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Photos: (Left) Sarah Hildebrandt (front) took this selfie of her family after last summer’s Final X that sent her to her third World Championships in women’s freestyle. Joining in the fun (from bottom left) were brothers Drew, Cory, mom Nancy, sister Amy (above Sarah), dad Chris, friend Donothan Bailey and coach Brad Harper.
Sarah (upper right) has competed in three World Championships, highlighted by a silver-medal performance in 2018. Her younger brother Drew (lower right) is a 125-pound junior at Central Michigan who split four bouts in last year’s NCAA tournament and is ranked No. 10 this winter.
The following story appeared in the January issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. Click here to subscribe to WIN or call 888-305-0606.
By Mike Finn
Sarah and Drew Hildebrandt are a little bit concerned on how their parents, Nancy and Chris, will handle the month of March.
“My parents have a nervous month ahead of them,” laughed Sarah. “They better get prepared now. It’s going to be nerve-wracking madness.”
The time period of question will actually take place between March 7 and April 5. For during those 29 days, the Hildebrandt siblings could each face their biggest wrestling tests of 2020 over three different weekends.
First, Drew, 22, will be at the Mid-American Conference Championships in DeKalb, where the Central Michigan junior will be trying to qualify for his second straight NCAA national tournament.
On March 19-21 in Minneapolis, the 125-pound folkstyle wrestler, ranked No. 10 by WIN, hopes to earn his first NCAA Div. All-American honor.
And two weeks later, Sarah, 25, hopes to earn a spot on the United States 2020 women’s Olympic freestyle team when the 2018 World silver medalist will compete at 50 kilograms at the Olympic Trials, April 4-5, in State College, Pa.
Wrestling is a sport of siblings — historically brothers — and many wrestling families will face similar situations during this critical time of year when national tournaments determine our nation’s best.
But this sister and brother from Granger, Ind., realize their wrestling story is a lot more unique than most wrestling families … simply because gender issues separate them from other wrestling siblings.
“In wrestling, it’s so hard to get to the top level and to see two siblings do it and from two different perspectives makes it a unique story,” said Drew, who needs to finish among the Top 8 in Minneapolis to claim a step on the All-American stand.
“I’m trying to do my best at the NCAAs and she’s trying to win an Olympic championship. It’s unique to see us excel in both of these areas.”
Parents Chris and Nancy admit they will be feeling the pressure facing two of their four children.
“I’d rather say we will be filled with nervous anticipation,” Nancy said. “The hardest part about all of this is knowing how hard they work … as do all wrestlers at this level. You don’t want your kids to fall short after putting their hearts and souls into it.”
“It gets more serious when you see how much they invest in this. It starts scaring the hell out of you,” Chris added. “You tell your kids, work hard and hang out with the right people, eat the right things and you will be successful. But that doesn’t mean you are going to make the Olympic Team or win an NCAA medal
“In the back of your mind, you ask, ‘What if?’ It’s not quite as fun. It’s going to be tough and nerve-wracking.”
While both Chris and Nancy were athletic in their high school and college pasts, the closest they came to understanding wrestling occurred when Nancy was a wrestling cheerleader.
It wasn’t until this couple spent 18 months in Roanoke, Va., about 20 years ago when their oldest child, Cory, then a fifth-grader brought home a flyer about wrestling. When the family eventually moved to Granger, Ind., a community that sits 10 miles northeast of South Bend and just a few miles from the Michigan border, Cory continued to wrestling.
That meant the entire family spent their weekends watching Cory and Drew, who took up wrestling as a second-grader, compete in day-long youth tournaments.
“At first, I didn’t like it,” recalled Sarah. “Wrestling tournaments were from 8 in the morning to 6 at night … and it wasn’t about me.
“Then I decided I wanted to be engaged and the sport would be less boring to me. At first my sister (Amy, two years younger) and I would do stats for fun and then we’d learn all of the teams and names and their favorite moves. Before I’d know it, I’d be yelling, ‘two!’ for a takedown. And soon, I said, ‘I can do this.’ ”
The Hildebrandt children were typical siblings as the older kids were bossy and the younger were bratty.
“Drew is definitely the baby of the family,” Sarah recalled. “He was the little trouble maker and annoyed everyone in the family and got away with it.”
“Sarah would try to be bossy, but I was probably just making her mad,” laughed Drew.
They also became a typical wrestling family where many of the sibling issues turned into great wrestling matches that took place in the family’s living room or elsewhere around the house.
“It was a house with one of those big open concepts,” recalled Nancy. “They had a big space in the middle but a lot of times, they’d go out to the trampoline in the backyard and that would be their mat and they’d go after it.”
No matter what house they were in.
“My parents like to tell the story that they had a very small house and it was Thanksgiving and the Hildebrandts would do what the Hildebrandts do, which was wrestle in the house,” laughed Nancy. “They’d yell at them and say that if they were going to do that, they’d have to go outside. You’d look through the window and there they’d be … in the front yard wrestling.”
“We are a close family anyway and doing things in a competitive nature was fun for all of us,” Sarah said. “I did learn a lot about wrestling from wrestling in the living room and then going to support each other. It was easy to be very engaged because we’d be cheering for each other and easy to learn the sport. I think I won my first match just by what I had learned watching wrestling my whole life.”
“It’s still like that,” Drew said. “It’s not actual wrestling. We’re just scrambling around, more roughhouse wrestling. Whenever we are together, one of us is doing an underhook.”
Sarah’s brothers were also helpful in sharing their mat knowledge.
“They showed me things I still use today like the slide-by that I do, which has really been linked to my wrestling,” Sarah said.
Sarah decided to take wrestling serious as a seventh grader, as the only girl on a boys team, and the family dealt with all the issues girls faced nearly 15 years ago.
“I had my fair share of (opposing) coaches who didn’t believe I should be there and there were boys who didn’t want to wrestle me,” Sarah recalled. “But for the most part, it was overwhelmingly positive.”
The Hildebrandt parents were also initially opposed to Sarah wrestling on a boys team, but that changed once they saw the support Sarah received.
“As a guy, I think about athletes being in a locker room being all fired up,” Chris said. “I wondered: was Sarah going to be all by herself in a separate locker room. Those were the awkward things you thought of back then. Then I was concerned about something inappropriate happening.
“It didn’t take long for me to figure out if Sarah is beating the heck out of guy (on the mat), that’s the last thing (a boy) may be thinking.”
There were other issues the Hildebrandts learned to understand.
“I learned girls lose weight a lot different than boys,” Nancy recalled. “It seemed like boys could drop five pounds from a practice and Sarah would have only dropped 0.6 pounds.
“I can remember one time we were going to Disney Duals and her weight wasn’t coming off and the coach at the time would wonder what’s wrong. She starting yelling, ‘I started my period.’ I’m not sure that coach was equipped to deal with that. “
Fortunately for the Hildebrandt family, they met Brad Harper, the head coach at Penn High School in Granger, Ind., who was ahead of his time when it came to both boys and girls competing on “boys-only” high school teams.
“He was born to be a coach,” Chris said. “You could give him three million dollars to sit in an office somewhere and he’s certainly a competitive guy, but he is a big-picture guy. He’s done a lot of cool things; not just for Sarah but for other people.”
“(Harper) is a pioneer of women’s wrestling in Indiana; the driving force behind it all,” Sarah said. “He’s coached me at the World Championships. Hopefully, he will be with me at the Olympics. The man dropped everything and has given me his all for me to become the best wrestler I can be.”
While Cory, who is currently in law school, eventually took his wrestling skills to the NCAA Div. II level, both Sarah and Drew reached even higher levels.
Sarah especially excelled in freestyle and claimed a Junior National championship in 2011, which earned her a chance to wrestle at King University, where she was a four-time finalist and two-time WCWA champion (2014 and ’15).
Drew placed all four years of high school and eventually won an Indiana state title as well as an NHSCA All-American honor. That earned him a chance to wrestle at Central Michigan.
Sarah has also competed in three World Championships (2016, ’18 and ’19) and her greatest moment on the mat came in 2018 when she claimed a World silver medal. This happened one year after a shoulder injury prevented her from competing in the 2017 World Team Trials.
“Those days were hard,” recalled Nancy. “After (Sarah) hyper-extended her elbow and could not compete at the world Team Trials, she went on this soul-searching hike by herself and she did the Arches National Park (in Utah). I was terrified for her, but she needed to go by herself. It was important for her, but hard for me. In the end, it brought some clarity and she realized she would have to make some lifestyle changes to accomplish what she wanted as her goals.”
Nancy said Drew has been more quiet in dealing with his wrestling goals.
“I remember him writing “state champ” on the back of his door when he was a high school freshman,” Nancy said. “It hung there until he finally won a state championship in Indiana. When he achieved that goal, he simply took the sign down. It was something he wrote and looked at every day until that point.”
Today they are separated by 1,300 miles, the distance between Central Michigan in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., and the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Sarah’s sister Amy, who helped create a girls team at Penn High School, is also helping her train.
Sarah is also trying to qualify at 50 kilograms after competing at 53 kilos the past two years.
“At the end of the day, it was best for me,” she said. “I felt small at 53 kilograms. The natural progression of becoming more disciplined and being engaged in what I’m eating kind of benefits me as well.”
While it is hard for Sarah and Drew to actually see each other in person this time of year, they speak or text weekly, especially when it comes to tough mat competitions.
“We follow each other’s careers a lot,” Sarah said. “It’s good to go through something like this with someone who understands it, whether I need a text of encouragement or he realizes I don’t want to talk about wrestling.”
“We talk about what it takes to reach these goals,” Drew said. “We are always so focused on wrestling. It’s good to get away from it, but when we ever need re-focusing, we can reach out to each other. We each know what we want to do without even mentioning it to each other.”
Meanwhile, Nancy and Chris could be used as references for parents, especially at a time when there are growing opportunities for girls.
“The No. 1 thing I would say would be to embrace it,” Chris said. “It’s so good for the character of the athlete. No matter if it’s for a young man or woman, there are so many life lessons that come from wrestling.”
And plenty of sibling memories.