowd. Their faces looked confused and scared. I started to bawl. I knew I couldn't continue. I had to withdraw from the rest of the tournament. That was the end of my Olympic journey. I had failed to achieve my Olympic Dream.
After, in the Olympic Village, I learned that I had ruptured my hamstring. It was a devastating injury; doctors suggested it may end my wrestling career. There was a long and difficult rehab ahead, with uncertainty in the prognosis.
I had suffered many injuries throughout my wrestling career, and came back stronger from each one. I never swayed from my goal of being an Olympian. This injury was different. The Rio Olympics was the moment. It was my motivation and my dream for over a decade. I sacrificed and trained so hard every day for years with the expectation that the payoff would be a gold medal in 2016. It was supposed to be the pinnacle of my career — a storybook ending.
But it did not unfold like that for me.
In the days, months and years since the 2016 Olympics, I have reflected a lot on my wrestling career. What I have learned is that, while I was chasing the Olympic Dream, I failed to realize that each day in pursuit of that goal, I had been living the dream. For most of my wrestling career I worked towards a single moment in time, unappreciative of the experiences, relationships, and lessons I was gaining through my involvement in the sport. I had been living a magical and distinguished life through it all.
I have been committed to wrestling for 13 years. I have been obsessed and in love with the sport the whole time. I still feel nerves, goosebumps, and excitement before each competition. What a privilege it is to do something you love every day for 13 years!
I have earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and am currently working towards a law degree. I have traveled to more than 30 countries. I have grown into a person I am proud of. This sport has helped me become empathetic, resilient, dedicated, hard-working, and relentless. I have met my life-long best friends, role models, and mentors. These relationships are the most valuable part of my experience in sport. I continue to dream big and have high expectations for myself, but I am now conscious and appreciative of the experiences along the way.
My wrestling journey continues. I have returned to the sport mentally and physically stronger than I was before the 2016 Olympic Games. I earned a silver medal at the senior world championships in October 2018. I am currently working towards the 2020 Tokyo Games.
My remaining days on the mats become fewer and fewer. I am aware that my wrestling career, inevitably, will end in the near future. Regardless of how it ends, I will leave the sport fully satisfied, immensely proud, and forever grateful. Wrestling has allowed this small-town girl to dream bigger than she ever thought possible, and to live that dream each and every day.
(Top large photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images; top middle large photo Balazs Czagany/The Associated Press; bottom middle large photo by Glyn Kirk/Getty Images; bottom large photo by Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images)