Lessons from the mat.

By Jesse Mintz

Sydney Lewis is used to winning.

The-17-year-old wrestler is at home on the mat. She puts in long hours of training, executes her game plan and dominates the 28 foot circle. But it’s one of her few losses that’s taught her the most.

Despite three golds on the national stage, Sydney has never topped the podium at the Ontario equivalent. In Grade 11, she lost in the semi-finals.

She doesn’t hold grudges, but in a moment of sporting poetry, the Grade 12 student found herself squaring off in the finals this year against the women who beat her last year.

“I went into it with a better mindset,” she says, walking through her preparations for the big match.

But no matter what Sydney might be able to control on and off the mat, some things are beyond her influence. In this case, a shoulder injury hindered her performance—she hadn’t wrestled in weeks.

“I was up almost the entire match, but in the last 10 seconds she ripped my arm in a hold and got behind me. I lost by one point,” she says, graciousness in place of the bitterness a close loss could evoke in others. “It was hard to swallow. But not getting my hand raised, it was the most I’ve ever learned from a match.”

Flash forward a few months to a ME to WE volunteer trip in Kenya, and it’s that moment—and the lessons this loss passed on—that flood her mind as she spurs herself to keep pushing up a well-worn path of exposed and cracked dry red earth with a 50 pound water jug strapped to her back.

The women of the Maasai Mara do this walk every day to fetch clean water for their families; as an athlete, Sydney wasn’t expecting it to be difficult for her. It was. “It was a long, hard haul,” she admits. “And eye opening to see what these women go through.”

“I’ve always been motivated in athletics and academics, but now activism is very important to me because of WE.”

Walking alongside local women while they collected water, on top of helping community members build a school and learning about the world around her, Sydney discovered a deep passion for activism. She traces this and her journey to Kenya back to WE Day.

Sitting alongside nearly 20,000 young people, all present to celebrate the positive change they were affecting, changed her. “I’ve always been motivated in athletics and academics, but now activism is very important to me because of WE,” she says. “One person can make a difference, especially if we all band together. That’s been my biggest lesson.”

But even in Kenya, she couldn’t escape wrestling.

On a break at the build site one afternoon, she saw young children playing tag. They were chasing each other, laughing as they ran; immediately, she was reminded of the young wrestlers she mentors back home in Thunder Bay. “It’s the same way we play to warm up,” she explains, connecting two scenes separated by thousands of kilometers.

Sydney is a volunteer coach for a local elementary school wrestling team. For the kids who can’t afford to join the local club, but need activities after school, they have her team. “It was the same for me,” she says. “My coach was a volunteer, so I’m passing on the tradition.”

She holds practices for them twice a week, running through the same drills her coaches put her through. She teaches them when to attack and how to defend. And, when kids are tempted to give up, either due to the time commitment or because the sport simply feels too hard, she’s there to encourage them to keep at it. “You have to keep moving forward, to keep pushing yourself, in wrestling and in life,” she says of the lessons she teaches her kids. “You’re always going to have tough moments where things seem like they won’t work, but you can push through it.”

Whether it’s on the wrestling mat, mentoring younger students or volunteering in Kenya, it’s this lesson that keeps Sydney pushing for gold.

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