When the odds were stacked against her, Sally Roberts wrestled them.

Growing up in poverty just south of Seattle, she had fistfights and arrests for shoplifting and breaking into houses.

Eventually, she said, she reached a crossroads: Go to jail or find a productive after-school activity.

“I tried out for softball, volleyball, basketball, and I got cut from all of them. I was being told I was not athletic, which was crazy because here was this gal whose back was against the wall and I needed something to do,” Roberts said. “I looked at the list of activities, and I saw that wrestling was a no-cut sport. And I thought, ‘As long as I go out and wrestle and I don’t quit, then I won’t go to jail.’”

Joining the wrestling team was the first in a series of life-changing events for Roberts. She became the first in her family to graduate from high school and get an advanced degree. And she’s a world medalist, combat veteran and executive director of the nonprofit Wrestle Like a Girl.

“I’m not an anomaly,” she said. “I’m going to be the standard of what happens when we give girls the opportunity to define who they are, what they want to become, and we facilitate their growth.”

Wrestle Like a Girl holds nationwide empowerment camps for girls ages 5-18 and works on initiatives to grow wrestling opportunities for high school girls and college women.

Since it started in 2016, Wrestle Like a Girl has held a yearly gala. This year’s will be part of a two-day Women’s Wrestling Festival. The Unite and Ignite Summit starts the festival from 5 to 8 p.m. Sept. 14 at Ent Center for the Arts, free with registration.

The summit isn’t just about wrestling, though. It’s focused on sport, human rights and equality. “We all have to wrestle with life, challenges and adversity,” Roberts said.

Speaking at the summit will be Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch; Jennifer Welter, the first female NFL coach; and Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to summit Mount Everest.

Roberts said the idea for the summit was inspired by her trip to Geneva last year for a sport and human rights convention.

“Unless you’re a world leader or head of a nongovernmental organization or some sort of foundation, you don’t get invited here,” she said. “So that means you don’t get to be a part of these conversations that are being had.”

So she asked all the panelists and board members, “’Would you guys be willing to have these same conversations but at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs?’ Overwhelmingly, not one person said no. They all said yes.”

After the summit comes the Glitter into Gold Gala fundraiser from 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 15 at The Broadmoor. Tickets start at $185 and include registration to the Unite and Ignite Summit, a three-course meal and drink. Gala speakers will be John Bardis, former assistant secretary for administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Sarah McMann, 2004 Olympic silver medalist in women’s wrestling.

Roberts said she wants Wrestle Like a Girl to become a pipeline to get young women into higher education and careers. That starts at the empowerment camps, where girls learn wrestling and performance psychology. Learning to handle anxiety and set personal and performance goals are lasting skills, Roberts said.

“Whether they want to go on to be an elite athlete or Olympian or not, it’s going to help them with school, it’s going to help them with their personal relationships, it’s going to help them with business. So for us, wrestling is a vehicle to empower these girls and women,” she said.

Roberts said she knows a spot in athletics can be a ticket to college. So Wrestle Like a Girl is working to increase girls’ state-sanctioned championship tournaments in high schools, and it’s working with the National Collegiate Athletic Association to get women’s wrestling on the list of Emerging Sports for Women.

That would give girls more collegiate opportunities and a chance to attend more affordable in-state schools, she said. “So when you look back with a 30,000-foot view, we are creating an educational and social mobility pipeline, grassroots to high school to college.”

This pipeline might even include job opportunities as Wrestle Like a Girl corporate sponsors seek interns.

“One of the things that’s really notable is that wrestling tends to pull from blue-collar sports,” she said. “Those are the sports that have a lack of resources. Those are athletes that, especially if you’re a woman or a girl, depending on where you live, you’re invisible. How do we give those invisible populations light? How do we support them?”

Roberts said her favorite thing about her nonprofit is the feedback, especially from the moms.

“Because you know that they’ve been through a long lifespan of seeing inequality and lack of opportunity. Having the moms come up and say, ‘My daughter is never going to fully recognize how powerful this whole experience was, but I’m sitting on the sidelines and I wish I could be out there. You’re teaching them how to be strong. You’re teaching them how to be courageous. You’re teaching them how to use their voice, and you’re teaching them not to apologize for any of that.’”

Ultimately, Roberts hopes Wrestle Like a Girl will give hope to girls worldwide through literal and figurative wrestling.

“For me, my passion is ... we need more women leaders. Well, how do we get more women leaders? We have to provide opportunities for them to cultivate the grit, tenacity, endurance that comes from, whether it’s the sport of wrestling or understanding that we all wrestle with life, we have to be able to handle the challenges and not just overcome, but persevere and thrive and beyond that open the doors so that we can get more women to come through and take seats at the table.”

Haley is a student at Seattle University. She was a features intern for The Gazette in summer 2018.

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