In the middle of Kazakhstan, nearer to Mongolia than Moscow, two women stand in a small yellow circle at the centre of a great, flat sea of blue foam. In six minutes, one of them will be champion of the world.
The 26-year-old Canadian, in her grey-and-blue singlet, looks every bit the visitor against her red-clad Russian opponent, and after an uncertain opening 90 seconds, she finds herself trailing 6-0. Watching in Canada, you can hear that familiar note of polite trepidation in the commentator’s voice.
This time, Linda Morais didn’t panic.
After besting competitors from Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Mongolia, the L’Essor graduate is facing off against Russia’s Liubov Ovcharova for gold at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in the Women’s 59-kilogram Freestyle division. A Tecumseh native, Morais won a bronze medal at the 2016 Championships but exited the 2018 tournament early after dropping two closely contested matches.
The referee restarts the match with just over four minutes remaining after the combatants stray to the perimeter of the ring. The CBC microphone picks up the Canadian coach, loud and clear: Let’s go! You’re still in it. We’ve got lots of time.
In freestyle wrestling, matches comprise two three-minute rounds. Competitors are awarded points for executing maneuvers from a highly technical catalogue of actions like takedowns and reversals. A skilled wrestler can accrue up to five points in a single motion. When time expires, the wrestler with more points wins, unless one of them is able to pin the other to the mat.
Often, things fall apart quickly. Here, the two women engage each other in a standing grapple, tight braids together like rutting elk. Suddenly, explosively, Morais throws herself headfirst into the mat, taking the Russian with her. Holding both shoulders down, she wrenches her opponent’s right arm under her weight. The fall counts. The match is over.
“Tecum-suh, Ontario, throwing one heck of a party tonight!” crows the commentator. You know you’ve made it when you hear you’re the name of your hometown mangled on national television.
“A lot can happen in three minutes,” recalls Morais, a couple months removed. “Instead of panicking, which I’ve often done in the past, I was able to keep my cool and my composure. When she went in for that last attack, I was able to feel that she was off balance. Had I been more worked up or upset or kind of rushing, I don’t think I would have caught that moment to capitalize on that mistake.”
Clearly, Morais can dissect her performance intelligently, with a sense of perspective and proportion. She seems, not unlike her Russian foe, eminently grounded. Principally, Morais credits her triumph to a year of focus on her mentality. She’s been working closely with the sports psychologist Theresa Biano, an assistant professor of Psychology at Concordia, to learn to better regulate her emotions.
“Every year that I compete at the Worlds, I learn something new about myself,” she explains. “I finally feel like I’m learning the mental side of sport, which was holding me back. In the past I’d always seen a world champion as somebody who’s a superstar, but going into this tournament, I really saw myself on that podium. I believed that I could give a little bit more and be successful.”
In wrestling, as in most amateur sports, the World Championships represent the pinnacle of competition outside Olympic years.
This year’s tournament took place in the wrestling hotbed of Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, the remote national capital previously known as Astana. I don’t know as much as I might want to about Russo-Kazakh politics, but it’s not difficult to imagine a partisan crowd in Nur-Sultan taking in a contest pitting a plucky Canadian against a wrestler from Kazakhstan’s historically dominant neighbour. Morais, who calls this year’s tournament “the best I’ve been to so far,” permits me to imagine this scenario aloud, but can neither confirm nor deny my suspicions.
“Honestly, I don’t know at all,” she admits. “Everything you’ve just mentioned would throw me off my game. Going into the match, all I could hear was my coach. That’s the special thing about sports: you tend to zone out the crowd.”
Today, Morais’s focus is on Tokyo 2020. “In my opinion nothing compares to the Olympics,” she stresses. “That is the big goal that I’ve had for quite some time now. For an athlete to be able to peak on that one day every four years is just absolutely incredible.”
The path is not an easy one. Morais’s success at the Worlds earned her a spot in the final of the Canadian Olympic selections in Niagara Falls. On December 7, just before press time, Morais defeated 21-year-old Prince Edward Islander Hannah Taylor by fall to win the competition. This victory earned Morais a place in the Pan-Am Olympic Qualification Tournament in March. A top-two finish at that competition, which will be contested in Ottawa, would secure her an Olympic berth. Morais’s previous best finish at the Pan-Am level was fifth, in 2018.
Morais’s Olympic dreams are complicated by the fact that her 59-kilogram weight class is not contested at the Olympic Games. Essentially, she must “move up” to the 62-kilogram division or drop down to 57 kilograms to compete in Olympic qualifiers. Ultimately, she chose to wrestle at the lighter weight. “It’s going to be quite a challenge,” she notes. “I never felt quite comfortable wrestling at the higher weight class as the girls at 62 kilograms are a bit bigger than I am. My vision of 2020 became clearer as I started picturing myself wrestling at 57 kilograms. I’m lean, and I feel powerful, fast, and strong. I’m able to move my body through techniques easier than when I’m carrying an extra four kilograms of fat. I’m confident in my abilities and I’m ready to see what I can do out there!”
I’m not sure anybody needs or wants to hear another straight male writer ruminate about the way a young woman looks, but the body is a difficult subject to avoid when you’re a woman who wrestles for a living.
“People look at female athletes a certain way. So many times, people say, ‘You don’t look anything like a wrestler.’ I’ll say, Really? What does a wrestler look like?”– Linda Morais
“People look at female athletes at certain way,” notes Morais when I ask her about the public perception of what she does. “So many times, people say, ‘You don’t look anything like a wrestler.’ I’ll say, Really? What does a wrestler look like?”
Morais looks exactly like a wrestler insofar as she is one, but you can perhaps see where the incredulity comes from. Standing at about five-foot-six, Morais carries her taut, typically proportioned frame almost inconspicuously. If you overlook the enviable muscle definition, you can easily imagine her as, say, your friend’s daughter from Tecumseh.
“It’s not necessarily true that the typical wrestler looks like a macho, manly dude,” she continues. “There are a lot of negative stereotypes associated with the sport, which I’d like to break.”
It’s an admirable goal. While Windsorites have woven a surprisingly thick web of connections across the WWE-style “professional wrestling” world—scare quotes very much intentional—few would call it an amateur wrestling hotbed.
“It’s a combat sport, but it’s very technical. You’re not trying to hurt your opponent. We try to win with techniques and finesse.”– Linda Morais
“A lot of people, when they think of wrestling, think of a scary, gory match with a lot of hitting,” says Morais, who notes that the possibility of injury scares many parents away from the sport. “It is a combat sport, but it’s very technical. You’re not trying to hurt your opponent. We try to win with techniques, and with finesse.”
Morais first encountered wrestling in middle school, during an orientation day for incoming students at L’Essor. “It was actually my dad who walked into the wrestling portable,” she recalls. “For some reason, he immediately thought I’d excel at the sport.”
This hunch was not built on pure conjecture. “I was always an active child,” says Morais, who played soccer and volleyball in her youth and made a habit of beating her male cousins in arm-wrestling contests. “My dad always thought I was extremely strong. He just saw fight and strength in my character, I guess.” Sure enough, Morais joined the school’s “baby wrestling” program in Grade 8, quickly establishing herself as a standout at the high school level.
After graduation, Morais chose to attend Concordia University due to the strength of its wrestling program and the opportunity to train at Montreal’s YM-YWHA Wrestling Club under coaches Victor and Dave Zilberman and Martine Dugrenier.
Currently, Morais receives Sport Canada funding, which allows her to focus full time on wrestling. She left Concordia with a Master of Science in Exercise Science with a minor in Education, but not before capturing World University Championship gold medals in 2016 and 2018. Morais is now working towards a Master of Education at the University of Montreal, aiming to soon qualify to teach high school science and technology.
There is a tendency to write and talk about women’s sports in terms of their inspirational potential as representative figures rather than their actual athletic success. This is regrettable, but we’d feel remiss if we didn’t ask about how Morais’s gender has coloured her experience of amateur athletics. Refreshingly, there’s not much of a story here. “Canadian women have always been strong contenders on the international stage,” she notes, “and I believe that because of our consistent success, we are well respected by the men in the sport.” In fact, as Sport Canada funding is determined based on international performance, female Canadian wrestlers receive more financial support than their male counterparts.
While it seems strange to describe somebody born after the release of Jurassic Park as a wily veteran, Morais is approaching the point in her career where a grapple with Father Time is not a million miles away. She intends to compete through the 2020 Olympic cycle and then reassess her options. “I do feel like I’m in my prime right now,” she says. “I feel like I could continue in the sport—like I have more in me—but there is really no way of telling. I don’t know how much longer my body will be able to put up with this.”
After her athletic career wraps up, whenever that may be, Morais hopes to move back to Essex County. Wrestling doesn’t have much of an off-season, but she tries to make it home as often as she can—typically a couple times a year—to spend time with her parents, brother, and niece and nephew.
“One of my dream jobs would be to work at a high school and take over or start a wrestling program,” she notes. “So, if anybody is hiring …”
If Morais bets on herself, my money is on her achieving what she envisions. Just ask the Russians.