Emily Schaefer can’t lose when wrestling for something greater
Back in February, as the Brock University wrestling team captured their 5th consecutive CIS championship, Emily Schaefer found herself sitting atop the podium after winning gold in the 59kg weight class.
“Making the decision to go to Brock was pretty easy; they’re one of the best wrestling programs in the nation, and having the opportunity to have some amazing training partners was pretty enticing.”
A third year student from Sarnia, Ontario, Schaefer laughingly credits her three older brothers with her decision to get into the sport of wrestling. After achieving some early success, she transitioned from competing as a multi-sport athlete and began focussing her efforts solely on wrestling.
“I struggled a bit the summer coming into university, wondering if God wouldn’t want me to spend my time in sport, and if I should be using my time to serve him instead. When I first met Olivia (Di Bacco) and we got chatting about Athletes in Action, hearing that sport can be a ministry and I can still serve God through wrestling was amazing!”
After making it to the finals at the CIS Wrestling Championships in 2015 and losing, coming back to win the gold in 2016 was an exciting accomplishment for Schaefer, even though the match did not go exactly as planned.
“To be honest, I didn’t feel like I even wrestled very well; all the pressure of the tournament, especially with it being hosted at Brock, was tough. It was a hard win, but cool that even if you don’t have your best performance, having a solid support system can still make a huge difference.”
While she was definitely experiencing the pressure of competing at home in front of friends and family, Schaefer found herself soaking up the competitive atmosphere of the tournament.
“It’s tough competing in such a mental sport, and it’s so easy to let people get in your head. You could have beaten someone all season long, but if you’re not into it on the day of competition, it’s easy to lose your match before you even realize it.”
In May, Schaefer had the opportunity to attend Athletes in Action’s National Training Camp (NTC) in Ottawa, alongside other university athletes from across the country, to learn more about what it looks like to integrate faith and sport.
“God’s timing is so good. I had wanted to go the year before, but I couldn’t because I was overseas training with the national team. I think if I had gone last year it would have had less of an impact on me. This year I experienced an upset and only placed 4th at nationals right before NTC, and I was having a rough time dealing with that loss. It was cool to see how God used that timing, especially coming after a bad loss, and I found myself changing my perspective on sport and redefining myself, in a way.”
“The teaching at NTC hit so many things I’ve been struggling with, and every day was really powerful. One of the main sessions that stood out to me had to do with our motivations: I had to ask myself, am I doing sport because I want to please my coach, or am I doing it as an act of worship for God?”
The other session that really hit home for Schaefer addressed trials and suffering in sport.
“I realize losing a wrestling match is just minor suffering, but it sure feels pretty big in the moment! Learning the principles at NTC I could directly transfer into wrestling had such a big impact for me.”
Schaefer soon found herself not only attending NTC as a participant, but was asked mid-week if she would consider taking on a leadership role as a captain for one of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L teams.
“I was involved in leadership positions at Brock before, but I just kept thinking to myself, ‘I’m not the best athlete here, I’m not the most vocal; I don’t think I’m ready, I don’t think I’m equipped for this’. I knew it would be so much easier to just say no, but I felt it was a challenge God had given me to make the experience that much more meaningful.”
As they entered into the final 24 hour sports competition and she was leading her team through the events, Schaefer reflected on how she was less afraid of the leadership aspect of the role, and more afraid of simply not being good enough.
“I had to keep reminding myself, ‘it’s not about me, it’s about God.’ That theme kept coming up for me throughout the entire S.P.E.C.I.A.L. The whole experience had such a big impact on me as I realized I just need to choose to say yes to God, and learn to accept his call even when I don’t understand it or feel like I can’t do it.”
Unlike most athletes who attend NTC, Schaefer did not have to wait until September to get back into competition. Two weeks after NTC she was in Italy competing in an international tournament.
“I was so pumped to get a chance to apply the principles I learned at NTC. Then I went through the first day and I went back to everything the same as before; I didn’t wrestle for God, I was trying to please my coach again! By the end of the day I was in tears because I felt like I had failed. Fortunately there was another tournament the next day and I got to try again. I made my sole focus having a focal point and competing with a thank-you performance, and it was such a better experience. I felt a huge weight lifted off me to be able to wrestle freely for the first time.”
As she is heading into her third year at Brock, and has taken on the role of co-leading the student-led AIA group on campus, Schaefer explained how they want to have a bigger impact on campus this year and get more involved with outreach on their teams.
“I’ve found I’m experiencing some of the same struggles I did when I was a captain at NTC; there are some good days where I’m feeling really encouraged, and then feelings of doubt and insecurities creep back in. I have to continually remember that God has selected me for this role, and I need to choose to give up control and surrender my insecurities to him, which is an ongoing process for sure.”
With all the success of the Canadian wrestling team at the Olympics in Rio this summer, Schaefer reflected on her experience of training alongside some of the members of the team, and her own future wrestling aspirations.
“People always ask me, ‘Is going to the Olympics one of your goals?’ And I’ve always said, ‘Yes, I’m going to go for sure!’ But I’ve realized I don’t want wrestling to be my whole life; I do love it and I want to continue competing and get involved with coaching at some point, but with this new perspective on sport I also want to stay involved in other things. It would be amazing to go, but if I don’t have that opportunity, I’ll be content with that too.”
To all the young athletes out there, watching their Olympic heroes compete and dreaming of one day making it to compete at the highest levels of sport, Schaefer had this to say:
“Be content with where you are, but don’t let that stop you from moving forward! It’s not always about looking at higher level athletes and comparing yourself; it’s a process, and you have to continue to work hard and push to reach your goals, but keep your mind focussed on the right things. For me, as a Christian athlete, that means making sure that wrestling doesn’t become something that I find my identity and self-worth in.”
Athletes in Action is committed to helping athletes of all levels experience Victory Beyond Competition.
“Hearing the phrase ‘Victory Beyond Competition’ excites me! It reminds me there is so much more to sport than just the wins and losses; if I’m wrestling for God, I can’t really lose. It takes a weight off, takes the pressure off and helps me enjoy the sport instead of constantly fighting the anxiousness and pressure of winning and losing and seeking approval from others.”