116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The two girls most embodying Iowa-style wrestling at the state tournament this year were not born in Iowa, let alone on this continent.
But with an intensity and drive that could even make the stoic Dan Gable crack a smile, City High’s Nabi Emmanuel and Solon’s Safina Yermetova, from Tanzania and Kazakhstan, respectively, immediately shed a shy facade to embrace the spirit of the state they now call home as soon as the referee says “go.”
“Her first day, she seemed timid and shy about athletics in general,” but after the first practice, (City High head coach Jeff Koenig) came up to me and said, ‘Wow, Nabi is strong,’ and Nabi is certainly strong,” said Ryan Ahlers, assistant girls’ wrestling coach at City High. “We haven’t seen anybody that’s strong enough or technical enough to hold her down.
“She can get out from bottom, and when she gets on top and runs a pinning combination on you, you’re in big trouble. She wrestles like a bulldog.”
Emmanuel, 16, and Yermetova, 17, started the season with no prior experience, but soon became some of their teams’ top performers through a combination of hard work and a budding love for the sport.
Emmanuel, a junior, recently won the Anamosa wrestling tournament for her bracket, and Yermetova, a senior, has her team’s longest winning streak this season.
“When she came from Kazakhstan, she didn't really do any sports,” said Eleanor Gnida, who is Yermetova’s host sister and a teammate. “Her first match she'd only been practicing for a week, and she didn't understand some of the moves. Honestly, neither (Yermetova nor her opponent) knew what they were doing, but she still went out there and fought hard, and even though she didn't really know what she was doing, she ended up winning, and our team and coaches just go crazy.”
While wrestling may be an individual sport, Emmanuel and Yermetova opened up about finding a new home among their coaches and teammates.
Emmanuel said she feels like she has finally come into her own since joining the wrestling team, after her family moved first to California in 2016 and then to Iowa in 2018 after spending time in a Tanzanian refugee camp.
“My first practice I didn't have anyone and I was so sad. I didn't know anyone there and I didn't talk at all. I was lonely,” Emmanuel said.
However, after a pep talk from her sister, she decided to return and her relationship with her teammates grew.
“I started to ask (teammates) to be my partner and have so many more friends now.” she said. “They’re always watching all of my matches and cheering.”
Yermetova has built a similar support system in the Solon wrestling room, since her biological family is more than 6,000 miles away.
“I think the wrestling team is the best part of wrestling,” said Yermetova, beaming. “People there are really funny and supportive, and we have so many interesting personalities.
“I like spending time with my team very much. We are like a family to each other. We cheer and support each other because wrestling is a challenging sport.”
Once this year’s season comes to a close, both athletes plan to continue their wrestling careers. Yermetova, who plans on returning to Kazakhstan, said she plans on looking for opportunities to wrestle in her home country, bringing the lessons she learned from her coaches and teammates in Solon.
While reluctant in the beginning of her wrestling journey, Emmanuel now wants to see where the sport can take her. She is looking for scholarship and fundraising opportunities to be able to afford the University of Iowa girls’ wrestling camp this summer and has interest in wrestling in college.
“Nabi is someone who doesn’t shy away from hard work,” City High girls’ wrestling coach Jeff Koenig said. “This is a kid who would really appreciate the opportunity to attend a camp like this, and bring the lessons she learns back to her team. She works a job at Hy-Vee and has school and wrestling. She works so hard and would grow so much in that environment.”
Both wrestlers are unequivocal about how the sport has changed how they look at themselves, as well as the admiration they have for their fellow athletes. Their experiences in wrestling have been universal.
For Emmanuel, the strength of body, mind and spirit of wrestlers are what continuously draw her into the sport, and propel her through morning conditioning and afternoon practices.
“Before I started wrestling, I watched videos on my phone, and I thought, ‘Wow these women are amazing,’” Emmanuel said. “You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to use all of your strength, but you also have to have a strong mind. I showed my mother the video of my first meet and she was so impressed. She had no idea that I could do this.”
“Wrestling empowers you,” Yermetova said. “I feel so powerful. They say it is considered a men’s sport, but no it’s not. You can prove to yourself that you’re tough.”