The Best Story About Mongolian Women's Wrestling You'll Ever Read
Chimdee stands still as the referee approaches the mat. Summoned to the center, the 132-pound wrestler from Mongolia bobs her head in recognition, drops into a quarter squat and with both hands lands three thunderous slaps to her legs; two to her thighs and one to her hindquarters.
Chimdee's leg-slapping entry is an ode to her home country of Mongolia and the nomadic herdsmen and wrestlers (all men) who have enacted the same motion before every match competed for centuries. In her first world championship final, in 2014, the 19-year-old nicknamed Chimdee -- her full name is Sukhee Tserenchimed -- finds the moment to recall this power and show that Mongolian women have co-opted this centuries old leg-spanking as their own, that wrestling in Mongolia and worldwide was no longer gender-specific.
But as the Women's World Cup of wrestling kicks off in St. Petersburg, Russia, this weekend, does Chimdee have what it takes to lead her team to a world title and into the hearts of her fellow Mongolians?
Mongolian women like Chimdee didn't always have the opportunity to wrestle. It wasn't until the International Olympic Committee voted the sport of wrestling into the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens that national wrestling federations began to support women's wrestling.
Prior to Olympic involvement, women in Mongolia and other developing nations were relegated to lives absent of accessible sports. While Japan and China have historically dominated women's wrestling with big budgets and regional programs, over the past several years the development of the Mongolian team has shown that the growth of women's wrestling is making an impact where it's needed most -- nations with few opportunities for social and economic mobility for women.
A recent study commissioned by United World Wrestling (the international federation for the sport) found that wrestling makes a direct and significant impact on disadvantaged women around the world, offering those with the fewest resources a substantial opportunity for significant upward mobility. Because wrestling has little or no start-up costs, there are few barriers to entry, which then essentially creates an athletic meritocracy. Win, you start. Lose, you don't.
Money and equipment are of little value in a sport stripped of excess. This weekend's Women's Wrestling World Cup in Russia is a celebration of sorts for the organization. Once ridiculed for a lack of gender equity, wrestling recently added two Olympic weights in women's freestyle (for six total, the same as men's freestyle), and over the past few months, the sport has pushed international federations around the world to add women's programs.
Last week, Iran, once thought to be intractable when it came to women wrestling, added a women's belt wrestling program -- a style of the sport that includes a jacket and belt.
There are success stories across the sport and the globe, but few sparkle as bright as that of Chimdee, the world's top-ranked wrestler in her weight class.
Squeezed between Russia and China, Mongolia is a country steeped in the folklore of self-reliant, masculine men. The land of Genghis Khan, Mongolia's ethos swirls with nomadic toughness and a historical pride in ancestors who once conquered half the earth armed with little more than resilience and cunning.
Wrestling sits at the center of that macho Mongolian culture. In the time of the Mongol Empire, Khans would choose generals based on their efficacy and courage in wrestling competition. That wrestling style, known as Mongolian Bokh, exists today and, despite incursions from soccer and basketball, remains the country's most popular sport. However popular, Bokh is still only practiced by men.
Chimdee was raised in Ulaanbaatar, the often-polluted and desperately cold capital city of Mongolia. Her father died when she was 7 and her mother, sick for much of her teens, raised her to be mannered and tough.
Like they do with champion horses, Mongolians believe in bloodlines when choosing wrestlers. Chimdee's father had been a champion wrestler from the countryside, so when wrestling was first offered to girls in the early 2000s, Chimdee's mother trusted that her daughter had a chance at success on the mat. "I was always hearing about my father's wrestling," Chimdee said. "Wrestling scared me, but I wanted to be like him and so did my mother."
Following her instincts, Chimdee's mother grabbed her daughter's hand and marched her into a local wrestling club. Over the next several years the club became her second home.
On the mat today Chimdee dominates opponents with a unique blend of brutality and flexibility, that has made her a marketable star at home. Chimdee controls opponents with withering hip pressure and frustrates them with a Gumby-esque ability to squirm out of danger. In the 2013 Junior World finals, Chimdee, then 18, met the leg attacks of her opponent with the pointy edge of her hip and sent the outmatched grappler tumbling back over her own legs again and again. "She's one of the toughest wrestlers I've ever seen," said Mongolian Wrestling Federation president Dagvadorj Asashoryu. "She works hard and is strong. We think she can be an Olympic champion."
Over the past several years, Asashoryu -- most noteworthy as the 68th Grand Yokozuna of sumo -- has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of the federation's money into the development and success of women's wrestling in Mongolia. The imposing 280-pound former wrestling champion says that in addition to national glory he sees the quest for Olympic gold as a way to improve the lives of women wrestlers in Mongolian culture. "Mongolians bleed wrestling," Asashoryu said. "Wrestlers love the Mongolian people and they love their wrestlers."
The national pride and the desire to please a nation and its legacy sit at the center of Chimdee's external motivations. "I would never have seen the world without wrestling," Chimdee said. "My life is for the sport of wrestling, and I want to make my mother and country proud."
After cuffing her thighs, Chimdee marches to the center and on the whistle lunges toward her opponent.
She's crafty on the mat, luring her challenger into ill-advised attacks, only to wallop her with a megaton of hip pressure. For six minutes she swirls and spins, pulls and yanks, and at the end of the match her hand is raised as the winner 12-3.
With her victory back in that 2014 match, Chimdee becomes only Mongolia's second-ever women's world champion. Smiling to the point of giggles, Chimdee is given the flag of her country and asked to run around the gymnasium. An audience of 5,000 Uzbek men envelop her with applause, and she gushes as she runs to hug her coaches.
A world champion, ranked No. 1 in the world and a celebrity at home (she recently won recognition as "Best Female Athlete"), Chimdee remains focused on new, larger goals. "I want to be an Olympic champion," she said. "I want to make my country proud of me and to keep wrestling in my family. I love this sport and everything it and Mongolia has given to me."
Chimdee will have 18 months to prepare for the Rio Games. This weekend she'll lead a Mongolian squad into the World Cup in what they hope will become their first team title. Afterward she'll go home and spend countless hours strengthening her body, increasing her flexibility and working on her technique.
She'll also spend a few days here or there being toasted by the Mongolian men and women who 20 years ago would never have known that living among the nomadic herdsman and world-famous wrestlers were women who would one day prove, like them, to be among the toughest wrestlers on the planet.
"For our country, we want to make a new wrestling hero in Rio, " Asashoryu said. "For Mongolians, I think Chimdee can be that hero."