New Ulm woman makes Olympic wrestling teamby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
The road to the Olympics for one Minnesota wrestler began in New Ulm, veered north to Canada, and will head west to Beijing next month for the games. Ali Bernard made the women's team in the 72 kilogram-weight class, about 158 pounds. She's the first Minnesota female Olympian to come out of the state's high school wrestling program. She started out wrestling boys in high school, something she says helped make her the wrestler she is today.
New Ulm, Minn. — Ali Bernard smiles as she settles into a chair at the kitchen table in her family home just outside of New Ulm.
Her short dark hair streaked with blonde frames her face. At 22, she's mature enough to take on the world in wrestling, but still young enough to lean on her mom when she's home.
"Get me a pop, mom? I'm parched," says Bernard.
In a few days she'll leave for the Olympic wrestling camp. As she relaxes, Bernard analyzes the competition she'll face at the Olympics.
"Last year at world's it was China, Russia and Japan which were top three. Just a lot of world champions you know," says Bernard. "But I feel like I've knocked off a couple of world champions so I'm going to be right in there."
Bernard says the Olympic competition for women wrestlers takes place all in one day, August 17th.
Depending how far she goes, she may wrestle anywhere from a a couple of matches to five or six. It's the sort of fast-paced competition Bernard has become accustomed to since she started wrestling at age 10.
By high school, she was making a name for herself, like in this radio broadcast of one of her matches.
"Welcome back everybody on Radio One wrestling broadcast KNUJ. New Ulm with the lead, 28-12 right now," said an announcer. "Guess who comes out on the mat Larry, none other than Ali Bernard. Ali's at it here at 140."
In this match from 2001 the high school sophomore treated her fans to a typical high energy contest. Bernard lost a close match to her male opponent, but surprised a lot people with her aggressiveness.
"Right now, Chris Adams with a 2-1 lead, but Ali Bernard power-driving Adams," said the announcer. "I think Adams actually is wondering where she's coming from."
Bernard says she learned early on to use her speed and agility against her generally stronger male opponents.
After high school, Bernard attended the University of Regina in Canada. Even there, wrestling women exclusively, she often was not the strongest person in the match.
"I'm really flexible, I go after the pin," says Bernard. "Just a scrapper, and just a different style that most women haven't seen."
Her high school coach says there were some rough moments for the teenage girl wrestling in a male dominated sport.
Dar Arndt says there were the separate dressing quarters, which might be anything from a bathroom stall to a locker room Bernard had to herself.
Some teams opposed the idea of girls wrestling boys, mostly because of the physical contact wrestling is all about. Arndt says some boys forfeited their matches, refusing to wrestle Bernard.
"And as I look back at her now, as she's an Olympian, those guys really short-changed themselves," he says. "To wrestle against a great athlete, whether it was male or female, it was their loss, not to be able to say they wrestled her."
There was an effort about six years ago to ban girl-boy wrestling in the state, but the legislation failed.
One of the pioneers of women's high school wrestling in Minnesota says that action helped propel the sport forward.
Chandell Knox was the first woman to wrestle in a Minnesota high school program, at Minneapolis Southwest from 1992 to '95. Knox says she met Ali Bernard when Bernard first started wrestling as a young girl.
"She pretty much is putting us on the map right here," says Knox. "Seeing that a lady grown and raised in Minnesota is going all the way to the Olympics. She's going to have a whole bunch of other little girls looking up to her and trying to do the same thing."
At a recent baseball game in her hometown of New Ulm, people were already looking up to Ali Bernard.
"Now ladies and gentlemen, tonight we have a very special ceremonial first pitch, New Ulm's Ali Bernard," says the announcer at the baseball game.
Bernard delivers a strike to the catcher, then waves and walks off the field to visit with friends.
"Small town, you appreciate all the support," says Bernard. "Like, you wouldn't be getting this if I was from a big town. I just really appreciate it, I think it's great."
She says the hometown support is one of the memories that she'll keep close in China. There, against the world's best, she'll measure how far she's traveled in the wrestling universe from her small town roots.
- All Things Considered, 07/02/2008, 5:50 p.m.