Penn salutes World silver medalist Sarah Hildebrandt
By STEVE KRAH
Sarah Hildebrandt has been traveling the planet.
The Team USA wrestler has already filled up her passport book. She’s been to more than 30 countries.
“It’s definitely a great perk,” says Hildebrandt. “I was in like 12 countries this past year. Rome. Thailand. Spain. Amazing places.”
Hildebrandt, 25, went to Budapest, Hungary in October and came back with a silver medal at the 2018 World Championships.
Competing at 53 kg (117 pounds), the graduate of Penn High School in Mishawaka, Ind., and King University in Bristol, Tenn., received a first-round bye and then bested Kazakhstan’s Zhuldyz Eshimova 5-1 in the second round, Azerbaijan’s Anzhela Dorogan 15-9 in the quarterfinals and Canada’s Diana Mary Weicker by 10-0 technical fall in the semifinals.
In the finals at Laszlo Papp Arena, Hildebrandt lost lost by 11-0 technical fall to returning world champion Haruna Okuno of Japan. A month later, Hildebrandt was back at Penn to be saluted by the wrestling community.
Hildebrandt was the guest of honor on a night where challenge matches for the current team were held and the “Long Black Line” of mat alums
marched into Penn Arena.
She’s back in Granger, Ind., to see her family and rest up. She will leave in about two weeks for training China as she gets ready for the 2019 competition season. For her, it begins in January at the Dave Schultz Memorial International in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she recently purchased a house and moved out of the U.S. Olympic Training Center complex.
“I’ve really grown to love this process — the nitty gritty of it all and the grind of the season,” says Hildebrandt. “In a weird way, that monotony of training and keeping to a schedule (eating, working out and going to sleep at the same time everyday) and when I’m out of it, I’m miserable. I love the structure and I love the grind.”
This past year, she competed about once a month and plans to be in about seven meets in 2019, including the World Championships in Kazakhstan. Then comes the run-up to the U.S. Olympic Trials and, Hildebrandt graduated from Penn in 2011 and King in 2015 with a marketing degree. She uses that knowledge to market herself.
“It’s part of the job,” says Hildebrandt. “Especially as a female wrestler, you’ve got to be able to get people to care about the sport. “Marketing myself and the sport is how you do that. Social media is a big tool for us and pairing up with sponsors.”
Those sponsors have approached her about collaborating with her. “That will do a lot for exposure not just for myself but for women’s wrestling and USA Wrestling.”
Kingsmen head coach Brad Harper, who coached Hildebrandt in high school and was in her corner providing support in Hungary, made sure she was recognized in the same place where she put in so much work at the beginning of her wrestling career.
“We’ve been together since her freshmen year,” says Harper of Hildebrandt. “We’ve developed an awesome bond. I know what gets her calmed and what gets her energized."
“I’ve been with her through the thick and the thin. We’ve been together through a lot. That’s why we have that good relationship.”
Being ranked No. 1 in her weight class going into the Worlds and being a three-year in-residence athlete at the OTC, Hildebrandt has the skill and the know-how.
“I’m just there as an extra support to bring the energy and give her a little bit of strategy on what the other wrestler is doing,” says Harper. “I want to keep her in the moment.
“Sometimes she gets so excited because she loves to compete. I try to slow her down and let it come natural and wrestle her match.”
Wrestling as the lone girl on a boys team, competing at a high level in college and then on the international stage has made Hildebrandt physically and mentally tough.
“She’s been through it all,” says Harper. “She’s going to wrestle and ‘Be Sarah.’”
Hildebrandt and Harper form a game plan going into competition. “I like those check-in points and for him to say them real intensely,” says Hildebrandt. “It’s two or three things. It changes from match to match and tournament to tournament. One is ‘next position,’ which is telling me to focus on the very next position I’m going to be in.
Where are your hands? Where is your head? Where are your hips? I don’t like to get too far ahead of myself, even by 20 or 30 seconds. It’s each chunk of time. It calms me down a little. I can’t get too high and can’t get too low in terms of emotion.”
Harper helps make that happen.
“He’s the most encouraging man to be around which is one of the main reasons I love having him in my corner and around still,” says Hildebrandt. “But, on top of that, he’s so good at not just talking to a group of people. He’s good at speaking directly to one person and making them feel his compassion toward them.
“He makes them believe they can do this. He’s changing lives.”
It’s with that enthusiasm that Penn now has a girls wrestling program with more than 20 athletes and coached by Matt Selis, Amy Hildebrandt (Sarah’s younger sister), Kristin Hills and Mariah Eberhart.
“It’s really amazing to share a goal like that with my sister — to empower women and break down these barriers and the prejudice people might have toward this sport and even women,” says Sarah of Amy. “I love that she’s teaching and giving back to this sport. It’s really a gift for me. The more she opens doors for girls in wrestling, it’s opening up everything for women in wrestling. That comes back to be because I’m a woman wrestler.”
Sarah says she gains motivation from younger brother Drew Hildebrandt, a highly-ranked 125-pound wrestler at Central Michigan University.
“My whole family inspires me, but my little brother is very much involved in the sport and he’s like the baby of the family,” says Sarah, daughter of Chris and Nancy Hildebrandt. “It’s cool to see him chasing goals and reaching them and improving right alongside with me. He understands what it takes."
“We give each other advice on the mental game and staying positive.”