Photo (L to R): Jamilah, Zaynah and Latifah McBryde. Photo by Life University. (photo courtesy of Life Athletics)
Jamilah, Latifah, and Zaynah make up the McBryde sisters from Buffalo, N.Y., who have made their way to Life University in Marietta, Ga., to pursue college degrees while getting the chance to wrestle at the next level - something they never thought possible.
The three women are the youngest of seven kids. Jamilah is 20, Latifah is 18 and Zaynah is just 16 years old. They had a less traditional upbringing than most of us are used to as they and all of their siblings were homeschooled from the start. With their mother giving up her career as a nurse to teach them and their father working night shifts before teaching their high school courses, the McBryde kids all finished school early and began taking college credits as soon as possible, some as early as age 11.
"The beauty of homeschooling was the freedom it gave us," Latifah said. "My dad would get home from work around 8 a.m., then we would have lessons then go to the Y to swim, do jiu-jitsu, then wrestling. After all of that, we would have dinner, do some more homework, and then call it a night. That was really beneficial to get to practice those sports like that, especially when I started getting more serious about them. If we would have gone through the public school system, we wouldn't have been able to do that. We really had an advantage both academically and athletically."
Starting at a young age, the McBryde sisters tried at least seven different sports, but wrestling became a family affair.
Their father, Mustafa, wrestled in high school and college and led their eldest brother Muhamed, who you might be familiar with, to try it out. Muhamed was a two-year starter for the University of Buffalo, a 2019 U23 World Team member and currently a coach at West Virginia University.
One day at one of Muhamed's wrestling practices, Jamilah, who was 6 years old at the time, was invited to jump in with one of the girls.
"The first practice that I was invited to join, I didn't," Jamilah said. "I was so scared because the girl I would go with always beat up the boys. At the next practice, the coach asked again, and my dad had me jump onto the mat with her. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but somehow my body knew what to do. I started drilling with her and my brothers, then Latifah and Zaynah started wrestling."
While wrestling came naturally to the family, some enjoyed it while others had to warm up to the idea.
"I liked wrestling immediately," Latifah said. "Growing up, I had a lot of energy and was super aggressive. I was always getting in trouble at home. When we would play fight at home, I would always beat Zaynah up and Jamilah would beat me up. Wrestling really became that outlet for me, where I could be aggressive and not get in trouble."
On the other hand, Zaynah said it took her nine years before she started to enjoy it. The turning point came when the sisters got the opportunity to train at Brock University in Canada from 2018 to 2020.
"The two years we were training at Brock University is when I really started to enjoy it because they had a ton of women that we could go with, and I didn't have to go with my sisters only," Zaynah said. "The girls in the room were really diverse in terms of experience. There were some World Team members, some girls that had been wrestling a long time and some that were newer to the sport. We had Coach Marty Calder and [three-time Olympic medalist] Tonya Verbeek helped us. Brock is actually where we learned to tape our hijabs to our heads."
Oh, I forgot to mention that the sisters come from a traditional Islamic family. As such, they are not allowed to show skin or their hair because the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, instructs men and women to dress modestly. Latifah shared that there are other reasons she wears her hijab, such as feeling empowered knowing that she isn't judged based on her appearance or shape but on who she is as well as the pride she feels representing her religion.
Because of the hijab and other necessary uniform modifications needed in order for them to wrestle, the McBryde sisters never really entertained the idea of wrestling in college. In fact, Jamilah went on to play three years of college soccer while pursuing Associate's and Bachelor's degrees. She played two years at Erie Community College (NJCAA) and her third at D'Youville University (NCAA DII).
Latifah continued to catch the eyes of several college coaches with her performances at USA Wrestling's Women's Nationals, which also serves as a World and Pan American Team Trials event. In 2022, she finished second in her weight class, earning her the opportunity to compete at the U20 Pan American Championships. However, due to her uniform requirements, United World Wrestling, the international wrestling federation, deemed her ineligible to compete.
It seemed like wrestling at the next level would be impossible for them…until they met Ashley and Christian Flavin, the head coach and assistant coach at Life University.
Ashley, who has produced four national champions, 31 All-Americans and the 2022 NWCA team title, first reached out to Mustafa inquiring about Latifah. It was during that conversation that she learned that Zaynah and Jamilah were also wrestlers. (Because Life is an NAIA institution, Jamilah still had four years of athletic eligibility left.) So the conversation continued with the Life staff recruiting all three sisters.
"They told us they would fight for us," said Zaynah. "Coach Ashley said 'Even if they decide to go to a different college or not wrestle in college at all, I still want to fight for them. I want them to be able to wrestle.' And that was big for us."
The Life staff proved over and over that the McBryde sisters were more than just potential athletes that could make a great team even better, they were people whose needs and opportunities really mattered.
"Coach Ashley and Coach Christian did so much to understand our needs," Jamilah said. "They researched halal food, so that when we're traveling, we can eat. They learned about prayer times and how it changes throughout the year and about fasting during Ramadan. Coach Ashley even learned some Arabic. It was because they showed that they cared about us as humans and not just athletes."
"Coach Ashley even ordered herself a hijab and wrestled in it just to see what it was like for us," Zaynah said.
Eventually, Ashley proposed a modified uniform that was approved for college competition, which you can read about below.
For Jamilah, Latifah and Zaynah, it was a no-brainer that Life University is where they belonged, so they packed up and moved nearly a thousand miles from their home.
According to Ashley, all three women have made an immediate impact on the team, both athletically and in team morale.
They've helped the squad to its second-straight Mid-South Conference regular season title and a third-place finish at the NWCA National Duals.
Individually, Latifah (155 pounds) won titles at the Wasp Open and Soldier Salute, while Zaynah (130 pounds) took first at the Eagle Madness Open and Jamilah (143 pounds) secured top-four finishes at Eagle Madness and Soldier Salute.
We can expect to see all three women competing in the postseason, which begins Feb. 23 at the Mid-South Conference Championships followed by the NAIA Championships March 10-11.
While it's been a massive change, it hasn't been too much of a challenge. Latifah describes the academic transition as "surprisingly smooth," and Jamilah, who is pursuing a Master's degree, gushed about the team and the resources they have at Life.
"We've got strength and conditioning coaches, dieticians, chiropractors, and even on the academic side, there are tutors and academic advisors. They all work together to help us be successful," Jamilah said. "As far as the team goes, it's awesome. Everyone is so accepting and supportive. I love traveling to competitions with them because, within two minutes of being on the bus, you're already cramping from laughter. It's just so fun."
As for Zaynah, the 16-year-old, she jokingly said she's got 40 new girls to annoy, which has been a plus.
All three can agree that getting to pursue a dream they never thought possible side-by-side-by-side is a pretty special experience.
The first layer is singlet, just in case any of the layers come off, their skin still won't show. Next is a rash guard top with a hood connected to it that is tailored to fit and stay on their heads. Then there is a dri-fit shirt so that it's not slippery and doesn't stretch. The shirt is tapered in to get rid of extra fabric and is tucked in and secured with Velcro, an idea that came from Ashley. The bottom starts with either leggings or knee-high socks, and on top of that is baseball pants without pockets or buttons. Then come knee pads to make sure the pants are tucked in tight at the knees so that hands can't get caught in it.