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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    A Conversation with 2023 World Team Member Emma Bruntil


    Emma Bruntil just earned her spot on the U.S. World Team at Final X. I had the chance to talk to her about her best-of-three series against Forrest Molinari, her preparation to compete in Serbia this September, and a 6-month update on her New Year’s Resolution.

    It has been a few weeks since Final X, but let's take it back and talk to us about your mindset going into Final X, specifically facing Forrest Molinari again?

    Going into Final X, I'd say I’d pretty much decided after the Open, I knew immediately I was gonna bump up [to 68kg], because the alternative for me really was if I didn't make the world team, I was gonna get surgery and heal up for like the Olympic year. So I was like pretty much, you know, if that’s the alternative, of course, I'm gonna give it a shot. 

    So after World Team Trials, knowing that I was gonna face Forrest again, and I had a good feeling going into World Team Trials that, it wasn't going to be my last turn, and that I would be going to Final X. 

    But you never know with wrestling, and I try not to be super outcome focused. So once it was for sure that me and Forest were gonna wrestle again, I really did feel like we did a very thorough job of preparing for her with my coaches, and, what you see is what you get, right? 

    She's really strong and gonna try and push out. She's gonna wrestle hard every match. Really what she does is just wear people out so, you have to be very ready on defense the whole six minutes. Before Final X, I think we were three and one, so she obviously had the upper hand, but two of those wins were a couple years ago and one was my first actual World Trials that I wrestled. So I felt like in those, I was still developing. It wasn't really my time yet, obviously, she's ended up winning the spot. 

    Last year, after a few tournaments, I was going through a really hard time with my injury and had some really long-lasting implications from that whole experience, so I really had to do a lot of internal work and a lot of things needed to be fixed towards the end of that season. So, in the time since we wrestled last, I have done a lot of work physically and mentally. I am not putting that chapter completely behind me, because things like that are always gonna come up, but I’ve been making sure I'm improving from those experiences. And I really felt this time when I wrestled her that I really had done just a ton of internal work since then.


    And you also saw a different outcome this time, by winning the series against Molinari. In your first match, you won 6-2, and then dropped the 2nd, which ended up leading to the only matchup of the night with a third match needed to determine the winner. So how were you feeling heading into that final match?

    Yeah, so last year with Mal [Mallory Velte] we went to three matches too. That time though she had won the first, I had this last-second comeback inside trip to like send it to three. And that experience, it was kind of chaotic because I was getting my eye cauterized in the back and had to get my lip cauterized a couple times. So, normally between matches two and three, you have maybe 20 minutes. So that time I remember just feeling like it was really hectic. So this time around when it did go to three, I actually felt really calm. 

    I knew that like with her [Molinari], it seemed like she really hadn’t been able to get to her leg attacks and what she did score off of was more of my mistake in that quad pod situation trying to break her down. So really what we talked about was like, ‘Hey, same thing in match three, just a little cleaner,’ and I went into it with a pretty blank mind and was just ready for whatever possibility and whatever direction the match was gonna take me. And I really felt like I did that.

     I think part of it was just I was so exhausted, but another part was just letting your mind go. Obviously, at that point, there's always a lot on the line, but for me, if I ever really think about that too much, it just kind of gets in the way of being as present as I need to be. 

    So honestly, I felt super calm. I could tell everyone around me was a little worried that I wasn’t worried, but I wasn't out of the series. I felt like because [the loss] was more off of my mistakes that I had made, there was a lot of room to improve in that third match. So I felt pretty good about it. 


    Emma after her victory over Forrest Molinari in their third match at Final X; courtesy of Tony Rotundo

    After winning your series, you were in a somewhat unique position, being one of the only competitors, along with Macey Kilty, to beat an opponent that was a former team member and medalist. What was it like earning that spot over someone like that and becoming the new team member for this cycle?

    You know, her [Macey Kilty] against Mal [Mallory Velte] and me against Forrest, just shows how tough our domestic season is. There are tons of people who do really, really well internationally, but then when it comes to the domestic season, they don't make the team. One of the biggest examples is Vicky and Whitney [Victoria Anthony and Whitney Conder]. Of course Vicky’s made teams and won medals. Vicky's an amazing athlete. But she would always do amazing overseas but then sometimes she had lost to Whitney domestically and didn't make a couple teams because of it. 

    So I think you have to know that domestic season's always gonna be a little different than international season just because you’re normally way more familiar with your opponents. We're always wrestling at camps, we're around each other a lot. So there's that kind of familiarity aspect. And especially with Forrest, in a sense, she knows my game plan a bit. I know her game plan a bit. So it's kind of like who can make the best adjustments at that point. 

    I'd say it feels good obviously knowing how tough and deep our women's team is becoming. To make the team, it's not a fluke. For me, I had to go through three tournaments to get there, right? 

    The Open to qualify for Trials, and then Trials to qualify for Final X, and then you have to beat a medalist at Final X. So it's not like you just win one tournament and then ‘here's the spot.’ You really have to go through a whole domestic season. And I felt like the thing I was proud of is, my performance from the open I wasn't really happy with. Then throughout the season, I felt like I got better, things went well at Trials, and then I felt like my best performance was at Final X. So just that progression is what's really important to me and what I hope to take through to Worlds. 


    I know you have tweeted about people being worried about “First Timers” and emphasizing the importance of sending our best wrestlers to compete on the world team. Have you seen that feedback or discourse online or heard anything like that directly after Final X?


    I guess not on the women's side as much, and I think people thought when I was making that tweet that I was referring to myself and my situation. The ‘former champs’ thing was more to the Zane Richards and Gilman situation because, obviously, Gilman is a former world champion. I think it does apply somewhat to the women's situation because, if you looked under the Twitter thread, there were a ton of people that kind of had some things to say. And you know, the thing I think is interesting is that people want a fair Trials, but then when we do have this fair trials process and people again have to go through several tournaments to make this team, it's interesting to me that some people are still like, ‘it'd still be better to send like the seasoned veteran.’ When if that were the case, then why wrestle the matches? Why have this Trials process if you're just gonna be disappointed with the outcome of that process? 

    And even if someone goes to worlds and doesn't medal at that weight, like the Whitney and Vicky situation again, just because Whitney didn't medal those years when she beat Vicky doesn't mean Vicky should have gotten a spot. 

    It's part of the differentiating between the domestic and international seasons, even though they're different, you have to be good at both. You can't only be good at one or only be good at the other because if you're only good at the domestic season, you're just gonna make teams. If you're only good at the international season, you're only gonna do well overseas. So I think part of that equation is the domestic season, and if you don't make it through the gauntlet, it's my belief that you are not the best rep that year at that weight. And had I lost to Forrest and Forrest had gone and not medaled at Worlds, it's not like I would've thought it should've been me. I would've felt the same if she beat me at Final X. So that's how I viewed things like that. 


    I think part of what people see and think about when these competitions for World and Olympic Team spots is just how much existing talent we have from former team members, as well as so much up-and-coming talent. How do you feel like the level of talent is growing for women’s wrestlers domestically as they come out of high school and/or start competing on the international scene? 

    I think we're only gonna get better and better. I think it's a really good sign, you know, how you do at an age group world championships, how the depth in your team is gonna be in the next couple years. And women's wrestling won Cadet Worlds, they've done really good at Junior Worlds, U23 Worlds. We're always in the trophy hunt, which means that the younger generation is gonna be ready to step up when it's time. Obviously this Final X we saw more of the veterans reclaim their spots, but I think some weights have three, four people that could go potentially win a medal. Like at 76kg, the top five could probably go on to win a world medal. So I think like our depth, while it may not be where Japan's is yet, like when you're their rep, you're the favorite for winning a world title. But I think we're getting to that point where the top couple of girls can realistically go win a medal at the World Championships. And if you looked at World Team Trials or Final X from several years ago, I don't think that would be the case. 


    Bringing it back to what you said about our team’s talent of wrestling domestically, some of that certainly comes from college experience, which can look different in Women’s wrestling than it does for the men. Can you speak to your experience being a former college wrestler and going on to compete after your last season at McKendree?

    Yeah, I think people are definitely not necessarily taking the traditional path, especially because for us, there's not as much incentive to wrestle in college as there is for the men. Especially now with NIL, there's like a big money incentive and it's also like exposure, right? If you win NCAA titles, like you're getting on ESPN, you're getting tons of followers, tons of exposure, you're getting all these opportunities. Where for us, when I won College Nationals one year, it was in a high school gym. The next, it was in front of, zero crowd whatsoever and also in a high school gym. So the incentive, I'd say, for the women isn't necessarily there yet. Winning college national titles isn’t going to get you much, and it's more of like a stepping stone for getting the experience so that you can get on that international stage. 

    So really what I viewed as my goal in college wasn't to necessarily go win these national titles. It was more about, when I made the move, I just needed more experience. I need more matches. I wasn't at a point in my career when I was 18 where I could wrestle several times a year and expect good results. Whereas like Amit [Elor], she's there right now where she can step on the mat three times a year and compete because she's had so much experience. I just wasn't there yet when I was 18. So I made the decision to go to college to get that experience, and then I ended up having to leave part way through my junior year. 

    Not because I wanted to, but out of necessity. It was either leave or get a second neck surgery or lose 75% of the strength in my right arm for the rest of my life. So at the time, given those options, it wasn’t worth it to me. And so I made the choice to leave even though, realistically, I would've stayed in college the next couple of years if I could have. 

    But it turned out to be a really great thing for me. I found my coach Izzy. Coming back to the training center really allowed me to, given that I've had a lot of surgeries, a lot of injuries that's not really like a secret with me. And so coming back to the training center has really allowed me to individualize my training so that I can still get the most out of it without going through the wear and tear of a college season or college-level practices where you don't have a ton of flexibility there with what you can and can't do. 

    So I'd say like for me, it worked out perfectly when I moved back and it's exactly what I needed. And the first year out of college people were amazed at how much I was competing and it was kind of a lot, but I still felt like I needed that experience on the senior level. Like I had gotten that experience in college and now I wanted to become more seasoned on the senior level. So I literally went to every trip, every opportunity I could that year after I left McKendree, because I just didn't feel like I was at the point where I had the experience I wanted. And now I'm not saying I have all the experience in the world, obviously, it's my first trip to Senior Worlds, but I feel like I'm at a point where I could go to any international tournament and feel very confident about it. 

    And now I don't compete quite as much as I did last year because of injuries and scheduling, but I also feel like I have had more experience, so that was my atypical college path. 


    Emma at the 2022 Rudis Super Match; courtesy of Tony Rotundo

    If there was another wrestler in a similar position as you where they felt for one reason or another that competing in college was no longer the right path for them, what advice would you offer them?

    Yeah, I'd say that you obviously have to know where you're at. At that point in my career, I was already sponsored by Titan Mercury, so that was important because I had funding to get to these trips. I had people backing me. I had already lived at the Olympic Training Center during my senior year of high school and the year following. So I had really good connections and was able to have the resources and stuff to move back. So I think you have to evaluate what you have at the time and evaluate if leaving is gonna be a realistic possibility for you. 

    But I also think that no matter what your resources or your connections are, you can always choose to transfer if a situation isn't right for you. I think it's important to know and to really be honest with yourself once you know it's not the right environment for you and you've tried and communicated to fix it, I think that sometimes you just have to cut your losses and be like, ‘this isn't right for me anymore.’ 

    And that's what I had to do. And it was really hard. I mean, I had a dog and an apartment and friends that I really liked. And I really liked everything about the school other than the certain aspects of what was causing me to leave. So it was really, really hard. But I think at the end of the day, had I stayed, it might have made me retire early. I don't really know what would've happened, but if I had to hazard a guess, it wouldn't have been good. 

    So I'd say if there was a girl that was struggling with injuries or worried about missing out and things like that, I would say honestly evaluate your environment: if it’s working for you? if it's positive? Are you in a place that's really negative or toxic? And then if you do feel like you need to leave, try really reaching out to your support system and leaning on the people around you and have them help you make the right choice for you, whether that's like leaving college or just going to another program. 


    I think that some wrestlers could really utilize that advice hopefully, and it’s good to hear that your path has led you to where you are wanting to be, so I want to move back to your World Team spot again. Overall, how are you feeling about competing on the world team in Serbia this September?

    I feel really good. We have the ranking tournament next month that I'll be going to, so I’m getting ready for that. And I normally look at it as one thing at a time. So right now, I'm focused on the ranking tournament and how I want to do there, and then I'll take whatever results and feedback I get from there and make my plan. You know, obviously, I have a wider plan for how things are gonna go schedule-wise before Worlds. But after the ranking tournament, I'll evaluate how it went with my coaches and then decide what we specifically need going into Serbia. 

    But I'm really excited. It's definitely different this time around. Last year I was super bummed out, I lost at World Team Trials and it was kind of crazy. Before that tournament last year, I had really bad staph. I spent the weekend before three days in the hospital and it was really tough to even get to Trials. So then to come up short was really tough. I was just pretty bummed out, so it's a big change this year, being able to get ready to compete and having these opportunities in front of me. 


    How has training for World’s and the ranking tournament gone so far and how has it differed from your training up to this point?

    I used to definitely bounce around a lot more than I do now. I have some stuff that keeps me more tied to the Springs now. I was in my interview after the match, and I was pretty open about the fact and most people that see me at tournaments see the weird contacts I'm wearing or that I'm always in sunglasses which makes it pretty obvious. But I have really bad migraine issues. I've had debilitating migraines, sometimes over 20 days out of the month, every month since December. So having to manage that and seeing my neurological optometrist several times a week has been kind of a lot to be able to like to remain healthy enough to stay in good enough condition to be able to get to all these tournaments. 

    And it's still been kind of this learning experience of how to handle it. I've handled a lot of injuries before, but this one's a little different because it's all neurological. Yeah. So it was its own kind of challenge. I'd say because of that, I don't really travel as much as I used to because all my resources and things for that are here. But I'm definitely gonna go to the ranking tournament, and maybe go train with Jen Page. She's one of my good friends. But besides that, I plan on being here. We have a Senior National camp next week and they're bringing in France and Epp Mäe [Estonia] and then we have another camp at the end of the summer too. So I'm sure we will be really busy. 

    Looking a little more ahead, I know you moved to 68kg to make the team and had a lot of success both at the Trials and of course, at Final X. Thinking ahead to next year for the Olympics when there are fewer weight classes, 68kg is one of the options. Have you started thinking about sticking around at 68kg vs dropping down to 62kg?

    I'd say both options are still on the table. Obviously, the plan is to win worlds and get to sit out for the best of three. And then it's up to me to go qualify the weight at the Pan Am games in November. So I'll definitely be curious to see how things go until then, and once I see how it goes then I can weigh my options. It certainly is a possibility, but I'm not a full-size 68 right now by any means. Normally I am like 66 and a half kilos, so basically the difference between me wrestling 68 and wrestling 65 is the last day I just don't pull off the kilo and a half and I just go eat dinner. It's been pretty much the case where I’m on the smaller end of 68 probably, but I feel pretty fine with that. I think I can negate it a lot with my technique, and there's plenty of time to fill out if I wanna do that down the line. I'd say both are still on the table, but I'd probably be more toward 68 since that's where I'm at right now. 


    Finally, I have to bring up another one of your tweets. On December 24, 2022, you tweeted “This year my New Year's Resolution is to not destroy my face at every tournament.” How do you feel like you’re doing so far?


    It's definitely going better than last year! Last year was really rough because I messed it up at Yarygin pretty bad and then was still wrestling overseas with that open wound on my face. I came back and it was infected like 20 ringworms. I actually have this compilation reel I made at the end of the year of all the different times it kind of got jacked up last year. 

    This year, it's only gotten kind of messed up in Croatia. I split my eye open. And then obviously Final X was probably the most it's gotten beat up this year, which I kind of anticipated happening with wrestling Forrest. It always gets a little messed up. I'd say the resolution is on its way, but definitely not a hundred percent perfect at it at this point. The face is still taking some hits for sure.

    Bruntil will compete in a Ranking Series event overseen by United World Wrestling in order to determine her seeding for the World Tournament in Belgrade, Serbia from September 16-24.

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