Natassya Lu likes to push herself and challenge barriers and preconceptions that limit her and others from pursuing their dreams. Even her decision to become a competitive wrestler was inspired by a dare.
“I was in high school and I had a friend who dared me,” said Lu. “It was kind of like, ‘If you try it out, I’ll try it out too,’ and that is kind of how I started. I was her moral support.”
That simple act of support for her friend would set in motion a series of choices and challenges that would change Lu’s life.
“We both did it, but she didn’t end up staying in the sport,” said Lu. “It was just me and I kind of got roped in by my coach. He wanted me to continue, and it was a good thing.”
It was, indeed, a good thing, not only for Lu, but for the University of Guelph, the Gryphon Women’s Wrestling Team and many students and athletes as Lu would go on to compete with, coach and inspire.
She has come to recognize why wrestling is often seen as a metaphor for life.
“It is a team sport when you are in the room but once you are on the mat, it is an individual sport and no matter who is in your corner, all that responsibility is placed on you,” she said. “If you want to win you have to show up for practice and work hard. There is no shortcut.”
Since arriving on the U of G campus in 2013, Lu has captured a bronze and a silver medal in U Sport national competition, two gold medals in Ontario University Athletics competition and the Cathy Rowe Manager of the Year Award.
She also earned recognition as an Academic All-Canadian by maintaining an 80 per cent or higher, grade average while competing and completing a bachelors and a master’s degree in landscape architecture.
In March of this year Lu became one of 18 women selected, from across Canada, for the 2021 U Sports Female Apprentice Coach Program.
“I will still be competing as an athlete so, I’m not quite ready to step into a full-time coaching role but, one of the main goals is to increase female coaches in sport and especially in wrestling, which is kind of a male dominated sport,” said Lu. “It’s really important just to have that female representation.”
Apart from busting through the glass ceiling of wrestling, Lu does her best to shatter many of the stereotypes associated with her sport. One misconception is that wrestlers are macho, muscle heads with big egos, but the best wrestlers, according to Lu, are very modest.
“Even if you lose, when you walk off the mat that opponent is now your friend, a teammate, you are going to have to work with to get better,” said Lu. “So, you can’t always see yourself at the top of the food chain because otherwise you can’t get better.”
There is also a perception that wrestlers aren’t very intellectual or serious about their education but a quick glance at the Gryphon roster reveals a wide variety of career and academic interests from neuroscience and theoretical physics to political science, economics and environmental management.
“At the end of the day wrestling is a very respectful sport,” said Lu. “You shake your opponent’s hand at the beginning and at the end. You shake the coach’s hand and have a lot of respect for your opponent whether you win or lose to them.”
However, Lu admits that academics wasn’t a big motivator for her when she first came to Guelph.
“One of the main reasons I came to Guelph was for wrestling so, to be quite honest I wasn’t thinking too hard about school when I first got here,” she said. “I started in international development but every day I walked by the landscape architecture building on my way to train at the athletic building. When I was in high school, I wanted to get into architecture. I applied to transfer and luckily I got in and it has really fit a lot of my interests.”
Lu credits her coach Doug Cox, a two-time Olympian and Canadian Sports Hall of Famer, for guiding her in and outside the wrestling room and stressing the importance of education.
“Doug really saw potential in me and he has a great outlook for the whole individual,” she said. “He is very focused on making sure you have a successful career and life after wrestling, and I think that takes a lot of the pressure off.”
The pandemic has created challenges for everyone including Lu and her fellow students and athletes at the U of G. It has also led to a rise in anti-Asian bigotry despite May being Asian Heritage Month in Canada.
It is a discouraging development for Lu who was born and raised in Brampton, the only daughter and the youngest of two children born to Filipino parents of Chinese descent.
“I am a first-generation Canadian,” she said. “My parents are both immigrants and my brother was born elsewhere too. I know they faced hardship and discrimination building a life here. Luckily for me, I haven’t experienced any discrimination on the University of Guelph campus or while living in the city of Guelph. We have a really great team and gender or ethnicity has never been a barrier to anything I have tried to do.”
One of the appeals of wrestling for Lu was its diversity and inclusiveness.
“If you ever look at a wrestling room you have people of all shapes, sizes, heights, everything,” said Lu. “In wrestling there is a space for everyone, and it is one of the most affordable sports you can be a part of because other than shoes there is no equipment that you need. In some countries they wrestle in bare feet.”
Wrestling is considered by most historians to be civilization’s oldest competitive sport with images of wrestlers appearing in 15,000-year-old cave paintings. It became central to the original Olympic Games started by the ancient Greeks and still is to this day.
“In terms of wrestling being a metaphor for life in general, I think it is one of the most nerve-racking sports,” said Lu. “I get really anxious for matches still. Mental strength and a mental mindset is something I still have to deal with but I think wrestling has helped me in a lot of aspects and in a lot of other areas of life. I am not so nervous for things anymore because there is nothing that compares to that anxiety you feel on the wrestling mat. So, you think if I wrestle, this is all just easy stuff, for sure.”