For the first time since 1987, Ryerson University has a wrestling team.
But it’s an outside program called Team Impact Wrestling behind the new venture, not Ryerson’s in-house athletics department.
As one of the only national developmental training programs recognized by Canada Wrestling, Team Impact brings with it a wealth of experienced coaches and wrestling mentors. They pitched the team to the university last January.
“We were initially involved in the launch of the program and getting them established as a club here with athletics,” said Nick Asquini, Ryerson varsity operations co-ordinator. “But in terms of the day-to-day operation of the club, it’s entirely up to [Team Impact]. We just provide the framework for how they operate.”
Both institutions have a lot to gain from the partnership. By affiliating themselves with a university, Team Impact can recruit wrestlers from the middle- and high-school level and encourage them to pursue a post-secondary education. By affiliating themselves with Team Impact, Ryerson gains a fully self-sustained wrestling program, giving students further opportunities to participate in varsity club sports.
“Because we’re allowing an external team to operate, we need to make sure they live up to the standards that we expect,” said Stephanie White, Ryerson associate director of athletics. “So there’s an evaluation after each year, and after the second year the probationary period ends and we get to decide if the program can continue on.”
White says other key points of this evaluation process include program growth, conduct of coaches and players, management of finances, athlete turnout – specifically gender equality and diversity – and measurable improvement of athletic ability.
But even if the team passes the initial evaluation, that doesn’t mean Ryerson athletics will begin offering funding or scholarships. Instead, White says Ryerson athletics will run the team on an entirely self-funded model similar to the university’s baseball team, Dance Pak or dragon boat team.
“These programs have shown they can do a lot,” said White. “They manage their finances themselves really well and are highly successful running on their own funding.”
Team Impact is also in charge of all of the recruiting for the team. According to John Cho, Team Impact’s sport club co-ordinator, the team had about 35 people turn out when they held an initial interest meeting at Ryerson in September.
Two months later, about 15 of those students have officially registered and continue to show up to practices, which take place Monday to Friday at the City Adult Learning Centre.
A big draw for students is Ryerson’s head coach Saeed Azarbayjani, who was actively sought out for the position by Team Impact. Now 39, Azarbayjani has competed in the Olympics and Pan American Games, and has previous experience coaching both Brock University and Western University wrestling teams.
“He’s really happy and excited, and he’s so knowledgeable and strong,” said Fancy Bebamikawe, a fourth-year medical physics student at Ryerson and member of the wrestling team. “It’s important to be strong to show someone how to do something and to explain how it’s done. He has a lot of experience and it shows.”
Bebamikawe is also part of Team Impact’s Beat the Streets program, something Cho says is an integral part to both recruiting for Ryerson and giving back to the community.
As part of Beat the Streets, coaches and university-aged mentors go into local high schools to introduce the students to the sport of wrestling. Cho says the program uses wrestling as a way for marginalized or at-risk youth to get into post-secondary education.
In Janurary, Cho hopes to expand the program to middle schools, bringing in wrestling mats and teaching physical education classes for up to a week to fully explain the sport. By getting them interested young, Cho says there’s a greater chance they will continue to pursue the sport in post-secondary, preferably at a local Toronto school like Ryerson, York University or University of Toronto.
“We want to create a kind of triangle where we have a hub of GTA students who can benefit from staying local because we have excellent coaching, excellent kids and excellent academic programming,” said Cho.
In order for Ryerson to be eligible for overall team medals at Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) tournaments, they must have an athlete wrestling in each of the weight categories – 10 for the men and eight for the women.
“I’m hoping in three years we’ll have those kind of numbers,” said Azerbayjani. “Any chance I get to talk to students, I’m there to recruit. And the word’s already there in the wrestling community. It’s just a matter of getting people interested.”
Until then, members of the team are still able to compete in the OUA wrestling championship as long as they’ve competed in at least one university sanctioned tournament, like the McMaster Open or Greater Toronto Open tournaments that Ryerson sent athletes to last month. At the latter, Ryerson had three male athletes place within the top five, with Philip Le taking gold in the 57-kilogram category, Gabriel Wright picking up a bronze in the 76-kilogram category and Felix Izraitel finishing fifth in the 90-kilogram category.
“It’s definitely something that takes commitment, but we also welcome anyone and everyone who wants to wrestle,” said Jordan Pilosof, a Ryerson student who frequently partners with Izraitel at practice. “We’d want them to give it a shot. And we definitely need more people coming out.