Isabelle Sambou, the day when “I trained men in wrestling”



Hair slicked back, T-shirt in the colors of Senegal, Isabelle Sambou walks her figure while muscles in the dark corridors of the Léopold-Sédar-Senghor stadium. We are in 2019. At the end of the afternoon, she is preparing both for a great first and for a return to her roots: training the mixed national wrestling team, her discipline, the one that earned her nine times the title of African champion. Retired since 2016, the former queen of the arenas, 40, now dons the coach’s jersey.

Isabelle Sambou is almost at home between the dusty walls of the stadium’s wrestling hall, this enclosure resembling a flying saucer reserved for major sporting events in Senegal. When she pushes the door that day, it is for an unprecedented challenge. In front of her, twelve wrestlers. A few girls, but mostly boys. They are in their twenties and all know her for having warmed up alongside her when she was competing and, in particular, for her title of best African wrestler of the decade, awarded in 2015.

When Isabelle Sambou announces to them that now it is she who will train them, the former champion immediately perceives the puzzled concern of the boys. They thought I was not able ”, she explains today. Her nine coronations on the African continent and her two participations in the Olympic Games – in 2012 and in 2016 – are not enough to dispel the sexist stereotypes that persist about female wrestlers in Senegal.

Faced with prejudices

Whatever, it takes more to stop it. She starts training. For two hours, his flock must chain sprints, rolls, holds and movements to soften their necks on the large circular carpet where the wrestlers face each other, trying to defeat the other on the ground to obtain the victory. The coach observes and tests her students. She fears not to be listened to but overlooks their reservations. For this time … The next day, she launches a discussion to dispel fears. “Everyone must take their place and show mutual respect. And as a coach, I deserve this respect even more! “, she clarifies, her tone firm. His natural authority and tenacity eventually prevail.

Isabelle Sambou relies on the code of conduct that the struggle has enabled her to forge. During her seventeen-year career, her status as a woman forced her to fight twice as hard to achieve her dreams: People tell you that you are going to look like a man, or that you will not find a husband. You always have to prove more “, she laments. Out of these obstacles she made a motor, choosing to “Hang on to encouragement”. “It’s up to you to see if you decide to care about what people say or if you don’t care and focus on your goals”, she declaims like a mantra to the young girls she has been training for three years now.

A benchmark for young girls

For many of them, it is a symbol, a proof of success. United World Wrestling (UWW, the equivalent of an international federation) was not mistaken. In 2015, she made Isabelle Sambou one of the ambassadors of the Super 8, a global campaign to promote women’s wrestling. “If I can serve as a reference and encourage them, that’s a good thing”, she congratulates herself.

She too, it is partly thanks to a woman that she started wrestling, in 1999: Eveline Diatta, one of the first Senegalese wrestlers to participate in continental competitions (women were only allowed to participate in the championships). Africa only from 1997). Originally from the village of Mlomp, in the south of Senegal, Isabelle practiced “ekolomodj” there, the traditional female wrestling of the Diola ethnic group. Unlike the rest of the country, where it is often refused to girls by tradition, religion or mysticism, wrestling is an integral part of the culture of its ethnic group. “Thanks to my cousins ​​and Eveline, I understood that I could become a professional wrestler”, she recalls.

Without salary, pension or pension

The lack of recognition of women will not be the only obstacle in its path. It must also be reckoned with the absence of more general support from the Senegalese authorities towards the athletes. “I sacrificed everything to honor my country without anything in return”, she regrets, bitter. Without pension or retirement, for six months she has been cleaning up in a Dakar school to earn a living. To the cost of his morning trips of several hours is added that of trips to the stadium. They are his responsibility because not long ago, the Senegalese wrestling federation abolished the salaries of coaches. Isabelle Sambou is a volunteer coach … But she does not dwell on the subject. “It hurts too much. “ She is focusing on her action plan to develop wrestling.

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It is the mission that she accepted by becoming, this year, the third vice-president of the National Committee of Management of the fight in Senegal. A major challenge in a country where the traditional version of its discipline far outweighs modern women’s freestyle wrestling. “As an African athlete, we are disadvantaged by the lack of infrastructure and the lack of means”, she breathes before adding : “You have to have the mind, you have to believe in it. “

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Wrestling, a Senegalese passion

In front of football, traditional wrestling, called “lemb” in Wolof (the language spoken mainly in Senegal), is the country’s national sport. The fights, widely broadcast on the channels
of television, are very followed and unleash passions. The wrestlers face each other in an arena on a sandy ground after a ritual mixing tradition and mysticism: before each fight the colossi sing and dance to the rhythm of the percussions, then are sprinkled with holy water to ensure their victory.

Very practiced in the regions of Siné-Saloum and Casamance, wrestling has become more professional over the years and attracts more and more young Senegalese. The fees of the best wrestlers amount to several million CFA francs. In recent years, former kings of the arenas have offered a new career by converting to Martial Mixed Arts (MMA), a combat sport where all blows are allowed, and whose practice has been authorized in France since February 2020. .

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