The future of wrestling

At 18, Grace Bullen ranks among world’s top female wrestlers

Photo: Kostadin Andonov Norway’s Grace Bullen won gold in the finals of the Youth Olympic Games in China.

Photo: Kostadin Andonov
Norway’s Grace Bullen won gold in the finals of the Youth Olympic Games in China.

Molly Jones
Norwegian American Weekly

Grace Bullen may be only 18 years old, but the passionate wrestler is already making her mark on the international scene. With two medals for Norway, Bullen is ranked among the top ten women worldwide in her weight division of 58 kg.

It hasn’t been a simple journey to the top for Bullen, who first arrived in Norway as a war refugee at the age of four from her birthplace in Eritrea. But 14 years later, Bullen is thriving; she represents Fredrikstad Bryteklubb Atlas and is making an incredible transition from junior to senior competition.

Bullen first captured international attention at the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, when she defeated Chinese Xingru Pei 10-0 in 71 seconds in the freestyle 60 kg weight division. With this victory, the wrestler took Norway’s only gold medal in the youth competition.

“It was absolutely fantastic when my arm was lifted up, and I won the whole thing. It’s pretty big to win over China in China,” commented Bullen to NRK.

Bullen returned to the spotlight at the 2015 European Games, held in June in Baku, Azerbaijan, where she started off the inaugural competition by carrying the Norwegian flag.

Competing in the freestyle 58 kg weight division, Bullen was initially defeated in the quarterfinals but got a second chance at a medal through requalification. In her final match, the Norwegian defeated the 25-year-old Azerbaijani Irina Netreba in only 54 seconds to take the bronze medal—marking both her first international medal at the senior level as well as Norway’s first medal in the European Games.

After earning this bronze at the European Games, Bullen realized that she just might have a shot at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the Olympics in sight, Bullen set her next goal: to place in the top six in the World Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas, automatically qualifying for Rio.

“The preparations for the World Championships have gone very well,” Bullen told VG. “I have had a tough summer exactly as expected, with hard training and school. A lot of travel and a lot of waiting, but I feel ready to compete now.”

But in wrestling, it isn’t common to perform among the elite at 18, like it is in other sports. In fact, of the approximate 900 participants in the World Championships, only one was born after 1997, Bullen’s birth year. Nevertheless, Bullen has repeatedly shown that she is to be taken seriously at the senior level.

To start off her first senior world championship competition, Bullen defeated German Luisa Niemisch 4-3. Moving onto the quarter finals, the Norwegian faced the 32-year-old Hungarian Marianna Sastin, the champion from two years ago who currently ranks second in the world. Bullen started off stronger, originally leading 3-2, but the Hungarian was stronger in the end and reversed the score to win 5-4.

“I am bitter, angry, and very disappointed. I was so close. I led the match and should have had it. But that’s what it is like when you meet more experienced wrestlers,” Bullen told NRK following the match.

“I noticed that she was not better trained than I am; she was just more patient at the end,” she added.

Nevertheless, Bullen has shown that she is on a par with the world’s top wrestlers, and she still has a few chances to make it to the Olympics next year.

Anders Hestdalen of Norway’s Wrestling Association was very impressed with Bullen’s performances in Las Vegas. “Grace is a first-year junior. That means that she actually has two years left until she is old enough to be here. What she showed today is extremely good,” he said to NRK.

Bullen, on the other hand, wants to show that age doesn’t matter when it comes to success in the sport of wrestling. “It is a great thing to be so close, but I want to be the best. I want to show that age doesn’t mean anything. I want to show that it is also possible to be the best at a young age.”

If all goes well, Bullen hopes to make it to Rio to gain some experience and return to the Olympics to take the gold in 2020.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 25, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.