Kirti Saxena is a second-year undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, an area where she is able to combine design, mathematics, and science. Outside of academics, Saxena wrestles — a sport she took up at age nine, after her father competed in the sport at the 1980 Olympics.

While she first started as a way to keep fit, her involvement in the sport became more serious by the time she was in grade nine, when she placed first in her category nationwide. She has also represented Team Canada in several international championships.

The importance of focus

Having to balance school and wrestling has given her the ability to focus. “Be it wrestling or school, whatever environment I am in, I am able to give it my all in that moment,” wrote Saxena to The Varsity.

People have questioned her as to why she has decided on studying such a time-consuming discipline while pursuing wrestling. Her answer is that she “[wants] to be able to use [her] academic gift to create things that will make positive change.”

She noted that U of T’s engineering student body has been “an inviting and welcoming community and made the transition smooth.”

On balancing her engineering coursework with wrestling, she wrote: “I have a strict schedule, strict meal plan, and a loving support team that all help me balance everything,” which has helped her persevere through many challenges.

“It all takes a whole team,” she wrote. “This team includes my family, strength and training coaches, my personal coach (aka my dad), physio and massage therapists, psychologist, nutritionist and accommodating professors.”

Challenges on and off the mat

Saxena writes that recovering from an injury was a big challenge for her. “Mentally and physically it’s a hard process and it is something that I am still going through.”

“Being a [woman] in sport is definitely challenging. Being a woman of colour in sport is even more challenging,” she reflected.

She notes that it is difficult to be in what has traditionally been viewed as a male sport. “Being a strong girl intimidates people, a lot of people picture girls to be a certain way and most don’t expect them to be fighters. Growing up I dealt with a lot of people saying that ‘wrestling is not good for a girl.’ ”

The importance of speaking up

Saxena cites her sister, who is also one of her coaches, as her mentor. “She has shown me how to be a strong [woman] and always tells me to fight for what I believe is right,” she wrote. “Without her influence I feel like I would not be as confident in voicing my opinion.”

Her advice for women in STEM is to not be afraid “to voice your thoughts.”

“A lot of people want you to stay quiet. Especially because they cannot handle the thought of a woman knowing more. Let them know you got a voice for a reason.”