- - Thursday, July 19, 2012

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — When she first stepped on to a wrestling mat three years ago, Aisuluu Tynybekova had no idea it would be the start of a long journey that would take her to London Olympics, but today the 19-year-old athlete is considered Kyrgyzstan’s best hope to bring home a medal.

The first female wrestler to represent her country at the games, Ms. Tynybekova’s training consists of sparring with male athletes at least 20 pounds heavier than she is and jogging several miles each week in a gorge that measures close to 5,000 feet deep.

“Of course there are female wrestlers, but I choose to spar with men as I think they are more experienced and can teach me better,” said Ms. Tynybekova. “I have been wrestling for only three years. The London Olympics is very soon so my training must be as extensive as possible.”

Originally from the remote Naryn province of mountainous Kyrgyzstan, Ms. Tynybekova grew up helping her family on a small farm, herding cattle with her brothers and milking the cows. Despite plenty of chores, she always found time for sports.

“I tried different sports at school, basketball, karate, even boxing, but I always felt I could do well in wrestling,” said Ms. Tynybekova, whose grandfather was also wrestler.

“My brother and I used to wrestle at home on mattresses during our childhood. Then in 2009, when I learned about the first female wrestling completion in Naryn, I decided to try my luck.”

A year later, Ms. Tynybekova moved to the capital, Bishkek, to study economics and develop her skills as a wrestler. It was there that trainer Nurbek Izabekov spotted her.

“It was not difficult to notice Ms. Tynybekova on the wrestling mat,” said Mr. Izabekov. “Not because she was a female wrestler, which was uncommon, but because she was very hard working and eager to learn.”

Mr. Izabekov has high hopes for his trainee, who he believes is starting on what will be a long career.

“I hope this is just a beginning,” said Mr. Izabekov. “We are planning to participate at least in three Olympic Games after London. There are female wrestlers over the age of 30, who continue participating in big competitions [even after] having two children. So we have a long journey ahead.”

In Kyrgyzstan, where most people still follow long-held traditions, women who have not married by the time they are 25 are considered old maids. But Ms. Tynybekova has her own agenda.

“I don’t have a time for personal life, no time for boyfriends,” said Ms. Tynybekova shyly smiling. “I must concentrate on wrestling all the time. But even if I do get married soon, I will definitely continue wrestling.”

The young wrestler and her trainer returned recently from an international wrestling competition in Madrid, where Ms. Tynybekova took the bronze medal against opponents with considerably more experience.

“In the semifinals, I wrestled against a Nigerian woman who was seven years older than me,” Ms. Tynybekova said. “In quarter finals I had to wrestle a 29-year-old from Peru. I hope by that age, I will have enough experience and skills to win in such competitions.”

Ms. Tynybekova said she long dreamed of London from glimpses on television and descriptions in English books. But now that she is finally heading for the British capital, she will be fully focused on the experience and skills she can gain from competing at the highest level.

She has even had to make the difficult decision to forgo the annual Muslim fast because the Olympics coincide with Ramadan.

“I thank God for all my achievements in sport and pray for more,” said Ms. Tynybekova. “But unfortunately, this year I must eat strong food to be in shape, but I will definitely fast afterwards to make up for it.”

Mr. Izabekov also thinks nutrition is essential during such high-level tournaments, which is why they are bringing a store of special supplies to London, including dried fruit and dried yoghurt balls called khurut.

“European food sometimes is not enough for us,” said Mr. Izabekov. “We would bring kymys, but it isn’t the right season for it,” he added, referring to Kyrgyzstan’s national drink of fermented horse milk.

Wrestling is already a hugely popular sport in Kyrgyzstan, but one that few women take up. Ms. Tynybekova hopes that her success at the Olympics will change that.

“Unfortunately, there are not many female wrestlers here,” said Ms. Tynybekova.

“It is also bad for me as I need competition. But I really hope that by getting high achievements in London, I will be able to inspire many women in Kyrgyzstan to go for wrestling.”