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Jessica Medina ready for Dave Schultz, new risks and the road to Rio de Janeiro

Jessica Medina, shown at the 2011 Dave Schultz Memorial International, makes her comeback from injury. Photo by Larry Slater.

For Jessica Medina of the Sunkist Kids, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City, Iowa were a blur of pain, adrenaline, determination and disappointment.

Medina had just defeated Nicole Woody of the Gator WC. She and Victoria Anthony of the Sunkist Kids faced off in the 48 kg/105.5 lbs. challenge tournament semifinals, vying for a spot in the finals.

Medina didn’t know what was happening when severe pain flared in her shoulder. Between periods, her trainer popped her dislocated shoulder back into place, and Medina pushed through the pain to complete the match, but lost.

“There was a point in the tournament where I had to decide whether to keep wrestling or if I was going to pull out,” said Medina.

At the time, Medina was contemplating retirement and was determined to finish the Olympic Trials, despite her injured shoulder and missed chance at making the Olympic Team.

“In my last match, it got to a point where I couldn’t even use my arm anymore,” she said. “I ended up finishing fifth. After the trials I found out I needed surgery,” she said.

Medina underwent shoulder surgery the following month, and faced the tough decision of whether to maintain her wrestling career.

When it came time for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team to compete in the 2012 London Olympic Games in August, Medina was still on the fence. She attended the Olympics with her mother to support the other women and be the point person for teammate and friend Kelsey Campbell of the Sunkist Kids, who ultimately did not place at 55 kg/121 lbs.

It was when Campbell took Medina on a tour of the Olympic Village that Medina discovered her path.

She would not stop until she walked through the Village as an Olympian.

“I remember walking around [the Olympic Village] and I was just thinking, I didn’t do all that I could do,” she said. “That is one of the worst feelings you can have. It was amazing to be in the Olympic Village in London and at the same time I was just really discouraged because I felt like I had kind of wasted time. So after that, I decided I want to do this; I want to commit myself 100 percent.”

Truly a blessing in disguise, Medina has stopped considering her injury a low point in her career.

“My injury gave me that time to recover,” she said. “After that long break it helped me recover mentally and physically. [I was able to] sit on the sidelines and watch teammates and what they’re going through and kind of get a coach’s perspective. It was just a lot of rebuilding from inside out for me at that point.”

The upcoming Dave Schultz Memorial International will be Medina’s comeback tour from the injury, wrestling at 51 kg/112.25 lbs., her most effective weight class.

Less than two weeks from the tournament, Medina said she has turned on “competition mode.”

“It’s finally real to me and it’s like, OK, it’s really time to get ready – mentally, physically, get on top of my nutrition, on top of my recovery, on top of my rehab, everything,” she said. “It’s kept me focused. Sometimes it gets overwhelming but it feels good to be back, I’m just ready to compete again.”

National Women’s Team Coach Terry Steiner has been tracking Medina’s progress and said what he has seen is very positive.

“It’s been a long time since she’s stepped on a competition mat, but she’s been working hard,” Steiner said. “Her intensity is good and her focus is sharp. It takes time to get your mindset back for competing at a high level. The main thing is to bring back the speed, quickness and alertness that you need.”

Medina said we should expect some surprises and new risks from her this year.

“Before [my injury] I think my wrestling was somewhat basic, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But now, I’ve just expanded my arsenal a lot and I’ve worked on a lot of things I’ve never worked on before,” Medina said. “I can’t decide to be timid my first tournament back. Really, I have nothing to lose, I feel like I’m starting from scratch.”

More than just taking risks, Medina is concentrating on remembering why she loves wrestling and having fun with it rather than letting the pressure get to her.

Medina also stressed the importance of mental preparation and dealing with a hard loss, things she’s learned not just from having to work through her injury but in her eight years of highly competitive wrestling.

“At this point and at this age I really learned how powerful your mind is. I think I definitely got a taste of that at the Olympic Trials,” Medina said. “Mental preparation is right there with physical training and technique. Working your brain is the same as a muscle – it takes mental practice.”

Every lost match takes both a mental and physical toll on the 26-year-old wrestler. But, she said, even her most disappointing loss – when she missed the chance to be on the 2011 World Team – can be a learning experience.

“Not having success after you’ve had success is really hard because you want to stay on top and you don’t know all the answers, you can’t control all the variables,” she said. “I think every loss is upsetting but over the years I’ve learned that everyone loses so to throw a temper tantrum or really get down on yourself you’re not going to be able to move forward.”

Instead, she focuses on what improvements she can make whether they are technical, physical or mental.

Steiner said that through her injury, Medina has grown more mature and is starting to focus on the right things.

“She tends to worry about things she can’t control and she needs to zero in on things she can control,” he said. “She’s been doing well with that the last couple of weeks, but it’s been a struggle. You just have to take it day by day and get a little better every day.”

Even settling on the best weight class for herself has been a product of her maturation as an athlete.

“It’s just about figuring out your body and figuring out what works and what doesn’t by trial and error and nutritionally.”

Medina tried wrestling at 48 kg/105.5 lbs. for her Olympic run, but says 51 kg is where she is most comfortable. She has made two U.S. World Teams at this weight, which is a non-Olympic division.

Despite the hard work her recovery has required, the time off from wrestling let Medina relax and regroup. Even when wrestling takes the majority of her focus, Medina works to find the balance between wrestling, having fun and keeping her relationships with friends and family strong.

Her attitude on and off the mat is one reason teammate Jenna Burkert of the New York AC said that Medina, being more than five years her senior, has been a great role model for her.

“She’s a hard worker. I’ve always looked up to her, she really motivates me,” Burkert said. “Even now she leads by example. Sometimes I forget she even had an injury, she’s so mentally and physically strong. In the wrestling world, it is one thing to be a good wrestler on the mat and it’s another to be a good person all the time. That’s something that makes her really inspiring. She has a good mindset about life.”

The balance between the two worlds is not without challenges.

“It’s really hard to balance life. There are a lot of times where I’m too involved in wrestling and my social life suffers but if I’m too involved then wrestling gets affected,” Medina said. “So I think that’s something that’s really hard to balance and it’s something that I constantly have to check.”

Medina left her hometown in California when she was 17 to attend the University of the Cumberlands and hasn’t been back since, something that she says has been hard on both her and her family. Despite the difficulties, however, she can always count on the support of those close to her.

While the future is always a consideration, Medina said she’s avoiding putting an endpoint on her career and will wait and see what happens in 2016. Either way, she plans on getting back on top, and is making no apologies for her newfound confidence.

“I want to make the Olympic team; I want to be an Olympic gold medalist. I want to make the World Team and I want to be a World medalist,” she said. “Before it was hard to set those goals and say them and be confident about them but now, I think for all of us girls, I think it’s just real to everyone that we can win medals. It’s not just about making a team; it’s about being the best team in the world.”

Medina received her bachelor’s degree in business administration, and plans to complete her master’s degree once she makes the decision to stop wrestling. She hopes to use her degrees and still work within the wrestling community in some way.

Wrestling has given Medina so much and will continue to be a huge part of her life in the near and distant future, she said.

“Wrestling takes so much emotionally – it lifts you up, it tears you down, it makes you stronger. If you can really learn to appreciate the sport you can develop yourself as a person and there’s so many gifts that can come from it if you really immerse yourself and become a student of the sport,” said Medina. “This is better than any job I could be doing right now.”
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