Jacarra Winchester reacts at Wrestling's U.S. Olympic Team Trials on April 3, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Jacarra Winchester broke out in an ear-to-ear smile then quickly covered her face with both hands and dropped from her knees to her back on the wrestling mat.
Her upper body heaved with the emotion of knowing she was going to the Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo, even though she’d expected nothing less.
“No surprise there,” she clarified in her post-match press conference at last weekend’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling in Fort Worth, Texas. “I was happy. There’s a difference. … All your emotions hit you when you realize, ‘I’m going to the Olympics.’”
Winchester, 28, is already a world champion. She earned that title in 2019 as the U.S. women had their best showing ever at the world championships with a total of three gold medalists. Now she’ll be favored to reach the podium, if not win it all, in her Olympic debut.
Winchester, who grew up in Oakland, California, said she has always been a fighter. As a kid who had a lisp, she was the target of bullying, but not an easy target by any stretch.
“I just didn’t take any mess from anybody,” she told reporters. “You want to fight, we’re going to fight. I don’t do bullying. I think you should treat everyone the way you want to be treated. If someone was looking for a fight and wanted to fight me, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt and always say, ‘I don’t want to fight,’ but if you keep poking the bear the bear’s going to turn around and attack.”
She started wrestling as a junior at Arroyo High School and a year later became the California state champion. From there she went to Missouri Valley College and wrestled collegiately, training both with the women’s and the men’s teams, and made the U.S. senior national team for the first time in 2014.
With a trip to Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games firmly in her sights, Winchester moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train but shortly after arriving she was playing a warm-up game of soccer and hurt her knee. She tore her ACL and meniscus and was eventually told she’d be taking a risk by trying to come back in time for the Olympic Trials.
Setbacks in Winchester’s career are proving only temporary, however.
She made her first trip to the world championships in 2018 and made it to the semifinals against Zalina Sidakova of Belarus. Winchester appeared to get a takedown for two points in the final seconds that would have given her the win, but Belarus challenged and the video review showed that time had just run out prior to completion of the move. She lost in her bronze-medal match and finished fifth.
Prior to the 2019 world championships, Winchester wrote on social media of her experience the year before, “Such a painful but necessary moment in my life. My winning takedown was overturned in the semifinals of the World Championships last year and I lost the match. This is not a pity post, just want you to know that every setback has a major comeback.”
And it did.
Following a semifinal in which Winchester said her opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers, she beat Japan’s Nanami Irie to win the world title at 55 kg.
Because that’s not an Olympic weight class, she’s now wrestling at 53 kg.
In the best-of-three final match against Ronna Heaton in Fort Worth, Winchester fell behind 1-0 to start but won the first match, 7-4. She opened the second bout with a double leg and held an 8-0 advantage at the break. Heaton would put two points on the board, but Winchester held too great an advantage and won, 12-2.
“Just wrestling hard and being confident in my training,” she said of the plan. “Just go and just push.”
She later posted to Instagram a photo of her smiling just moments before the emotion took over, writing, “One step closer to my Olympic gold medal. I am beyond excited! All I can say is THANK YOU!” She thanked her sponsors, coaches and training partner before wrapping it up.
“I am grateful for what you all have done for me. This is only half the battle. We still got work to do, so buckle up because we are going to the Olympics babyyyyyyyyy.”