Lots of Niagara content on OFSAA wrestling podium
It was mission accomplished for Leela Benjamin after she captured a bronze medal in the 115-kilogram division at the recent Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations wrestling championships in Windsor.
“It was really exciting because it was my goal to make it to the top three and I made it,” the Grade 11 student at Denis Morris said.
The 17-year-old came close to making the gold medal match. Her semifinal was tied 1-1 and her opponent flipped her to grab a 5-1 lead.
“I wasn’t able to do anything else and she ended up winning.”
In the bronze medal match, the St. Catharines native matched up against an aggressive opponent who charged at her.
“I just had to stay low and make sure she wasn’t able to get my legs,” Benjamin said. “I had the right mentality on how to block her.”
She ended up winning 5-0 and had her arm raised by the official after the match.
“I was like ‘Omigod’ but it had to register with me first,” she said.
The scope of her accomplishment set in right before she was handed her medal.
“We were all lining up to get on the podium and I got really excited,” she said. “It was a really cool moment.”
Benjamin hasn’t trained since OFSAA, but she is planning to work out with the Brock Junior Badgers to continue to work on her skills.
“I want to keep it up so I am still fit,” said the Zone 3/4 and Southern Ontario Secondary Schools Association champion.
Last year, Benjamin, who has been wrestling since Grade 9, placed second at zone and SOSSA and ended up seventh at OFSAA.
Her goal for the upcoming Grade 12 wrestling season is to climb even higher on the OFSAA podium.
“I have to continue training and trying to get better than the year before and stay fit.”
Wrestling is the only sport Benjamin partakes in but she’s a busy girl. She has a part-time job and is involved at her high school in choir, the peer acceptance club and social justice.
Rebecca Hendriks can recall the exact moment she first became interested in wrestling.
In Grade 12 at Blessed Trinity at the time, the Beamsville resident was watching a wrestling meet through the window in the gym and her uncle, Gerry Hendriks, who works at the school came up to her.
“He saw me gawking at them one day when a tournament was at our school. He said ‘You kids are all so tough so why don’t you get in there and do it.’ I told him that I didn’t know and that it didn’t look like a sport for me, but I went out to one practice.”
The 18-year-old felt awkward at first.
“I had never done a sport that has that much contact, but you realize no one is looking at you,” she said. “They are all playing a sport as well.”
In her first year, she qualified for OFSAA and went 2-2 in the 67.5-kilogram division. She shocked herself this year by winning a bronze medal at the high school provincials.
“I definitely surprised myself and I did not think that I was going to make the podium,” the 12B student said.
Hendriks attributed her family life to her rapid ascent in wrestling.
“I have six brothers, so that is definitely a part of it,” she said. “It’s a big family and were all pretty strong.”
“Growing up, I have always been really athletic and I love sports and the drive to do it.”
She also has a natural tendency to be aggressive.
“I have a very competitive edge and my coach (Megan Schweitzer) was obviously pushing me,” she said. “She is able to motivate me because she knows me enough to know where to push.”
Hendriks didn’t have a great semifinal match, but rebounded nicely to win the bronze by technical superiority (ahead by 10 or more points).
“I knew what I had done wrong when I lost my semi,” she said. “I had gotten so worked up and stressed.”
Schweitzer was able to get her to focus on the right things and win the bronze.
“I didn’t know how to react,” she said. “I am still in disbelief that I have a won bronze at OFSAA. People tell me congratulations and I don’t even know how to respond.”
Hendriks, who also competes in rugby, cross country, slo-pitch, badminton, soccer, slo-pitch and track and field for Blessed Trinity, is off to Brock in the fall and hopes to wrestle in university.
“When I started looking at universities, I noticed that every one I looked at, I was intentionally checking to see if they had a wrestling team,” she said.
Hendriks will have her hands full cracking the Brock women’s team that has won five straight Canadian university titles and boasts some of the top up-and-coming wrestlers in Canada.
“I like a challenge and I have already surprised myself with how far I did make it,” she said. “I’m a quick learner.”
Laura Secord’s Aidan Gowans has made impressive progress on the wrestling mat.
Last year, the Grade 10 student placed second at Zone and SOSSA and finished 10th in the 38-kilogram division at OFSAA. One year later, he’s Zone and SOSSA champion and a fourth-place finisher at OFSAA.
“I was pretty happy with how it all turned out,” the 15-year-old Niagara-on-the-Lake native said. “Everyone is hoping to go on to the final match, but I was excited to go on to the third- and fourth-place match.”
After losing his semifinal match, Gowans ended up on the other side of his bracket and had to win another match to get a chance to wrestle with bronze. He felt he wrestled really well to make the medal match and OK in his last match.
He has lots of time to get farther in the sport.
“I am going to do it again next year and I definitely want to go all the way.”
Gowans knows what he needs to do to make that a reality.
“I definitely have to come out to all the practices I can, keep working and do my best.”
He is no longer training and will pick the sport back up again in the fall.
“I am taking a break because in the summers I usually have something on,” he said. “I am busy.”
This coming summer, he’s hoping to get accepted into six-week camp for Air Cadets.
Madeleine Leung thought her high school wrestling season was over after breaking her left wrist in November.
“It’s kind of hard to wrestle when you have been out half the season,” the Grade 12 student at Sir Winston Churchill said. “It’s a sport where you have to keep training, but with a broken wrist you can’t really do anything.”
But the three-time Zone 3/4 champion and three-time SOSSA silver medalist at 77 kilograms persevered and returned to the mat in February. There were, however, other obstacles to overcome. Her training partner suffered a neck injury that ended her season and the only other Churchill wrestler she could train with was a male in a much lighter weight class.
“It took me until zone and SOSSA until it felt better and even at Zone I could still feel it, she said. “But it worked out for the best and at OFSAA it was fine.”
In her third trip to OFSAA, she ended up fifth which was two spots better than her previous best finish.
“I didn’t mess up at all,” she said. “I have a tendency to be doing really well and then mess up. I didn’t do that this year.”
Leung is heading to Brock University in the fall and isn’t sure if her wrestling career is over.
Another injury-plagued wrestler who persevered to place fifth at OFSAA was Denis Morris’ Mikayla Custers.
The 17-year-old tore her meniscus and sprained her ankle in a season that saw her finish second at the SOSSA and Zone championships at 67.5 kilograms, after winning both titles the two previous years.
The injuries occurred a month and a half before the zone championships, but Custers was determined to battle through it.
“It’s my last year and I wanted to finish it and finish it strong,” the Grade 12 student said. “I kept wrestling because I have been doing it for awhile and OFSAA meant something to me.
“I made it there four times and I had never made it to the second day.”
This time, she did reach the second day and was one of sixth athletes to end up on the podium.
“I had to wrestle strong and smart and listen to my coaches which I don’t always do,” she said. “Sometimes I perform little tricky moves that aren’t successful.”
On the second day, she won all her matches until she ran into good friend Hendriks.
“We have kind of gone back and forth all year and we both know how each other wrestles,” Custers. “She threw in something new and got a beautiful pin.”
After taking four years to get on a podium at OFSAA, the moment was anticlimactic.
“I was kind of emotionless,” she said. “It was weird.”
Custers has been accepted at Brock and she will also be joining Hendriks trying to make the Brock women’s team.
“That is my next goal,” she said. “Getting on the varsity team and competing with them.”
She can’t see herself not wrestling.
“It’s like a family,” she said. “We are all very close. Even though Rebecca and I compete against each other, we hang out on weekends and we have sleepovers together.”
Not surprisingly, those sleepovers feature an occasional wrestling match.
“Oh my goodness yes,” she said, with a laugh. “There was a couple times when we were wrestling on a carpet and we were banging our knees.
“And in the winter, we are out in the snow wrestling.”
Mia Friesen was delighted with her sixth-place finish in the 61-kilogram division at OFSAA.
“I was really happy with how I did because I had never wrestled before,” the Grade 10 student at Governor Simcoe said. “Winning one match at OFSAA would have been really cool for me and I ended up winning five.”
The 15-year-old won her first match and lost her second which forced her to go the long way around in her bracket.
She ended up as one of the six wrestlers standing on the podium at the end of the meet.
“I was just kind of happy to be there and excited to move forward with it,” she said.
It’s a sport she wants to continue to pursue.
“It’s everything about it,” Friesen said. “It’s natural for me on the mat and all the moves came naturally to me. It was weird because I had never done it before.”
Most sports come naturally for Friesen. She plays field lacrosse with the Rochester Lady Rock, basketball at Simcoe and last year was ninth at OFSAA track and field in the midget girls 80-metre hurdles.
“I think right now wrestling is a really close second to lacrosse,” she said.
Her goal is to get a NCAA field lacrosse scholarship and training in wrestling will aid her in achieving that goal.
“Power-wise, strength-wise and cardio. Everything helps.”
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