Isabelle Sambou, the female wrestler defying gender norms in Senegal

Isabelle Sambou (in a green shirt) during a coaching session in Casamance region in southern Senegal. Photo : Maria Knodt

The nine-time African wrestling champion and Africa’s wrestler of the decade is now coaching both young men and women in Senegal – a nation that traditionally frowned upon women practising the sport.

Maria Knodt, bird story agency

In one of the training rooms at the lower level of the Senegal National Arena in Dakar, four men are warming up. They are waiting for their coach, who will train them in freestyle wrestling techniques.

Moments later, 42-year-old Isabelle Sambou walks in.

Standing just 152 centimetres (five feet) tall, Isabelle Sambou is a nine-time African Wrestling Championship gold medalist. And in 2015, she was crowned African Wrestler of the Decade by the World Wrestling Association.

“She is the best and so humble. We come from far away to learn from her,” said Demba Seck, one of the young wrestlers.

Sambou, who comes from the Casamance region in southern Senegal, is a national sensation. She is widely known, not only for her many gold medals but also for daring to break barriers by competing in the national sport of Senegal.

Top traditional wrestlers are the equivalent of rock stars in Senegal, with massive followings. Known locally as Laamb or Lutte Traditionnelle, traditional wrestling is played out in large, sandy arenas and professionals can win purses of up to US$300,000 at major tournaments. Wrestling is generally regarded as a sport for men and is associated with proving manliness.

For Sambou, wrestling runs in the family. Her mother and grandmother were strong wrestlers taking it up even against men. One of her cousins, Eveline Diatta, was among the first women wrestlers to compete for Senegal internationally.

“I wrestled just for the entertainment of our village and neighbourhood. You know, sometimes, when we wrestled, the boys and men would come and watch. One day, one said to me, ‘You wrestle well. Why don’t you do Olympic wrestling?’ I said, ‘no’, But he went to my older brother. My big brother said, ‘No problem. Right now, she is only wrestling for entertainment. If she can go wrestle to win something, that’s great.’ That’s how they got me into wrestling,” said Sambou.

At 19 years old, Sambou started training for Olympic wrestling in Ziguinchor in Casamance and two years later, in 2001, began to compete in the African Wrestling Championships
“When I went the first time, I got to the finals and lost it. It was a lack of experience because it was my first time. But in the second year, I took first place. In the third year, I won the final as well. In total, I won nine times,” said Sambou.

Sambou went to the global stage from here, participating in two Olympic wrestling competitions; London in 2012 and Rio in 2016.

In London, she advanced to the bronze medal match, where she was defeated by Carol Huynh of Canada, who had taken the Olympic medal in Beijing.

“We wrestled, but none of us made a point. You know, there was a “clinch” rule at that time. If the three minutes are up and nobody has scored any points, they will do a draw. The draw came up with this. I ended up in the fifth place,” she said.

At the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, she competed in the freestyle 53 kg event. She defeated Nguyen Thi Lua of Vietnam in the first round and was defeated by eventual silver medalist Saori Yoshida of Japan during the quarterfinals, ending in 8th place.

Soon after, Sambou exited the international competition scene and returned to Senegal.

“The career of a sportsperson is not long. But when I stopped, I said to myself, ‘I can’t go anywhere else. I must go back home to teach young people what I know. I can’t keep the expertise I have to myself.’ So, I returned here to train young people,” she said.

It’s not only men that Sambou trains. She is also teaching a new generation of young girls in Senegal to take up wrestling. Her training group consists of girls aged 12 and above.

“In Casamance, many girls want to be like me or do even more than me because they saw me on television, Facebook, or Google. And sometimes, if I am there, they come to my house in the morning to make me watch how they wrestle. I train many young women, but what we lack is the means. I would like to build a gym for wrestling in the Casamance,” said Sambou.

However, Sambou admits this has been a very challenging road. While men’s wrestling in Senegal receives enormous funding and support, there is still a significant lack of funding for women’s wrestling.

“When you return home, you have nothing. Right now, I have no house, no vehicle, nothing. I came back, and, in the beginning, I was in Ziguinchor. Then the president [of the Senegalese Olympic Wrestling Federation] told me to go here. They gave me the wrestling room, and I started to train kids. I coach, but there’s no salary.

There is a lot of money for wrestling with hitting (traditional wrestling) in Senegal but not for Olympic wrestling. You may be being paid for competitions or if you win a scholarship, but it’s not for you; it’s just for your training and preparation for tournaments.”

To get by, Sambou cleans people’s houses in Dakar.

“If someone needs their house to be cleaned, I come by and clean it. At the end of the month, you pay me, and I earn my living. And sometimes our federation reimburses me for transportation. But I don’t have a salary every month like other people. I have to live with my older brother because I cannot afford the rent for an apartment for myself,” she added.

Despite the challenges, Sambou is determined to see more female wrestlers emerging in Senegal. She regularly calls for investment into sports academies nationwide where wrestling, judo and other sports can be practised.

“If I had money to build a gym for wrestling, you would see what I’m talking about. I know that there would be many female Olympic champions. I am sure because the children are determined, and they like what they do. They love wrestling because it is part of their culture. There will be a lot of girls who will come and join because they like it,” she said.

In addition, she also believes that local competitions and tournaments between regions would grow this sport.

“If there are regional and national championships, it will make wrestling better known. Then there will be wrestlers everywhere because children will watch it and say, ‘I’m going to be a wrestler too.’ That’s what currently missing. We don’t have a lot of resources,” said Sambou.

bird story agency

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