Evan Walker is a BeWieber.
And he has two vintage Erica Wiebe T-shirts to prove he believes in the power of the 2016 Olympic women’s wrestling champion, whose performances during the past five years are inspiring him and the entire Ottawa wrestling community.
For most of his six years as an amateur wrestler, the Grade 12 student at Sacred Heart High School (Wiebe’s former school) has worn one of those T-shirts as a source of motivation.
The one that gets put through the washer and dryer the most has Wiebe’s surname in block letters, the drawing of an anvil with 75 kg (her weight class) beside it and the words “#BeWiebe Wrestling Heavyweight Style.”
That strategy worked this season for Walker, who was part of a motivated group of National Capital Secondary School Athletic Association student/athletes who delivered an unprecedented showing at the recent Ontario Federation of School Athletic Federations wrestling championships in Windsor.
Never in the 58-year history of the OFSAA wrestling championships has an Ottawa contingent won four gold medals. The closest was three in 1968.
The team’s effort was even more impressive with two silver medallists, three antique-bronze medal winners for fourth place, and ribbons for two in fifth place and two in sixth. The top six OFSAA wrestlers reach the podium.
“I wore that (T-shirt) to OFSAA this year for the first day. When I walked onto the mat with Erica Wiebe on my shirt . . . it was intimidating,” said Walker, the unexpected, yet undefeated boys’ 89-kg champion.
Ismail Ayyoub of Longfields-Davidson Heights captured the boys’ 83-kg gold in only his second year of wrestling. Brookfield’s Taha Chahrour stepped up to cap his high school career as the boys’ 77-kg champion. Jessica Hong won the 44-kg gold at her third OFSAA championship.
Silver medals went to Mackenzie Lagrove of Bell, girls’ 57.5 kg, and Matthew Vecchio of Maurice Lapointe, boys’ 38 kg. The antique-bronze medallists were Borden’s Claire Vandesande, girls’ 67.5 kg; South Carleton’s Bailey Agard, girls’ 54 kg; and Bell’s Abdullah Rahmatullah, boys’ 54 kg.
Rewarded with ribbons were Ridgemont’s Malak Bel Maniar, girls’ 83 kg, and Sacred Heart’s Paul Noble, boys’ 51 kg, for fifth place; and Cairine Wilson’s Kiera Armstrong, girls’ 41 kg, and Borden’s Luca Brancatelli, boys’ 89 kg, for sixth.
The 2019 OFSAA championships will be held in the TD Place arena, returning to Ottawa for the first time since 1966.
Meet Ottawa’s four high school wrestling champs:
JESSICA HONG, 16, Sir Robert Borden, girls’ 44 kilograms
When Jessica Hong was younger, she would kick up a storm playing soccer or participating in dance.
She played many sports, but when she entered high school in 2015 she had lost interest in competitive activities.
That was until she was introduced to wrestling in a Grade 9 phys-ed class.
“I had not heard much about wrestling,” said Hong, who was skeptical. “I honestly didn’t want to do it.”
But she tried it . . . and liked it, to the point of trying out for the Bengals’ wrestling team and later joining the National Capital Wrestling Club.
“I liked it. It was different. It felt good. In soccer and dance, you focus on the feet. But in wrestling, you use the whole body,” explained Hong, who also liked being connected to a team.
Hong showed promise, finishing second at the NCSSAA championships and qualifying for her first OFSAA championships. Despite losing both of her OFSAA matches, she didn’t follow her normal course of action, which would have been to quit. Instead, the losses made “me want to do it more because I didn’t do well.”
At the 2017 OFSAA championships, she won the girls’ 44-kg silver. And Hong’s 2017-18 season was filled with even greater riches because of her quickness, technique and shoot-for-the-legs style.
Not only did she win the OFSAA girls’ 44-kg title with a 4-0 record, but also she became the Ontario Amateur Wrestling Association juvenile and junior (46 kg, under-20) champion. At the Canadian championships, she captured the older junior division gold medal, but silver in her juvenile age class.
“Two years ago, I didn’t know anything. It’s crazy. But I practised so much.”
TAHA CHAHROUR, 17, Brookfield, boys’ 77 kilograms
Two-sport athlete Taha Chahrour was faced with a major dilemma last fall, and it had nothing to do with academics.
The fast and talented Eastern Ontario/Bytown Blues rugby player was trying to decide between continuing his sevens and 15s training or competing in his final year with the Brookfield wrestling team.
He gave the decision to wrestling. Although a month behind in training, he upgraded his dedication to serious and achieved the ultimate — an undefeated high school season.
Using his strength and fitness, Chahrour won five tournaments, surrendering only seven points in total, and won his first medal at his fourth OFSAA championship, the boys’ 77-kg gold.
When he won gold, he was doubly ecstatic, sharing it with Brookfield coach Joseph Ghobril.
“I had a lot of motivation. My coach, Joseph, has never had someone win a gold. I wanted to get gold for him as much as I wanted to win,” said Chahrour, the most outstanding boys’ wrestler at the NCSSAA finals.
Ghobril, who has coached high school wrestling at Brookfield since 2005, was “touched and honoured” by Chahrour’s gesture.
“Watching him dominate the OFSAA competitors in his weight class this year was awesome. My heart rate was through the roof during the four minutes of his gold-medal match against a former champ,” Ghobril wrote in an email.
“The OFSAA gold is not only about what he accomplished in his Grade 12 year. To me, it represents the four-year journey, the endless hours spent training, (and) the many screwups and life lessons he learned along the way; the transformation of a little know-it-all kid into a young man.“
Chahrour, who also wrestles for the NCWC, took full advantage of his final year.
“This was my last year and I didn’t want to throw it away. This had to be the year,” said Chahrour, who also was equally inspired by his brother, Mustapha, a former OFSAA wrestler.
ISMAIL AYYOUB, 15, Longfields-Davidson Heights, boys’ 83 kilograms
Even before Grade 8 student Ismail Ayyoub started wrestling, he made a promise to his brother, Ibrahim. One day, Ibrahim would have a gold medal and a smile on his face.
“When my brother would come home from tournaments, he’d be eighth or third or second, but never first,” Ismail said. “That hurt me because I didn’t want to see my brother with tears, but rather joy. At OFSAA, he was third (in 2017) and he felt cheated.”
Ismail decided to right that apparent wrong.
And he didn’t waste any time. Fourteen months after starting the sport, Ismail became an OFSAA champion in 2018 and Ibrahim was smiling.
In 2016, Ismail entered St. Patrick’s High School, but was disappointed to learn the school had no wrestling program. But he got permission to train briefly with his brother, who attended Brookfield High School.
After his family, which includes eight children, moved to Barrhaven, he attended Longfields-Davidson Heights for his second semester in Grade 9. He immediately felt right at home as the wrestling coach said Ayyoub could join the team, although it was late in the season.
He qualified for his first OFSAA championships through the NCSSAA finals, but was overwhelmed by it and didn’t get past the first day.
Ayyoub responded last summer by taking wrestling more seriously, writing a daily journal, attending summer camps and working in his neighbourhood to raise money to cover his expenses.
As a result, he had an outstanding 2017-18 season, winning the OFSAA gold despite an injured left shoulder.
For good measure, he unselfishly stepped up a weight class for the Ontario Amateur Wrestling Association cadet U17 championships to allow a NCWC teammate to compete, and still won the gold in the 92-kg class. He wrapped up his stellar season with gold medals in the freestyle and Greco Roman classes at the Canadian U17 championships.
But those three gold medals belong to Ismail.
EVAN WALKER, 17, Sacred Heart, boys’ 89 kilograms
The first time Evan Walker stepped onto a wrestling mat for a match he was fighting in the 51-kg class.
Five years later, he completed his high school career by walking out of the competitive circle as the 2018 OFSAA boys’ 89-kg champion.
“In Grade 7, I wasn’t good,” admitted Walker, who still had more upside than wins. “Even at 51 kilograms, I walked around like I was 89 kilograms. I walked around like I was the big guy at school.”
But a significant growth spurt almost forced him out of the sport after last season.
After qualifying for OFSAA in grades 9 and 10, he was unsuccessful in the Ottawa board meets last year.
“I was frustrated with the sport,” said Walker, a Grade 12 student who wrestles only for his school team. “I wasn’t the right body size. I wasn’t as fit in the upper body. I figured wrestling was done for me.
“I was told at 16 everyone drops sport because it’s too much. I didn’t feel happy. I didn’t get anything out of it. I didn’t see it in my future. I wanted to focus on school. I put wrestling on the back burner.”
But when the 2017-18 wrestling season started last fall, he relented slightly and decided to enter one tournament. He lost his match, but it felt like a minor win.
“I was in Ismail’s (Ayyoub) weight class and that sparked me. All I heard was how awesome he was. I lost 5-7 to this club kid who they spoke so highly of. I didn’t beat him, but I was competitive with him,” he said. “Maybe I can do this and go farther. Everything lined up.”
Despite a keen focus on academics, he organized his time and put wrestling on his agenda. It allowed him to win his first OFSAA medal, and a gold one at that.
“I’m extremely pleased,” he said.
Original article written by Martin Cleary of the Ottawa Citizen.