ABBOTSFORD — Brad Hildenbrandt has always had the natural gift of sheer physical mass, something that comes in handy when you’re a collegiate wrestler doing your thing in the heavyweight division.
In fact, competing in the 120-kilo division, he’s never met a scale he couldn’t tip decidedly in one direction.
Grand success, however, has come with balance, and in the case of the grappling standout with Abbotsford’s Fraser Valley Cascades, his mass has found a friendly rival in the weight of purpose and lofty ambition.
Together, they have not only elevated a very big guy to the best season of his career, but given him the confidence to talk about reaching his sport’s ultimate level of competition.
“I want to make the 2020 Olympic team,” says the second-year redshirt, who was recently named UFV’s overall Male Athlete of the Year, capping an historic campaign in which he became the school’s first-ever U Sports (formerly CIS) national champion in any sport.
It’s a gift when we find the mentors in life that truly make a difference.
That has most definitely been the case for Hildenbrandt, who may well have been a star along the offensive line had he been allowed to play football during his high school years at football-crazy Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary in Surrey.
“My parents didn’t want me to, they wouldn’t let me because they were worried I would get hurt,” says Hildenbrandt, who turned to wrestling both in school and in the community in a move that set him on his future path.
In ninth grade, at the Khalsa Wrestling Club, he met coach Raj Virdi, a former Simon Fraser Clan and national team wrestler who would wind up playing a huge role in his development both on and off the mat.
In 2013, both Virdi and his SFU roommate and teammate Arjan Bhullar, the latter fresh off representing Canada at the 2012 London Olympics, saw the need for a collegiate wrestling program in Abbotsford, one of the sport’s true high school hotbeds.
Together, they approached UFV, made their pitch, and by 2014, found them themselves as the co-coaches of a men’s and women’s program which has gained full CIS varsity status at the school.
That same season, Hildenbrandt, in his Grade 12 year at Lord Tweedsmuir, capped off his senior campaign by winning gold at 110 kilos at the B.C. High School Championships.
“I remember that Raj and I met Brad and his family in a real Canadian setting, a Tim Hortons,” laughs Bhullar who along with Virdi, have integrated what they felt were the best parts of the SFU program, including U.S. competition, into their own blueprint at UFV. “We talked to him about what we could do, but I think that me being a heavyweight myself was a big selling point.”
From one big guy to another, it turned out to be a huge one.
Bhullar, just 10 years Hildenbrandt’s senior, not only carried the same physique, he represented to his new recruit someone who had journeyed down the exact road he wanted to one day travel to achieve his ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics.
“He has competed at the highest levels in my weight class,” says Hildenbrandt, 20. “He is someone who fully understands those with my body type. He can see what it is that I need to improve on and that has allowed me to experience success.”
It was, from a coach-athlete standpoint, the perfect storm.
“The power, the strength and the size of heavyweights sets them apart from all the other body types in the sport,” says Bhullar, 30, who won three B.C. high school titles at Richmond’s McRoberts Secondary, three combined NAIA and CIS national titles at SFU and gold at the Commonwealth Games. “We need to be big and we need to be strong.”
TWO ROOKIES FIND SUCCESS
For Bhullar, the opportunity to begin coaching by mentoring a rising prospect who so closely mirrored himself has been career defining.
“It’s funny but it’s the same type of ingredients in terms of sacrifice and sticking to the plan,” he says of his transition from athlete to coach.
“It’s the same benchmarks along the way, but instead of being the athlete, I am helping someone else get there. So when Brad won gold, it was a great feeling to help an athlete do that and reach the top of the mountain.”
And the same natural instincts he carried as a seasoned competitor emerged in the young coach when the Canada West season began in the fall.
Bhullar felt Hildenbrandt, in his third year at the school and his second with the team, was ready to compete with more expectation.
And so he met with him and told him his time was now.
“I had done the university thing myself and then gone on to have some success internationally,” Bhullar said, “so I just told him that if he wanted to get to the international level while he was here, that he needed to get a medal at nationals this season. It was touch-and-go throughout the year, but he peaked at the right time and now he is on that trajectory beyond university.”
And with three more seasons of university eligibility remaining, Hildenbrandt is confident he’s on an upward climb and happy to have two trusted mentors at his side.
“Raj was my club coach all through my high school years and knowing him was a huge factor in me coming here,” began Hildenbrandt who is hoping to finish off his degree in time for the Olympic Trials. “And Arjan has really helped me work on the mental side of things. He’s really helped me refine the process.
“It’s funny,” he continues, “but now that I have been around all of this, sometimes you don’t think about it and you start to take it for granted. But it’s made a huge difference in my career to have the best in Canada.”
On one side of his personal scale, a U SPORTS gold medal represents an impressive opening chapter.
On the other side, the weight of his ambition provides balance moving forward.
Now Brad Hildenbrandt is ready for even bigger successes.
“To be honest,” he says, “wrestling is the reason I love waking up in the morning, the reason I love coming to school.”
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