Ali Bernard began wrestling in her "cozy little hometown" of New Ulm, Minnesota, when she was 11. Inspired to wrestle by her older brother, she became the only girl in the wrestling club in New Ulm, population 15,000.
It was an unconventional beginning to Ali's wrestling career, her mother Sue Bernard concedes, but her family - father Rocky, brother Andy, and sisters Angela, Andrea and Abby - and her teammates and coaches supported her.
"It's a rural, German community where women are supposed to know their place," Sue explains, "but we told our girls that they can do anything guys can do, if they put their mind to it."
Meanwhile, in small town Saskatchewan, Carla Nicholls first watched the Olympic Games from her home in Broadview when she was five years old. It ignited the Olympic flame inside her, and from then on, her backyard became the scene of many Olympic victories.
Bernard and Nicholls share a passion for sport that eventually brought them both to the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies at the University of Regina: Bernard as a student and member of the Cougars women's wrestling team and Nicholls as head coach of the Cougars track and field team. Now these remarkable women are headed for the pinnacle of sport in their chosen fields - the Olympic Games.
For Nicholls, being named an event coach for Canada's track and field team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games is the fulfilment of a long-held dream. She has helped build a strong U of R track and field team since becoming head coach in 2001, and was named Saskatchewan's 2005 Coach of the Year. She is also Athletics Canada's Women in Coaching leader and writer of the sport's new National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) manuals. Since being named an event coach in March, Nicholls has experienced a whirlwind of travel and Olympic team meetings
Bernard, on the other hand, is still coming to grips with the idea of wrestling at the Olympics, even as she continues her intense training at the USA Wrestling training facility at Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"Coach McGee got me ready and pushed me," says the 22-year-old Bernard of Cougars wrestling coach Leo McGee. "He motivated me when I didn't want to train, and he told me, 'You're going to the Olympics, Ali.' I'd say, 'Yeah, Leo, sure,' but he was right!"
McGee recruited Bernard from her high school in New Ulm and coached her through four years at the U of R, where she earned a degree this spring in sports management. She is a four-time CIS and Canada West gold medalist, and has one season of CIS eligibility remaining. In mid-June, Bernard, sporting a gold medal from the US Nationals, defeated two-time world bronze medalist Katie Downing to win a spot on the US Olympic team in the 72-kilo class.
"Ali is such a fantastic ambassador for our program," McGee says. "She is such a great example of what we're trying to accomplish here at the U of R and this is an outstanding achievement for a young wrestler like her."
Looking back, Ali's mother admits she had misgivings at first about her daughter going to university in another country, and so far from home.
"Ali wanted to experience university life, to earn a degree and to be a student athlete," says Sue. "New Ulm is about 90 minutes from Minneapolis, and there's a direct flight to Regina, so that put my mind at ease. I also worried that her schedule would be too demanding, but she's handled school and wrestling very well. Going to the U of R was the right choice for her."
When the Olympics female wrestling competitions begin August 12, watch for Bernard's cheering section at the China Agriculture University Gymnasium. Ten family members will be there to support her, along with the Ali-Cats, four of her closest friends from high school days.
Although Bernard and Nicholls will represent different national teams at the Olympics, they prepare for Beijing knowing that the U of R community will be cheering for them both.
Read about Ali Bernard's wrestling career at http://www.alibernard.com
Follow Carla Nicholls' Olympic experiences on her blog at http://www.coach.ca/eng/women/blog