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To the Varsity Blues: thank you.

An imperfect ending to an amazing journey
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Rachel Zack competed in both wrestling and rugby as a Varsity Blue. Left to right: COURTESY OF STEPHEN LEITHWOOD ; COURTESY OF SEYRAN MAMMADOV
Rachel Zack competed in both wrestling and rugby as a Varsity Blue. Left to right: COURTESY OF STEPHEN LEITHWOOD ; COURTESY OF SEYRAN MAMMADOV

Things don’t always go according to plan.

In terms of my long relationship with sports, hockey was my first love. While it was my childhood dream to become a professional hockey player, it became clear that I would not realize that goal. I came to university looking to take up a new sport — one that would tap into my strength and aggression. I attended my first open wrestling tryout in 2018, and I immediately fell in love. My sparring partner hadn’t cut her nails and, by the end of the tryout, I looked like I’d gotten into a fight with a huge cat. Scratch marks covered my neck and arms, and my sparring partner looked horrified. However, I remember that my first thought was, “When can I do this again?”

After I secured a spot on the team as a redshirt — someone who may practice with a team but not necessarily play with them — my wrestling accomplishments started racking up much faster than anyone, least of all myself, expected. Within weeks, I was winning matches, and by February 2019, I won a bronze medal at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships and secured a spot at the U SPORTS national championship. The next year, I followed up with an OUA silver medal and improved my U SPORTS showing to fifth place. 

After being unable to participate during my third year due to the pandemic, I wanted to finish my university career with a U SPORTS medal, and my coaches supported this goal. However, the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused this year’s U SPORTS championship to get cancelled, so I set my sights on an OUA gold medal instead.

Over the next few months, I pursued that goal fiercely. I woke up at 6:00 am for five days a week for morning practices, which were sometimes only my first of two or even three workouts that day. I pushed through injuries; burnout; lockdowns; shifting weight classes; and the pressure of managing school, work, and other extracurriculars. In the weeks leading up to the OUA championship on Saturday, April 2, wrestling totally took over my life. I spent hours poring over match footage and zoned out in class daydreaming about perfecting my double-leg takedown. I went into the tournament wracked with anxiety, but I was excited to see my hard work pay off.

However, in wrestling, momentum can shift on a dime. Off of one bad mistake, I went from occupying a prime position to being pinned on my back, spent and defeated, finishing in last place in my final competition as a Varsity Blue. I walked off the mat distraught and dizzy with shock, unable to believe how I seemingly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

As I tearfully took off my Varsity Blues singlet for the last time, what I felt — even more than heartbreak and disappointment — was overwhelming gratitude. I am so thankful for the Varsity Blues wrestling coaches who took a chance on me as a total newcomer to the sport and pushed me to develop into the wrestler I am today. Through their dedication, and the opportunities offered by the U of T wrestling program, I was able to train and compete as an elite athlete. This was an unexpected and blessed second chance after the end of my hockey career left me wondering if I would ever again engage in high-level competition. The countless hours these volunteers spent commuting to campus in the dead of winter, talking tactics after practice, writing reference letters for jobs and scholarships, and sacrificing weekends to drive me to competitions across the province made my student-athlete experience a truly unforgettable one. 

I would like to add that, ever since second year, I have been fortunate enough to be able to compete in women’s rugby at the varsity level, as well. While it didn’t come to me as naturally as wrestling and I had to grind to earn every minute of playing time, I am a better person and athlete for the humility and work ethic it forced me to cultivate. Being surrounded by a group of gritty, hardworking women athletes was also incredibly validating for me as someone who grew up being told that I had to choose between being feminine and being a competitive athlete. The rugby team became my family, and I loved sharing my sporting experience with them — whether slogging through a high-contact practice in mud and freezing rain or tearing it up on the dance floor after a game. 

I am further grateful for the year-round strength and conditioning training I received through U of T Fitness and Performance (F&P). The F&P team has done yeoman’s work to adapt to the changes and challenges of the COVID-19 lockdown. From dorm room Zoom workouts with backpacks full of textbooks to setting up a makeshift outdoor gym underneath the bleachers at Varsity Stadium, their constant fitness programming throughout the pandemic not only helped me stay active but also kept me connected to the athlete identity that I hold dear. As a dedicated gym rat, I am indebted to them for their feedback and guidance.

In my final year, I was humbled by the opportunity to emerge as a leadership figure on the wrestling team, serving as the women’s wrestling Varsity Board representative, where I advocated for my teammates and my sport. I am so excited to see what the new crop of Blues wrestlers achieves in the coming years. I know they will deliver performances worth celebrating and ensuring this program gets the respect it deserves.

Sometimes, even the most cherished chapters of our lives don’t have a storybook ending. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still embrace and love them — with their imperfections, frustrations, and bittersweetness — and appreciate what they meant to us, and the impact they have had on the lives we lead.

To the Varsity Blues organization, speaking as a student, an athlete, and a person: thank you.