Leona Gao builds confidence, strength through wrestling with Beat the Streets
The Brooklyn middle school wrestler learned the value of perseverance through the sport.
This feature story is part of a three-part student-athlete series for the 2022 Beat the Streets year-end campaign. To help Beat the Streets continue to make a lifelong impact on student-athletes like Leona, donate today at give.btsny.org/yearend2022.
Leona Gao's wrestling journey started like most kids - watching an older brother compete in the sport.
Leona's older brother, Leo, started wrestling in sixth grade when she was 7 years old. She attended his practices and tournaments, where she was drawn to the sport by the competition and strength the wrestlers displayed on the mat.
"It looks fierce, but at its very core, you have to work hard for it," she said. "One of the main values I've learned from wrestling is that you have to persevere whether it is on the mat or off the mat. You have to learn techniques. You have to drill them over and over again."
Leona put on her wrestling shoes and joined Beat the Streets with Leo. Together, the two strengthen their sibling bond while receiving encouragement and support from their parents to continue to improve in the sport.
"The sport of wrestling helped me become stronger not just mentally, but also physically," the Brooklyn middle school wrestler said.
Gao noticed her strength grew as she practiced and trained more with Beat the Streets. She learned new wrestling techniques from coaches and practiced them repeatedly until she felt confident utilizing them in a match.
She set a goal for herself - win one wrestling match. After she earned her first victory, her confidence grew in her abilities. Former Beat the Streets Director of Youth Programming Penn Gottfried noticed her improvement. He selected Gao to wrestle in a girls middle school exhibition match in June at the Beat the Streets Annual Benefit at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden.
"I was really excited because I wanted to win that and then prove to everyone I am strong," she said. "(The match) began with a slight nervousness because there were so many people out there. I was worried that if I lost a match, something bad would happen. But once I got onto the mat, I decided to leave all my worries behind."
Gao didn't win the match, but she counts overcoming her fears that night as a victory. Her experience wrestling in front of thousands of people helped her be more open to new experiences, meeting new people and making friends.
"I love wrestling because it is a difficult sport," she said. "It challenges me to do things that I might not be able to do, yet."
Since being founded in 2005, Beat the Streets New York has pioneered a movement that now includes 150 individual wrestling programs, a youth league and the first girls high school league.
BTSNY works to develop the full human and athletic potential of the urban youth and strengthen the NYC wrestling culture. We aim to make a lifelong impact on student-athletes through the lessons learned on the wrestling mat -- discipline, perseverance, self-reliance, humility and a strong work ethic. Discover how you can make a meaningful contribution to our work at btsny.org/donate.