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Photo: Patrick Dougherty

People

Grace Bullen is fighting for a medal in the Olympics

In 20 years, Norwegian wrestler Grace Bullen has experienced and accomplished more than most do of us do in a lifetime. Her life started on the run from war. Now her eyes are set on Tokyo and making history.

Gheorge Costin, Grace Bullen’s coach, waves at us as he goes outside to get a bucketful of snow. We follow him over to the sauna at the Atlas Wrestling Club where Bullen is sweating profusely. She immediately grabs a handful of snow and starts rubbing it all over her body like it was soap.

“Life as a wrestler is demanding,” Bullen says. “You have to endure a lot of training, how to plan your life, to be creative and get out of situations and find solutions. It’s become a habit to wake up early, train and prepare. My motivation is to make something of myself and inspire others. I’d like to be remembered for more than just titles. Wrestling is just a way for me to express myself. It’s so free, like a dance, even though it looks rough and we might look angry.”

Outside, the temperature is just above 0°C and a layer of snow covers the fields of Fredrikstad, Norway. It’s a long way from Eritrea where Bullen was born. It’s 10am and she’s just finished a morning workout with hill sprints and wrestling techniques. Today, she had a bit of a sleep-in, which, for her, means 7am. It’s another day of routines, another day closer to a goal in a life that could have been very different.

“I think about it a lot,” the wrestler says. “How lucky I’ve been and how coincidental life can be. It was pure chance that we were at that refugee camp at that specific time. And how we got to come to Norway and to Fredrikstad. Then, when my father met my coach at a Norwegian language course. I think about all the gifts that have come my way since the day my parents left Africa. I won’t forget what they’ve done and the choices they’ve made for me and my sisters. If it were possible to represent two flags I would! I’m so proud to represent Norway, and I’m equally proud of my African heritage.”

Before she was born, her parents left South Sudan where her father was part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. At that time, the country was shrouded in warfare and chaos and listed as “a sponsor of terrorism” by the US.

Just as Bullen never forgets where she comes from, she’ll most likely never forget some of the first memories of her childhood. When Grace was born in Eritrea, it was another war zone, and the family had to go on the run again. She can vaguely remember soldiers, shooting and death. But a day of disaster for many people would be one of joy for the family as they landed in Norway on 11 September, 2001, the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

“I can’t speak for other kids who grew up here in Norway, but I know how it feels to be hungry for food, for life, for experience, hungry for more. I know how it is to have nothing and not knowing where your next meal will come from, or even if you’ll get another day. Now I know what I’ve got and my goals make it easier to go -forward.”

After the family arrived in Norway, Bullen didn’t have much to smile about the first few years, as she had a hard time adjusting to their new life and making friends. In her mind, the family was probably going to have to move again. Then, her father, Jacob, met former -Romanian wrestling champion Gheorghe Costin, who told him to bring his kids to the Atlas Wrestling Club.

Grace started wrestling when she was four years old. On the mat it didn’t matter if she looked different, where she came from or that she couldn’t speak Norwegian. Here, everyone spoke via body language, and soon enough Bullen -became fluent in wrestling.

“My sisters always beat me at the beginning. I didn’t have any talent at all, but -Gheorghe saw something in me. He’s shaped my life and helped me with almost everything in life. The first time I realized I was good was when I won my first international medal. I was 15 and I could see that 
I could even perform beyond Norway.”

Her long-time mentor, friend and coach Costin sits bent over the computer. When he was at his most successful back in Romania, he was the national champion twice and won eight silver medals. 

“Grace is an explosive and spectacular wrestler. She has already shown that she can perform against the best in the world. But we’ll have to see. In wrestling the margins can be tiny, like four years ago when she missed out on Olympic qualification with just seconds left.”

Costin has been coaching at Atlas since 2004. He gives us a look at his prodigy’s workout schedule.

“If you include psychological training, Grace trains more than 20 hours a week. Right now, we’re working on a specific capacity. It’s hard. It may take four or five years of work to last just one more second on the mat. Grace’s strength is that she’s goal-oriented and focused. When she trains, she trains. She doesn’t look at her phone or chat,” the coach says.

The way I’m training now, the odds are in my favor.

There are two Tokyo spots up for grabs at the European qualifiers in Budapest this month. To qualify for the Olympics, -Bullen needs to get to the final. If that doesn’t go according to plan, she gets one last shot in May at the World Qualifiers in Sofia.

“The way I’m training now, the odds are in my favor. It’s not an option to miss out this time,” says a determined Bullen as she’s quizzed on her failed Rio qualification in 2016. On her bedroom wall she says she’s made a goalboard. It reads:

– Gold, European Championship

– First place first qualifiers

– Tokyo 2020

Her ambition is clear. “I’m going to be the first female wrestler from Norway with an Olympic medal this summer.” 

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