“We met on moving day,” Leilani said with a smile.” Although we didn’t hit it off right away, that quickly changed as we began taking classes and going on road trips together with the wrestling team.” The girls burst into laughter.
Leilani, a California native from LA, was approached by coach Weerheim during a state competition to join UCC’s wrestling team. Zainab, a local Portlander, met Coach Weerheim while still in high school. “One day he called me,” Zainab said. “He’d been hired at Umpqua Community College and asked me to wrestle for the team.”
Both girls accepted coach Weerheim’s offer to become Riverhawk wrestlers; they began attending classes while simultaneously kindling a new and flourishing friendship built on supporting one another.
Zainab, a first-generation college student, tells her story of struggles and the perseverance needed to live her dream. “Being a first-generation college student is a privilege,” she said. “My parents fled from Kenya to the United States when I was just 3 months old. They didn’t speak English, lacked a college education, and had to support me and 15 other siblings. Despite the challenging circumstances, their sacrifices have enabled me to pursue college and better myself. I’ll never forget their sacrifice and the love they poured on my siblings and I.”
Zainab plans to transfer to Southern Oregon University to join their wrestling team and study political science. Likewise, Leilani is seeking to continue her wrestling career and pursue kinesiology.
Both girls were inspired to wrestle early in their life. “Growing up, my family and I loved watching World Wrestling Entertainment,” Zainab said. “That ultimately became my source of inspiration. I remember saying, ‘Mom, I wanna be like John Cena someday!’ It wasn’t until my first day of wrestling practice that I realized WWE wasn’t real.” Nonetheless, Zainab’s inspiration remained, motivating her to seriously pursue wrestling.
“I remember winning my first match in high school,” Zainab said. “At that moment I realized wrestling was my sport.” Zainab has achieved much success in her wrestling career, even finishing second place at the nationals in her respective weight class this past spring.
Zainab’s father, perplexed by her decision to become a wrestler in college, asked her, “Why are you doing this? To be a female wrestler and Muslim. Why?”
To which Zainab replied,
“It’s going to pay for college” – and she was right.
Leilani recounts her introduction to wrestling and her struggle moving from LA to an unknown town in Southern Oregon. “I played several sports throughout junior high and high school,” she said. “But wrestling was a completely different animal.
The energy. The flavor. It was addictive. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop.” Leilani’s competitive spirit and love for wrestling even allowed her to go undefeated for an entire season until reaching state.
“When I moved to Roseburg, I didn’t know anyone, but being introduced to the TRIO program at UCC broke the ice and provided me with a support system that helped me flourish.”
For both Leilani and Zainab, being a Muslim sets them apart, particularly in women’s wrestling. “There aren’t many Muslim wrestlers,” Leilani said. “Not to mention Muslim women wrestlers. “We’re few and far between, which makes it difficult yet also an honor to be a Muslim wrestling role model. Both Zainab and Leilani expressed how they’d never had their own role model. Because of this, they wanted to be an icon for others, a symbol of their faith in the world of wrestling.
According to Zainab, being a Muslim wrestler presents numerous difficulties. Several religious rules directly conflict with wrestling regulations, specifically what they are, or aren’t, allowed to wear.
“Thankfully, we’ve connected with other Muslim wrestlers from schools across the US,” Leilani remarked. “We’ll often create group chats and stay in contact. They’ve become a support group,” she added. “It’s comforting to know we aren’t the only Muslim wrestlers. We don’t have to struggle alone. Ultimately for us, the ability to pursue our dream and practice our faith, regardless of one’s circumstances, is what we want.”
“Just like my parents, Zainab said, “I want to embark on the pursuit of something better. UCC not only transformed my life in ways I previously never imagined, it also gave me an opportunity to become the role model I never had and pursue something far greater than myself.”