Leathers seeks Final X: Rutgers win to return to World Championships and chase another medal

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | June 08, 2019, 9:34 a.m. (ET)
Becka Leathers (right) during the Final X: Rutgers press conference is pleased with her preparation. Photo by Justin Hoch.

VIDEO PLAYLIST: Final X: Rutgers interviews

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – In the last two seasons, Becka Leathers has experienced some dramatic highs and challenging lows in her quest to be the best wrestler in the world.

In 2017, in her first Senior World Championships, Oklahoma native Leathers surprised many by coming home from Paris with a World bronze medal at 55 kg. In 2018, she was defeated in Final X and had to watch the World Championships from afar.

In 2019, a rejuvenated Leathers has moved up to 57 kg, an Olympic weight class, and comes into Final X: Rutgers as the national champion. In her mind it is time for a victory in Final X and a chance to battle for a World medal once again.

“Last year, was an interesting year for me. I got an automatic berth into Final X because I had medalled the previous year at the World Championships. Directly after the Worlds, I had a shoulder surgery. On top of that, I made a lot of adjustments to my training. I moved from the Olympic Training Center. Where I moved kind of fell through, so I moved home (to Oklahoma),” she said.

Looking back. Leathers sees not only the changes that occurred last year, but also her approach to her preparation, which led to falling short. She believes in her heart that she has learned from it.

“The situation going into Final X last year was not nearly as ideal as what I am working this now. Working with Kenny Monday out of UNC this year, I have been there a full year now. Last year, I learned I needed to be more prepared. I couldn’t just rely on my skill and my grit. I learned I needed to really focus on the little things, the nitty gritty and the conditioning side of it. You can’t get tired on that Final X mat, because it is for a World Team spot. Last year, I might have taken it for granted a little bit. This year, it is show time. I got a really good experience, getting a taste for it last year. This time, we are going to win it.

Leathers can also tap into her 2017 World medal-winning experience to help her get another opportunity to go for it again.

“I remember feeling good the whole tournament. I was so excited to compete. We walked into the practice room, not even seeing the arena in Paris. People say it’s just another tournament. To me, it was not just another tournament; it is what I trained my whole life for. It was exciting. It filled me with energy and so much love to be there,” she said.

When Leathers had her arm raised in that 1997 World bronze medal match, it validated what she had done to get there.

“I was the youngest one on the team, and people felt I was naïve to be feeling that way. After that match, I worked so hard and got that bronze. I felt more relief than anything because of how hard you work. In 2018, I was devastated that I did not make the team. It kind of burned me out a little bit. I was working back to that positivity and that love of the sport and getting excited about wrestling, not looking at it as a job. It is motivating me to go do it again and win it this time,” she said.

When Leathers talks about her current reality, it often comes back to her coach Kenny Monday, a fellow Oklahoman who won Olympic and World titles. Leathers had to travel to the East Coast work with a legendary Oklahoman, an ironic twist for sure.

“We speak Okie. Kenny Monday is a legend. It doesn’t matter if you are from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Iowa. He’s a legend. We speak the same language. We relate on a lot of things. We understand the home grown aspect with each other. Being around a wrestling genius like Kenny Monday inspires you. He cares a lot. It is personal with him. It is all out of love. It has been more than just the wrestling with Kenny,” she said.

Monday is more than just a coach for her. He truly has been a mentor, filling her mind with the kind of things that lead to victory.

“One thing he said to me which I thought was just special was when he said, ‘I am not going to chase your dreams for you. He says little things like that, all the time, that is so motivating. ‘Winners win.’ It sounds cliché, silly, but when you hear it enough times, ‘shooters win,’ ‘winners win,’ ‘you got to go take it.’ Working with him on the mental side, plus the amazing technique he offers has been such a blessing.

To get back to the World Championships, she will need to beat another veteran star, Jenna Burkert, a two-time World Team member. Their match is billed as the Main Event of the first session of Final X: Rutgers, which starts at 12:00 noon ET

“This is going to be a scrap. We are fighting for the same thing this year. I think it will be fun. I visualize myself winning. You are a fool if you don’t. You can’t be intimidated by hearing your name, hearing your walkout song. I try to work myself through those feelings getting ready for this. I see my opponent standing in front of me in her stance. I have watched my film; I have done my work. I am ready,” she said.

And if she wins Final X: Rutgers? Leathers is already getting prepared for what would be next. It is all about that Olympic dream.

“I absolutely think I can take down anybody in the world. I think I have the mat savvy and the mat smarts to be a World champion. If I go and do my job, then I get to sit pretty in the finals of our own Olympic Team Trials. It takes away a lot of obstacles to go get that Olympic gold, which is ultimately the goal,” she said.

See Leathers and all the Final X athletes live on FloWrestling. Sessions at 12 noon and 6 p.m. Eastern Time.