Kyrgyzstan: women’s wrestling team overcomes and inspires

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On the side of a five-story Soviet-era building in central Bishkek, a mural shows a female wrestler wearing the red and yellow flag of Kyrgyzstan with her arms outstretched in triumph.

The slogan on the mural – which is part of a global advertising campaign by automaker Toyota and the International Olympic Committee – could hardly be more apt: “Start your impossible.” “

For the sportswoman depicted in the mural, double world champion and Olympic silver medalist Aisuluu Tynybekova, the impossible began in the same place as for millions of Kyrgyz children.

Her village in the mountainous province of Naryn “didn’t even have a road to run,” she recalls.

“Whenever I watched foreign films, I saw houses with gardens and garages, children with roller skates and bicycles and activities to occupy their free time,” Tynybekova said as she poured tea for two. Eurasianet correspondents and his trainer and mentor Nurbek Izabekov.

“All of these things seemed practically inaccessible to me.”

By the time Tynybekova was a teenager, she had seen enough.

“I looked around and asked myself: why am I living here? I shouldn’t be living here. This is not my place.

Now 28 years old and one of the most successful Kyrgyz athletes of all time, Tynybekova’s place is on the podium.

The successes of Kyrgyzstan’s women’s wrestling team have meanwhile put stereotypes of female athletes into a headache, after the country produced its best Olympic performance since independence this summer in Tokyo.

“When we started out, people sometimes refused us entry to the gyms,” recalls coach Izabekov. “When I trained with her, people made fun of us.”

The exploits of Tynybekova and an emerging generation of wrestlers including Tokyo bronze medalist Meerim Zhumanazarova, 21, and Aiperi Medet Kyzy, 22, fifth, have changed perceptions, he said.

“The trainers who worked with the boys train the women at the same time. Parents contact us. They want their children to be the next Aisuluu, Meerim or Aiperi.

Faced with Tynybekova’s later accomplishments, the first step on her path to greatness looks like something from the script of a Hollywood movie.

In fact, its history reflects the struggle of many compatriots.

The third daughter of a family of rural doctors who worked on the farm to supplement their meager income, Tynybekova decided to leave the village at only 17 years old to finish her studies in the capital.

She arrived in Bishkek with the equivalent of $ 10 and earned her survival by serving tables, washing cars and clearing snow in the winter.

One of the places she lived during this time was in the stadium annex of the State Polytechnic University.

Here she met Izabekov, in what would be a turning point for both of them.

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For Kyrgyz men, disciplines like freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are in the blood. Brothers and cousins ​​struggle from an early age, encouraged by fathers and uncles.

Broad-shouldered and with a natural stamina she attributes to the motherly side of the family, Tynybekova’s first sporting love was running – “running in circles, running aimlessly” – before trying her hand at karate.

Then came a women’s wrestling tournament in her village. She entered with only basic knowledge rules of sport and zero technique. She faced five girls and beat them all.

A stadium keeper told him that Izabekov was the man to hone his raw talents.

“I would come home and say to my wife, ‘Look, this weird girl I told you about keeps bothering me, asking me to train her. What should I do?’ Laughed Izabekov, who admitted to having previously had doubts about the fitness of women to play a sport where serious injuries are common.

This memory has become a well-worn joke in his house.

After Tynybekova was kicked out of her stadium searches by a rival coach, she moved in with the Izabekovs, spending seven years under their roof as her coach shaped the new national women’s wrestling team around her brightest talent.

Izabekov attaches great importance to the intellectual development of his proteges, ordering them dozens of books to read on tour. It also fiercely protects their need for rest.

When Eurasianet visited his training camp in the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-Ata, wrestlers were preparing for the world championships in Oslo.

Izabekov refused Eurasianet to interview the youngest sportswomen, Medet kyzy and Zhumanazarova.

“They are only young girls and do not yet have Aisuluu’s experience with the media. I don’t want you to hurt them, ”he said.

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The approach seemed to work.

As Tynybekova successfully defended her title of world champion in the Norwegian capital earlier this month, Kyrgyzstan won a new world champion in Zhumanazarova, who clinched gold in a separate weight class. Medet Kyzy won bronze.

These are the Olympics where Tynybekova still has unfinished business.

She started her first matches in London in 2012 as an away medal hopeful under the cloud of an assault charge. The incident happened outside an underground passage in Bishkek and after a trio of girls ran over Tynybekova’s friend. As she went to pick her up from the ground, the girls started pushing her around and pulling her hair.

“I hit [one of the girls], but not difficult because I know my own strength, ”said Tynybekova.

The girl filed a complaint against the athlete, who told Eurasianet that her accuser’s family tried to extort $ 20,000 from her.

Tynybekova was allowed to go to the games and was sentenced to probation by a court upon her return.

She is convinced that she was targeted in a set-up.

“I don’t mind talking about it, because I’m clean in front of people,” Tynybekova said.

London did not bring a medal to Tynybekova, nor to Rio, despite expectations raised by her improved performances on the world and regional circuits.

After failing her second Olympics, Tynybekova suffered from depression.

“I intended to [win a medal] then retire and start a family. But my plans burst like a bubble. I wasn’t interested in anything. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did I had nightmares for the last seven seconds of my [quarter-final] fight: 7-6-5-4-3-2-1, defeat. It lasted about six months.

There were also tears after winning silver in Tokyo, losing gold to a Japanese competitor she had defeated two years ago.

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But there was no depression this time around.

Everywhere Tynybekova looked on social media, she found words of pride and support, after more than a thousand people gathered in Bishkek’s central square to cheer her on.

“Aisuluu, well done. We honor you, we love you, you are our history, our gold, the pride of our Kyrgyzstan ”, bed a typical position.

Tynybekova will be 31 at the time of the next Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.

She remains equally committed to starting a family, but said public support for her had helped her sign up for another shot at Olympic gold – something Kyrgyzstan as a country did. not yet realized.

“We are all fighting against something. […] I just fight on the mat, where there are rules, judges, ”she said. told reporters after his last triumph in Oslo, still breathless after his fight against the American opponent Kayla Miracle.

“Through the struggle, I show what is in me and I get results. We must not forget that we are girls, but I do not agree that wrestling is a men’s sport. We are all fighting.


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