ABBOTSFORD — Stacie Anaka swears that she’s tried her best to retire from a life in wrestling.
Yet come Friday, as the Fraser Valley Cascades begin a two-day run as hosts of the Canada West wrestling championships, the former national team standout, quite comically, is having a hard time defending that notion.
It’s a story which began in mid-November when the school elected to make an 11th-hour coaching change with its wrestling program and thus opened the search for an immediate interim successor.
Before too long, however, before they discovered that a world-class grappler some three years removed from the 2015 Canadian Olympic team trials was already in their employ as the school’s athletics facilities coordinator.
“I had pretty much given up on the sport,” says Anaka, a Victoria native who in 2013 had won a silver medal for her country at the FILA World Championships. “I had met my fiancé, and then this job position had come up at Fraser Valley. It was interesting. I did know that they had wrestling team, but I was at a point where I wanted to experience other things in life besides training twice a day.”
Cascades’ athletic director Steve Tuckwood asked her to consider stepping into the emergency relief role, and after sleeping on it, Anaka agreed to come aboard until the end of the season.
So these day, instead of taking part in those training sessions, Anaka has been leading them.
And despite being a rookie coach, she’s been on point, guiding both the men’s and women’s programs into the national Top 10.
Leading the way this weekend for a men’s program ranked No. 4 nationally will be Brad Hildenbrandt (120 kg), the two-time defending Canada West and U SPORTS national champion.
Reigning U Sports rookie of the year Parker McBride was also a gold-medal performance at 54 kg at the nationals.
The No. 7-ranked women’s team also comes in highly-decorated with reigning Canada West rookie of the year Ana Godinez Gonzalez, who last season forged gold at 63 kg in the conference championships and later silver at the U SPORTS nationals.
Tuckwood has watched from afar as Anaka has stepped into the breach, and everything he’s seen has him convinced that she has gleaned extensively from her mentors.
“She experienced such a high-level of competition and through that she was exposed to people who were great coaches,” Tuckwood said. “Now, she’s following through on what she learned from all of them. So for someone who had never really coached, she has seen and grown accustomed to how you run a practice, the intensity you need, and the mindset that you need to have.”
Ask Anaka about precisely that, and she harkens back to her days at Simon Fraser University where former Clan head coach Mike Jones built a dynastic program that was considered among the very best in all of North American collegiate wrestling.
“He always talked about the fact that when you got to practice, two things were really important,” remembers Anaka, who after graduating from Reynolds Secondary in Victoria back in 2005, won U Sports national titles for the Clan in 2007, ’08 and ’10. “He talked about never going through the motions at practice, and that when you got to practice, you needed to forget about everything else that was happening in your life and make it your sanctuary.”
Through it all, Anaka has certainly not gone through the motions at UFV.
Not only has she taken on the head coaching position with the wrestling team, she has continued to work as the school’s facilities operations coordinator for both varsity athletics and campus rec.
And while there is nothing firm on both sides regarding her future with Cascades wrestling, rest assured that a part of her always seemed open to exploring the world of coaching.
In fact after she came up short in her bid to earn a spot on the Canadian team at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games, Anaka knew it was time to jump on a plane and just get away from her world for a while.
“I had a ton of Aeroplan points and I’d never had a chance to travel on my own so I went backpacking,” she says of trip that saw her wind up in Thailand. “But I still wanted the trip to have some purpose.”
So she arranged to meet up with a friend, three-time Canadian Olympic medal-winning wrestler Tonya Verbeek, at what else but a two-week wrestling camp in Thailand.
“She met me there and we helped out a junior-aged camp with kids from all over southeast Asia,” remembers Anaka. “That was a great experience for me.”
Anaka had also briefly filled in during her Simon Fraser days when head coach Jones had taken ill, and thus when Tuckwood asked her to come aboard for the season, there was at the very least, a hazy starting point.
Still, it’s been a 10-week whirlwind to get to Friday.
“It seemed so unlikely that we could look to one of our current employees and realize that she had the expertise in just that sport,” marvelled Tuckwood as Fraser Valley is hosting the first Canada West conference championship in its U SPORTS’ history. “I don’t know what else to call it but serendipitous.”
The four school, dual-meet format event begins Friday with the women opening at 7 p.m., followed by the men at 8 p.m. Match-ups are UFV vs. Calgary, and Alberta vs. Saskatchewan.
On Saturday, Round two features an 11 a.m. start for women and a 12 p.m. start for men as UFV meets Saskatchewan and Alberta squares off against Calgary.
The third and final round takes place later in the day with a 2 p.m.start for women, followed by a 3 p.m. start for men. UFV meets Alberta, while Saskatchewan clashes with Calgary.
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