An Interview With Kay-Ci Bele: An 18 Year Old ‘Supastar’ With An Eye On The Olympics in Wrestling

‘Wrestling for Dummies’ by Henry Cujedo teaches us the fundamentals of wrestling. Some of these fundamentals include:

  • Neutral position: The starting position in which you stand face to face and with your shoulders square to your opponent in the wrestling area
  • Takedown: A move during which you take your opponent down to the mat and gain control from the neutral position
  • Penetration step: The first offensive movement that puts you in a position to score
  • Reversal: A move during which you quickly turn the tables and go from being in a position of defense to being in a position of control as the offensive wrestler

If you think about it, this could be the start of an interesting, unusual and marvelous analogy for women working their way forward and upward in the business world. I’ll be frank – I didn’t know anything about wrestling until I turned on the TV to see the news one day when I was working from home and happened to catch a few minutes of the Today Show. Three young ladies were being interviewed as part of a group of five vying for a spot on the cover of Seventeen magazine, and they intrigued me with what they had all accomplished with their lives so far. One of them was Kay-Ci Bele, and I knew right away I had to interview her. She had strength, attitude, no fear, guts, and she was on a mission. As I did some further research, I also realized she had a remarkable story, and that ‘Wrestling for Dummies’ was opening my eyes to some interesting analogies for women in leadership.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I am on the phone with Kay-Ci, interviewing her for the blog, and getting incredibly inspired by her the longer the conversation continued.

As a senior in high school, Kay-Ci Bele was a first-year wrestler for the varsity team. She is an ASICS/Vaughn Jr. & Cadet Fargo All-American, Body Bar All-American and two-time Florida girls’ state champion. Because girls’ wrestling isn’t a Florida High School Athletic Association-sanctioned sport, Kay-Ci competed with the boys. On August 28th, Kay-Ci will start her first semester at James Town College in North Dakota, where she will be starting to train for the 2016 Olympics. She’s heading off to college fresh on the heels of the ASICS/Vaughan Junior Women’s Freestyle Nationals which took place just last week, where she placed 6th in the 139 lbs class. Her goal for Nationals was to do well, and to get more people to notice her and to talk her. The more visibility she can get, the greater her chances of securing support and sponsorships to get her to the big training competitions in Florida, Colorado and New York.

Analogy #1 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Compete and get yourself out there as often as you can. It shows determination, and leaders will offer to work with you.

Kay-Ci wrestles in every single tournament she can, not just the big ones. She told me that one of the main things she has to do is to get herself out there. It’s not just about beating the big name people, but about being out there again and again, having that visibility, showing she is a force to be reckoned with, that she isn’t going away, and that she has the determination. As a result of this approach, she has found that a lot of the big name guys come up and speak to her to her at those wrestling competitions. They tell her they see that she is she trying, they see her determination, they respect her, and they offer to work with her prior to the competition to help her improve her wrestling skills even further.

What a fantastic lesson to apply to women in business! Get out there and put your name in the ring for every task force, special assignment, company project etc. that you can. Whether it is in a lead or a participant role, you want to be at the table as often as you can. Leaders, decision makers and influencers will get to know you, see your desire to learn all different aspects of the business and contribute wherever you can. They will see your excellent contributions, and in their eyes you will emerge as a stronger individual contributor and emerging leader. Over time, this will undoubtedly help position you for key roles and leadership opportunities.

Analogy #2 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Work hard, deliver great results, and when you get the job feel super proud and make it happen for others.

In an interview in the Miami Herald earlier this year, Kay-Ci was quoted as saying ‘The best feeling is just being able to dominate like a guy in a sport that’s supposed to be a man’s sport.’ Kay-Ci had an 8-15 record with Western against boys this season but ranks among the top girls in the country. One of the things she hated when she started wrestling was that she felt so vulnerable. However, after just two years, she is on varsity. It usually takes people five to six years to get to that level. When she beats someone in a match at that level she feels so much better that she has beaten someone who has been doing it for longer. Sometimes, when a guy loses to her they start crying. On the one hand she feels bad for them because in a sense they feel victimized, but on the other hand she believes that gives them a sense of how she has felt as a woman in certain situations in her life.

Sometimes, when you are the lone woman or one of just a handful of women in a business situation dominated by men, you might feel vulnerable too. You might use a different word – maybe ‘isolated’, or ‘alone’, or something else. But the point is you recognize that you are one of a few women who have made it to that table. You work extra hard, you put in supreme effort and deliver outstanding results, and as you work your way up the ranks you take a look around you and see the women thinning out even more. If you progress faster than the guys, now and again someone might try to play the ‘women’ card on that. ‘She got promoted sooner because she is a woman’…’They wanted to have a woman at the table so they gave her the job instead of so-and-so. Don’t you believe it for a minute! While the guy you have edged out for that leadership role or key opportunity or top spot may not cry, you can certainly believe they are going to be ticked off. Don’t feel bad about it for a minute. Don’t apologize for it. Settle in, and right away make it part of your strategy to engage others in working with you to get more women to the top.

Analogy #3 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Learn to defend yourself, be strong in every situation, and become everything you can be.

Kay-Ci’s family unit is her mom, dad, grandma and three brothers. Everyone in her family wrestles…okay, maybe everyone except Grandma. When Kay-Ci was four years old, a cousin started molesting her, and that continued until she was ten years old. At fourteen she finally told her parents what had happened. Her dad encouraged her to start jiu-jitsu, and to take up wrestling as a way to help with mastering takedowns in jiu-jitsu and as a further means of learning to defend herself. The wrestling became all-consuming. As Kay-Ci strives to be the best she can possibly be in wrestling and in her life as a whole, her main objective is to let other girls know they are not alone out there. She wants to be able to empower other women to be strong, independent and do great things, no matter what situation they might have come from. She didn’t start wrestling to show she had been molested, but rather to show women they can do so much.

There will be times in your career when you feel like you are not being included, when you are not getting something that is your due, when you feel like you got side-stepped, when you feel like someone took advantage of you. Learn to defend yourself, learn to stand your ground. Learn to read the signs, interpret the situation, take control of it, turn it to your advantage, and come out a winner. Watch those that you admire, see what they do, ask them how they handle tough situations. Be a good colleague to other women too – if you see the signs and they don’t, pull them aside and tell them. As the old saying goes – if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. Learn to defend yourself, become a skilled warrior in the workforce, and you will grow in strength and confidence as you become everything you were meant to be.

Analogy #4 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: You can’t be afraid to do what you want, and you can’t quit.

I asked Kay-Ci what she thinks wrestling has taught her about women leading and taking charge and taking control. She told me it taught her she can’t be afraid to do what she wants, that she can’t just quit, because then she would feel like a failure. Wrestling makes her determined to keep going, and she knows that she can’t just stop or give up. In her opinion that is an important life characteristic to have and one of the most valuable things she has learned.

It’s the same in business ladies. Set your goals and pursue them wholeheartedly, don’t give up. If you fail but you’ve tried your absolute best and you persevered to the end that is not failure, that’s called learning. Learning makes you better the next time around. Prop yourself up with your successes, keep pushing forward and upward, don’t let others paint setbacks as failures, just learn from the experience and move on.

Analogy #5 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Characteristics necessary for success include flexibility, endurance and determination.

I asked Kay-Ci what characteristics she believed were crucial to her success as a wrestler. She spoke of three. First, flexibility. She shared with me that when she is competing against guys they joke you can’t pin a girl because they are so flexible. Her arm might be twisted and held behind her head and she might be uncomfortable but she can handle it. Second, endurance. She does specific training to increase her ability to keep going through long matches. Third, determination. When she starts doing something, whatever it might be, she aims to do what it takes to finish it.

In the business world we need to be flexible too. Sometimes our path to our stated goals is not a straight line. An opportunity may appear to be a lateral move now but may position you to take two rapid jumps a year from now. Plan your path, but keep your eyes open for alternative routes forward and upward, and be willing to be flexible as you travel your road. Build your endurance in two ways, you’ll need it. Build it in terms of your physical fitness and health. There is no road to success without a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours. Taking care of yourself, eating healthily and taking the time to exercise will equip you both physically and mentally for those intense stretches. Physical strength equals mental and emotional strength. Women need a lot of determination in the business world. While there have been many amazing accomplishments and progress by women in terms of penetrating the executive ranks, there is still a lot of work to be done. You will encounter supporters, and you will encounter detractors. You will have highs, you will have lows. But you must be determined and press on.

Analogy #6 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Keep Your Head in the Match: The Mental Part of Succeeding.

‘Wrestling for Dummies’ also teaches us that …’because of the one-on-one nature of wrestling and the relatively brief length of a match, the mental approach to competition and the commitment you need to succeed are unique. Some keys to winning the mental game as a wrestler include:

  • Inspiration: External motivation and rewards can take you only so far; to be a great wrestler, you need to be truly inspired.
  • Positive attitude: Successful wrestlers must be in the right positive mindset to win a match on any given day.
  • Strength in the fundamentals: Great wrestlers understand the importance of the fundamental moves and work to improve them every day.
  • Style: You need to develop a style that fits your skills, strengths, and abilities. Each wrestler’s style is different, so you need to develop yours with confidence and then pay attention to the styles of your opponents so you can beat them.
  • Competition: Develop a desire for competition by competing all the time, even at practice. Maintain consistent intensity in everything you do both on and off the mat and stay focused on the task at hand.
  • Mental toughness: Understand that concentration, confidence, self-control, and goal-setting are all mental drills that wrestlers have to master to gain a mental edge.’

While the length of a work related role or assignment is certainly much longer than a wrestling match, I fully believe success is as much about the mental attitude you bring to the workplace with you as it is about the talent and skills you apply to your job. I believe that every key to being successful in the mental game when wrestling are the same keys you need to be successful in the mental game of your job and your career. Be inspired in what you do and have a positive attitude every day. Be strong in your fundamentals – make sure your core skills sets for which you are known build on your natural talents, and work on building them up further all the time. Develop a style that is uniquely yours and that helps you to stand out from the crowd, be confident in it, and learn to read the styles of people you work with and for so you can rapidly establish how to get the most out of every working situation. Be at the table at every opportunity, and treat every assignment like a project, bringing your best to the table every single time. Remember that your reputation is only as good as your last project. Develop that mental toughness you need to stay focused, exude confidence and control, and set aggressive goals for yourself and pursue them wholeheartedly.

Analogy #7 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Take risks that are smart and well-informed, and seize opportunities.

This past May Kay-Ci competed in Nationals. Her dad advised her that she should get her weight down to the 112 weight class as that was where she would have the best chance. She had to drop 30 pounds in ten weeks. Kay-Ci has a lower than average body fat percentage compared to most women. So to drop that much weight is a risky play. But she agreed with her dad’s advice, so she worked at it to get her weight down to compete in that class. They were right, the risk paid off. There was one girl in the 121 weight class that was solid muscle that could have been a showstopper for Kay-Ci. It was hard work to get there, but it was worth the risk, and the reward was certainly even better and sweeter.

Think about this in your company, in your career progression. What might be a risky play, but one that you can have very significant success in? Identify it and go after it.

Analogy #8 from Kay-Ci and wrestling regarding women in leadership: Adopt an alter ego for yourself.

In one of the videos I watched online of Kay-Ci wrestling, I saw her from the back. She had a shirt on with the word ‘Supastar’ on it. I asked if that was her nickname. Apparently in jiu-jitsu her team all had alter egos they go by. Her alter ego is ‘Ghost Ryda’. Her brother is a tiny guy; his alter ego is ‘Hulk’.

I loved that. I think that going forward all women should have an alter ego they use in the business world. When the going gets tough, when things are not going as planned, when you have to step up to the plate and break new ground and you need all the patience and strength and skills and reserves you can muster…time to break out your alter ego! Needless to say I have since been consumed by trying to decide what my alter ego would be. I feel an affinity towards ‘Catwoman’!

What a fascinating set of analogies have transpired here. It was also interesting to me that the analogies extended beyond the participant aspects, all the way through to leadership. In the same Miami Herald article that I mentioned earlier, Kent Bailo, director of the United States Girls’ Wrestling Association was quoted as saying “The problem is that most of the guys who are in charge of things are guys between 35 and 60 who still have ‘It’s a man’s world mentality. They don’t do anything unless they’re forced.” While in business in general we have certainly made huge progress in terms of representation of women in leadership, there is still a significant element of man’s world mentality and old boys club.  So let’s make sure that we cheer extra hard for Kay-Ci and the other female wrestlers that are breaking down old conventions and defining a new playing field.

Luckily Kay-Ci has some great role models to look up on her journey. One of them is another female wrestler – Clarissa Chun. Clarissa was the first women wrestler from Hawaii to win a medal in the Olympics. Kay-Ci describes Chun as a woman who has accomplished so many ‘firsts’ in this arena and who is so determined – qualities Kay-Ci admires and embodies herself. After placing second in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004, the first year women’s wrestling competition was held at the Games, Clarissa made the squad four years later. At the 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestling team trials in June, Clarissa Chun gained the admiration of fans and media alike by staging a huge upset of seven-time national champion and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Patricia Miranda. In the process, Chun, at 4 feet 11, fulfilled a lifelong dream, becoming the first wrestler from Hawaii to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team. Wrestling at the 2008 Summer Olympics – Women’s freestyle 48 kg, after winning the first two matches, Chun fell to world champion Chiharu Icho of Japan in the semifinals in an overtime tiebreaker (last to score). She lost in the bronze-medal match to 2004 gold medalist Irini Merleni of Ukraine. Clarissa became the first women’s freestyle wrestler to be nominated to her second Olympic Team after her stellar performance at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling in Iowa City, Iowa, on April 22, 2012. Wrestling at the 2012 Summer Olympics – Women’s freestyle 48 kg, Chun qualified for the bronze-medal match by beating World bronze medalist Iwona Matkowska of Poland. Chun knocked off 2004 Olympic gold medalist Iryna Merleni of Ukraine 1-0, 3-0 to capture the bronze medal in women’s freestyle wrestling. [Source: Wikipedia]

Kay-Ci keeps pushing forward and upward, inspired by others that have blazed trails before her, even as she knows it’s a tough road ahead. According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s website, since 1994, the number of women who wrestle in high school has grown from 804 to over 7000. 22 colleges now sponsor a varsity wrestling program. Women’s high school wrestling participation numbers are higher than the NCAA sponsored sports of crew, fencing, skiing, and rifle and NCAA emerging sports of rugby, sand volleyball and equestrian. The irony is, in the face of this growth, and even as women’s wrestling was just recognized as an Olympic sport in 2004, in February of this year, the International Olympic Committee Executive Board decided to drop wrestling from the games beginning in 2020. It was an unexpected decision, has angered many, and is a major blow to the sport which is amongst the world’s oldest.

Kay-Ci is now in a race against time. Unless the IOC reconsiders, 2016 is Kay-Ci’s one and only Olympic shot. Fishing and cooking with her family (her favorite pastimes to relax and bond with her family) might be the only indulgence she can allow herself in the next four years. That, and of course listening to her favorite music artists and songs, one of which is Ed Sheehan and his song ‘You and I’. Her next four years, when not in class, will be utterly consumed by training and competing. And that takes money, which she doesn’t exactly have a lot of.

So as I bring this blog post to a close, I am going to ask you to do something so easy and so simple to help this amazing young woman on her journey. Vote for Kay-Ci at  before August 1st to help her win that spot on the cover of Seventeen magazine. In addition to appearing on the cover, the winner will get a $10,000 scholarship, money which can significantly help Kay-Ci in her quest.

Women can lead everywhere. My interview of Kay-Ci reinforced for me that we have a lot to learn about women in leadership, even from the wrestling mat! You go Kay-Ci Bele! I can’t wait to see you in the 2016 summer Olympics!

  • Daniella Levitt

    Thank you Stephanie. I am delighted you enjoyed it! Cheers!