When Olivia Di Bacco, describes stepping onto the wrestling mat for the first time, her voice changes a little. She talks about knowing in that moment, without question, she was going to love this sport. Nine years later, that passion is stronger than ever. She’s the reigning Canadian Senior National, German Grand Prix and Pan American champion in her weight class, with high hopes of making the 2020 Olympic team representing Canada in Tokyo.
An avid athlete throughout high school, Olivia, didn’t begin wrestling until Grade 12 – a late start by most comparisons. Up until that point she’d played volleyball. “But there was some mean girl bullying happening on my volleyball team, and when you can’t go to practice and enjoy it, it takes away your love for the sport,” she explains. Two weeks later she gave wrestling (a sport she’d admired for years) a try and didn’t look back.
“It fit me, my personality, my mindset. It felt like coming home from the very beginning,” says Olivia. She did so well her first year of wrestling, winning the provincial championships with her high school team, that she was offered a spot on the Brock University varsity team. During her five years at Brock she became the first female to win five consecutive team titles, as well an individual title her final year.
Working out six days a week, two to three times a day, and competing, while also earning a Bachelor of Kinesiology degree required an incredible amount of hard work and focus. “Wrestlers are crazy. Any elite athlete has to be a little crazy, because you have to be so focused, so single minded,” says Olivia.
“When I first started wrestling I would wrestle three times a week and would be trashed; my body and brain exhausted. I was so sore all the time. Now, those bumps and bruises aren’t newsworthy anymore, because they’re just my life,” she explains. It’s all about building healthy habits – and eventually, those habit becomes part of who you are, she says.
And those habits are not just physical. “So many people say ‘Oh, you’ve just got natural grit or determination.’ I think we have this idea that mental toughness is something people are born with. But like anything else it’s a skill that you have to work at,” says Olivia.
That mental focus played an important role in her decision to pursue wrestling as a career, when she completed her degree last year. “I wasn’t quite ready to give up wrestling so I told myself I’d give it a year and see what happens.” And what a year it has been. Now at the top of her game, Olivia competes around the world, and is prepping to defend her National title, as well as qualify for the Olympics in 2019.
Why does she love wrestling so much? “It doesn’t matter if you’re a world champion you’re still getting your ass kicked regularly. You have to love lacing up your boots, stepping on the mat and digging deep within yourself. The feeling that I get after a really hard practice when I’ve pushed myself mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, is incomparable,” Olivia says. “It’s the constant pursuit of becoming better.”
And, she’s not doing it alone. Though it’s an individual sport, she regularly refers to the uplifting and inspiring team spirit of her fellow wrestlers, who she trains and travels with. “Wrestling is super aggressive. We beat the shit out of each other every day, but have so much respect for one another, on and off the mat,” she says.
Olivia particularly appreciates the camaraderie between female wrestlers at home and abroad. Female wrestling only became an Olympic event in 2004 and is considered by male wrestlers to be an emerging sport, she explains. “There’s this feeling that we’re all in this together, even though we’re competing against each other. We want to be better collectively and see our sport grow.” Plus, they want to inspire interested younger women to embrace aggressive sports. “When girls start to start to wrestle you see they’re kind of timid and hesitant at first. But then they develop confidence that their body can do badass things. They can be sweaty and gross and have limbs everywhere, and that’s ok,” she says.
Off the mat, Olivia is just as enthusiastic – and disciplined – about achieving balance. She adores staying connected with her close-knit family – her parents and five siblings, as well close friends; she’s also trained and now works as a massage therapist part-time, aware that career wrestling will eventually have an expiry date. “I need to be more than a wrestler to be healthy…so now I’m figuring out the balance of being a health care professional and an elite athlete.” she says. With her mindset and work ethic, she seems well on her way to conquering that too.