So, when you hear the word "pehlivan," that may be all that comes to mind, but you should know that "pehlivan" also means wrestler.
Now for a word of advice: Forget everything you ever imagined when thinking of Turkish wrestlers who are tall and strong -- because these days the wrestling mats of Turkey are bringing forth a whole new generation of wrestlers who may just erase any preconceived notions you have about the sport. Yes, with their small size and delicate bodies, these wrestlers might not look strong, but when you see them grab their competitors from the waist to flip them onto their backs, you may think your eyes are deceiving you. Who are we talking about here exactly? The women's national wrestling team.
Don't be too surprised by the idea of a female wrestler in Turkey. You must watch them train; we admit that we were a bit shocked by the idea until we ourselves watched a training session. Watching these delicate wrestlers practice their sport reinforced the phrase "strong like a Turk" in our minds. It is also interesting to note that these wrestlers are quite feminine outside the ring: They keep up with fashion, wear high heels when they want and some of them wear makeup.
And never mind that the 2009 World Wrestling Championships, held last month in Denmark, didn't bring them the results they had been looking for. After all, a number of the female wrestlers they were up against started wrestling before some of the Turkish team had even been born. It's expected that as this Turkish team gains experience, its success rate will rise, too. The team is now training for the 2011 World Wrestling Championships, which will be held in İstanbul, and they aim to return from the 2012 London Olympics with a gold medal.
She was headed for gymnastics, but wound up wrestling
We met these women at the Mimar Sinan Hall in Edirne, the Turkish city that has contributed the most wrestlers to the Turkish team, where we spoke with 21-year-old Burcu Özkaya, who has just returned from the championships in Denmark. Özkaya is a sophomore at Trakya University's physical education department, and she explained that she met the wrestling coach who would change her future eight years ago, at a sporting arena where she was competing in a gymnastics competition. Özkaya decided to try wrestling when the coach told her he was forming a new wrestling team and invited her to try out. Özkaya was only 13 at the time, and her family was very much opposed to this; her father, who insisted that wrestling was a sport only for boys, even forbade her from going to training sessions.
So Özkaya wound up sneaking out of her home to train, and it was only when she placed well in a competition that her father became convinced that wrestling can be a sport for girls as well. What's more, now Özkaya is able to help support her family financially, as she receives a TL 540 monthly grant from the state, a TL 450 Olympics payment and TL 250 a month from her sports club. Özkaya is quite optimistic about her chances in the upcoming Olympics, even though she was beaten by a Belarusian competitor at the previous Olympics through what she said was her own fault.
Female wrestlers have a rather tough training schedule. They train six days a week for two hours a day. The training sessions begin with conditioning exercises and then go through many of the difficult moves that typify wrestling, such as flips and fakes. The young athletes admit that if it were not for their basic love of the sport, they would never endure the difficulty of their training sessions. The sheer strenuousness of what they go through on a daily basis is demonstrated by the fact that they often lose up to two kilograms in one training session! They of course their diets include nutrient supplements and lots of vegetables and fruits to make up for what they lose.
At camp, I used to cry because I missed my mother
Of course, the physical aspect of being a wrestler on the national team is not the only difficult one. There are also many psychological barriers to overcome. One of the youngest members on the team is 15-year-old Sinem Topçu, who explained some of what she has been through. When she started wrestling five years ago, Topçu would go to training camp and have a horrible time missing her mother. Now she smiles as she recalls that experience, though she also noted that at the time, some of her friends actually ran away from camp because they missed their homes so much.
‘I have seen so many countries, one for each of my years!'
We also spoke with Dilek Atakol, a 51-kilogram wrestler who participated in the 2008 European Wrestling Championships. Atakol is 21 years old and started wrestling eight years ago upon the advice of her friend and teammate, Özkaya. Atakol is supported by her family and studies at Kocatepe University's physical education department. She believes that girls should definitely take up an interest in at least one kind of sport, no matter what it is. She attributes her healthy lifestyle and eating habits to wrestling.
The young athlete is also thankful for the travel opportunities she has had thanks to wrestling. "While lots of young people my age have never been outside the country, I've seen one country for each of my years," she said. She also pointed out that she receives tremendous support from her classmates at school; in fact, they are some of her loudest and most supportive fans at tournaments. She said she has never encountered jokes poking fun at her choice of sport.
Melek Atakol is Dilek's younger sister, and she has been on the team for six years now. She noted that female wrestlers do not only wear sports clothing, but are interested in fashion and love wearing makeup and high heels, too, when they are not "on the mats," wrestling opponents. She said she is annoyed by people who claim that girls who wrestle have to live with the fear that they'll never marry. "It's so early to even think about marriage for us. But of course, when the time comes, we'll no doubt all get married. After all, we all dream of wearing a white wedding gown one day," she said.
German wrestler who wants to become Muslim
This team makes great friendships with female wrestlers from other countries that they meet at foreign tournaments. Leyla Ertaş, 19, who has been wrestling for six years, said her greatest joy is maintaining e-mail and MSN communications with her friends from abroad. She told us that a German female wrestler she met has been asking her question about Islam via e-mail and has told her she too wants to become Muslim.
A brand new phenomenon
The whole concept of women's wrestling is still quite new to Turkey. Turkey started competing in international women's wrestling competitions for the first time in 1998 and in the past 10 years has produced two world champions. The age range of this young Turkish team is between 15 and 25 years old, and one of their biggest problems is simply finding suitable partners for team members to train against. At times these wrestlers actually wind up having to train against competitors who are much heavier than them. And often at international competitions, they go up against teams that are much older and experienced than they are. “At some championships, we face teams whose members are 35 years old, and who have 20 years or so of experience. In other words, some of us had not even been born yet when our competitors started wrestling," Özkaya explained.
There are also some technical deficiencies in the Turkish national women's wrestling team. For instance, there are not enough weights for the wrestlers to work with, and sometimes they are forced to train on judo mats rather than wrestling mats. Still though, one piece of great news on the horizon is that soon this team will be able to train and use the facilities provided by Edirne's Wrestling Training Center, which is set to open soon.
By: DİLEK HAYIRLI / İSA ŞİMŞEK