Sally Roberts Is a Fighter
The Telethon host on belonging, Afghan deployment, & Wrestle Like a Girl
Sally Roberts is tough. Like, really tough. She’s tough in a way where, when faced with hardship, the first thing she will do is seek out solutions that require facing even more hardship.
For example, after failing to make the 2008 Olympic team and being delegated to sit on the sidelines in Beijing as an alternate, Roberts went up to her local army recruiter and asked for “the toughest job a woman can have right off the streets.” And that settled it; she joined the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan.
This toughness, however, hasn’t always been so directed.
As a kid, Roberts coped with a challenging childhood by shoplifting, breaking into houses, and getting into fights. Eventually, she was arrested so many times that she was put in front of a juvenile detention officer, who gave her a choice to either find an after-school activity or face juvenile detention.
Roberts, of course, chose the former and joined the wrestling team. Not particularly out of a right-away love for the sport, but more as an act of self-preservation to avoid detention (and also because she was cut from every other sport). Nonetheless, she carved a place for herself on the all-boys team and set out to make a name for herself both within the wrestling world and beyond.
Since then, Roberts has become a two-time World bronze medalist and has founded the non-profit Wrestle Like a Girl. Aimed at increasing opportunities in women's wrestling, her organization has evolved into a global movement and become a spearhead for female empowerment in sports.
Roberts will be co-hosting this year’s Beat the Streets Virtual Telethon on September 17.
Before I found wrestling, I was cut from every sport and told I wasn’t athletic. But that wasn’t the case; I knew I was athletic. I just didn’t know how to play well with others.
THE SEARCH FOR BELONGING
I didn’t set out to wrestle; I really just wanted to find a place of belonging. And the wrestling room was the first place that accepted me as I was and encouraged me to be better.
A MOMENT OF GROWTH
I had terrible acne as a kid. I would wear makeup to cover it, and I didn’t want to take it off at practice. I went to practice one day and I left this foundation streak on my teammate's shirt. I didn't want to get kicked off the team, so I went to the bathroom and washed it all off. I stood at the door for thirty seconds, panicking about how people were going to laugh at me and make fun of me. But I walked back in, and they were like, 'Thank God you finally took off your makeup.' Turns out all the judgement and self-doubt was in my head.
Honestly, the reason why I decided to wrestle in college was because my parents had divorced I was sleeping in my car. So if I went to the University of Minnesota Morris and wrestled, they would give me housing and I wouldn't be homeless.
We're so used to living these comfortable, soft lives of squishiness; whether that's your tennis shoes that are overly cushioned or having so many resources that you don't know what it's like to truly struggle.
PASSING IT ON
I was a woman walking alongside men in the Afghan countryside, and little girls covered in dirt playing stickball would see me—a girl—walking alongside men in a leadership position, and they would come up to me with big eyes and touch their thumb to my thumb. And I thought, 'when I'm ready to transition on with my life, I want to do something to help girls; and not just girls, but marginalized and invisible girls.'
YOU WRESTLE LIKE A GIRL
At that time, the biggest insult that you could give a female wrestler was ‘you wrestle like a girl.’ And I would hear boys saying that to girls, and I would be like, 'how can you possibly say that? I wrestle like a girl and I'm a two-time World bronze medalist, and you're a JV Junior High wrestler.'
Athletes should not have to be the voice in getting equal representation and opportunities. They shouldn't have to be the ones that change policies and laws. That should come from the adults. And if I can be the one to provide cover and reduce the barriers to entry so that we can get equal access, then that's exactly what I'm going to do.
Wrestling helps everybody, especially when you come from really challenging places. We’re either running from something or running to something, and it's through this process that we figure out who we are, what we’re made of, and what we’re going to do with our lives that's going to serve and impact the world beyond ourselves.
TO ALL THE HATERS
I believe, with every fiber of my being, that women's wrestling is what we all need to support to grow the sport. And to the people that don't see it yet, that's okay, because I know I'm right. And when they're ready to come and take a seat at the table, we would love to have them.
WORKING WITH BTS
I love Beat the Streets and its mission to bring wrestling to inner-city youth and inner-city girls, and for me to be involved in bringing awareness to that became a project and an effort i knew i wanted to invest in.
We need to see women's wrestling in more countries, especially where women experience sexualized violence of war and where there are human rights violations. If we want to change the fabric of our globe, we have to empower girls and women. Full stop.