Olympics: Senegalese wrestler battles hardships in medal quest

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Olympics: Senegalese wrestler battles hardships in medal quest
sabelle Sambou, a Senegalese freestyle wrestler who is also African Champion, trains at the International Wrestling Centre in Thies, on May 20, 2016 where she is training for the Olympic Games in Rio.

Thies (Senegal) - Sambou stands just 152 centimetres finished fifth in the 48kg freestyle category at the 2012 London Olympics

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Published: Thu 21 Jul 2016, 8:22 PM

Last updated: Thu 21 Jul 2016, 10:28 PM

The diminutive Isabelle Sambou, Africa's wrestler of the decade, began fighting her brothers, has gone on to battle resistance to women taking part in sport and now wants an Olympic medal.
Sambou, who stands just 152 centimetres (five feet) tall, finished fifth in the 48kg freestyle category at the 2012 London Olympics, a result which catapulted her into the spotlight.
Last year the International Wrestling Federation proclaimed her African wrestler of the decade.
Her obsession began in playground scraps in the dusty streets of Senegal's southern Casamance region where she grew up.
"When I was little, I fought my brothers in the sand. One day they looked at me and said 'you're tough, you should try Olympic-style'," she recalled.
Now nine-time African champion for her weight category, she recalls how her career has evolved from traditional Senegalese to freestyle wrestling, which she initially refused to try.
"Traditional wrestling, that happens in the towns and villages, whereas Olympic wrestling - you are representing the colours of your flag - that takes you somewhere else," Sambou said.
Her challenges have come not only from her competitors, but from a training environment where equipment and specialists are scarce, in a nation that frowns upon women practising her sport.
While international counterparts enjoy world-class facilities complemented by the top nutritionists and physiotherapists, the pint-sized grappler trains at a small, poorly-lit gym with her sister - also a wrestler - in the provincial Senegalese city of Thies.
Sambou made it to the Olympic podium despite her modest surroundings, said Ivorian Olympian and director of development for African wrestling Vincent Aka-Akesse.
Her entourage now includes Bulgarian trainers well-versed in the techniques she will have to counter among the Russians and Americans who dominate the sport. Her sessions have increased to three a day since she qualified in April for the Rio Games.
"Isabelle is the most experienced on the circuit. Her offence is great and she defends really well. It's all coming together so that she can get a medal - gold maybe - this summer," said Bulgarian Nikolay Minchev.
Now that Sambou is working with the kind of props and equipment that are standard in other countries: practice dummies, weights and skipping ropes, "there isn't much standing in the way of her and a medal," said Aka-Akesse.
"There is just a small way to go and that's why we brought in Eastern European trainers. They have a wrestling culture and know how to prepare for these big competitions," added the former wrestler ,who has represented his native Ivory Coast and France at Olympic level.
Sambou's regime now involves jogging at 7:00am, a technical session on the mats in the early afternoon, followed by practice bouts with the continent's best male and female competitors.
In the evenings, Sambou can be found watching Senegal's own traditional form of wrestling that sees revered fighters brawl in front of packed crowds, with bouts broadcast live.
Sambou has never experienced this kind of adulation at home. Women taking part in wrestling are considered unfeminine by most Senegalese, and of failing to concentrate on what is expected: finding a man.
"I've heard it all," said Sambou, reeling off the insults she has parried through the years: "You're going to become a man, you will never find a husband..."
She is a strict Christian in a Muslim-majority society and keeps an icon of Jesus on the wall of her bedroom
Regardless, the wrestler will concentrate on starting a family after Rio. But until then she remains single and her focus remains singular, said Aka-Akesse.
"We already know who she's up against, we have the time to work strategically on each of her opponents," he said.
Africa has more talent like Sambou, he said, but they need to be harnessed and developed in a structured way with top-flight training.
"I am always telling them: you are training to beat the Russians, the Americans, so you have to see what they are doing, how they prepare."

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