It had been quite some time since Jenna Burkert took the mat against a male wrestler. But Burkert didn’t treat her opponent any differently than the females she typically faces, and the result was familiar.
She won by fall.
“I probably hadn’t wrestled an official match against a guy in four or five years,” she said of the exhibition dual in March 2012 against a group from Japan at Northern Michigan. “It was a lot of fun to participate and especially to get the pin. It almost felt like a new experience.”
The experience may have felt new, but it was common years ago on Long Island. In fact, when she first began in the sport, Burkert primarily competed with the boys and did so with a lot of success.
“I started wrestling in first grade in Rocky Point,” Burkert said. “There was a flyer in my classroom and a kid told me I couldn’t do it because I was a girl. I begged my mom for a long time and finally she let me do it. I fell in love with it and did well right away.“
She did, recalling that she was undefeated for years against her male foes. She said her first loss was an unfamiliar feeling for a number of reasons.
“The first time I was beaten was by a girl – Lisa Anson,” Burkert said. “I was used to winning against the boys so when I lost, I didn’t know what to do. She’s actually a friend of mine, but I never did get the chance to get revenge on the mat.”
Over the years, losses have become fewer and far between. And now, Burkert is getting ready to take on some of the best at the FILA Junior World Championships in Thailand in early September.
“I’ve trained all year for this,” she said. “I’ve put in the time, the training, the running. I’ve gotten some great experience and participated in both Olympic camps. I feel like I’m ready. I plan on getting the gold and having fun doing it.”
This won’t be the first time at a high profile international event for Burkert. She was a Junior Olympian in 2010 and last year at the Junior Worlds in Romania, she went 2-2 (with two pins) and finished eighth.
“It’s just an honor to compete at such a high level,” she said. “I thought I wrestled just okay at the Junior Worlds last year. I think the nerves got to me. Even the two matches I won, I had to come back in both. It wasn’t fun because I let so much pressure build up. But there’s a big difference this year. I’m having a lot more fun and it think it will show. I can do better and I will this time.”
Part of the fun is appreciating the trip. Burkert said she is hoping to ride an elephant while in Thailand and to experience some of the country, something she felt she was able to do while in India in May of this year. On that journey, she notched an impressive second place performance in the Hari Ram Grand Prix in New Delhi, despite wrestling on relatively short notice.
“I had no idea I was going until a little bit before,” she said. “Olympian Kelsey Campbell was going at 55 and the coach said they needed at 59 pounder. We were there about a week. It was one of my favorite trips. We had a really fun group, including Kristie Davis, who is someone I’ve always looked up to. The people of India that we met were really nice and we went on runs where we really got to see the town. It was frustrating to lose in the finals, but it was a great experience.”
The great experience was one of many for Burkert in 2012. She had a productive year, including a second place showing at the Dave Schultz Invitational and a dominant performance at the Body Bar, where she earned her berth to the upcoming Junior Worlds.
She continued to increase in confidence, going to toe to toe with many of the top grapplers in the nation, including Olympian Campbell.
“It was really good to wrestle Kelsey and a lot of the Olympians,” she said. “Sometimes you get caught up, putting them on a high level and forgetting that when you’re on the mat, you need to see them as just girls with wrestling shoes on. They deserve respect for all they’ve done but not when you’re out there wrestling them. I started to try to take it to them.”
Burkert saw a lot of the London-bound wrestlers in Colorado Springs, which will be her new place of residence after living in Michigan for a number of years.
During her sophomore year of high school, she moved to the Wolverine State when coach Tony DeAnda offered her a spot in the US Olympic Education (USOEC) program at Northern Michigan University. She had been attending school in Longwood, but found the invitation to the elite training environment at the USOEC difficult to turn down.
“It was really hard to leave, even though I was excited,” she said. “It was just one of those opportunities that may never come again if you don’t take advantage.”
It certainly was an adjustment. Burkert said she had practice at 5 a.m., then attended high school at nearby Marquette Senior High before attending another practice, which ended around 7:30 in the evening. The severe winter in the first year didn’t make things easier.
“It was really hard at first,” she said. “New team, new coaches, new school, no parents. I would cry every day in the beginning to anyone who would listen. But, after a few months, it got better. Erin Golston and I became good friends and helped each other through. By the end, I wound up loving it. I made great friends and the whole town is wonderful. I was even voted the class clown.”
She had plenty of success on the mat as well as she was named the ASICS Women’s High School Wrestler of the Year in 2010 and 2011. But despite her happiness in Michigan, she didn’t forget her original home in Suffolk County.
“It’s great to come back. I always go to Rocky Point and see the guys there, who are really nice and give me so much respect. I get some good workouts in too with lots of people, like the Duttons. But I mostly like to beat up on Darren Goldstein and [Steven] Ketcham,” she said with a laugh. “The support I get from Long Island is great. Sometimes I think they may have forgotten about me, but then I see they still talk about me and want to see me succeed, and that’s amazing.”
Coming to New York also gives Burkert a chance to see others who are so important to her.
“I really appreciate the support of my family. They’ve given so much time, effort and money since I was young to help me get where I am,” she said.
“With the women’s freestyle program moving from Northern Michigan, I’ll be resident athlete at the OTC,” she said. “I’ll be training and going to the University of Colorado Springs. The education is so important to me. I’ve always been around autism with my brother Joshua. He is the reason I want to be a special education teacher, hopefully in kindergarten, because I feel you can have so much impact at that age.”
Burkert’s dedication is apparent to everyone who sees her, or more accurately, to all of those who see her ankle, where she has a tattoo that says “Joshua” on top of the symbol for Autism Awareness.
“I plan on getting an Olympic medal and using that platform to really get the cause out there,” she said.
But before the Rio Games in 2016, Burkert has many other intermediate goals in mind. It all starts next week in Pattaya, Thailand where she looks to become a Junior World champion.