After finishing second at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City, Iowa on April 21, Ali Bernard wasn't exactly sure what the next chapter in her life was going to be.
Already a long-time veteran of women's wrestling who had accomplished quite a bit in her career, Bernard was weighing her options, considering coaching opportunities and retiring from the sport altogether. She just missed qualifying for her second set of Olympic games and while she was very disappointed, rest and relaxation were a welcome sight for her.
Then she got a phone call that changed those summer plans of relaxing and just being a normal 26-year old. She found out that Stephany Lee, who defeated her at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the right to go to the Olympics in London later in the summer, failed a drug test and would have to accept a one-year ban from the sport. That opened the door for Bernard, who is now in Colorado Springs, Colo., training for her second run at an Olympic Gold Medal.
Submitted photo courtesy of Sue Bernard/photo taken by Adam Fenn
New Ulm native Ali Bernard (left) reacts after winning her bronze medal match at the 2011 World Wrestling Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.
"It was her second warning, and rules are rules, so I'll take the opportunity," Bernard said.
After the trials, Bernard used the time to get some much-needed rest and bond with family and friends. That seemed to be just the inspiration that her mind and body needed after all of the aches and pains from non-stop training.
But after learning of Lee's possible suspension at the time, she had to get ready to train again.
"After the trials I had come back to Minnesota, and the drug-testing policy takes a long time," Bernard said. "They called me and told me there was a possible situation with the No. 1 [wrestler, Lee] and that they wanted me to come train because there was a good chance that I'd be going [to the Olympics], so I was pretty excited about it."
The summer has been filled with ups and downs for her. After originally not making it, she had a lot of decisions to make. Her original plan this summer was to head west and interview for a possible coaching job. But in a complete 180-degree spin, her plans are now focused on heading east to London, where she will compete Thursday, Aug. 9 at ExCeL Center in the 72 kg/158.5 pound-division.
"I was pretty upset, I mean, I wasn't too excited about my results or how I wrestled," Bernard said of finishing second at the trials. "I was thinking about coaching, I talked to an Athletic Director out in California about coaching and I was going to fly out and do an interview out there, so I was pretty excited about that. But then this opportunity came up and it was too big of a chance to pass up."
Just when things started going her way, however, Bernard was faced with a new obstacle. After training in Colorado, she suffered a minor setback at practice.
"I was back home for at least three weeks and then I was in panic mode, because I had to get back on the mat so I can do well at the Olympics," she said. "Then I came out here, to Colorado, and I fractured my fibula, so then I had to do the rehab and I had surgery, so it's been a crazy couple of months."
Now a veteran of the sport and the Olympics, Bernard has more of an idea of how she will attack her training schedule the next few weeks.
"The first Olympics, it was my first world event [since] the junior level," Bernard said. "It was a huge leap for me from wrestling at the junior level to wrestling on the Olympic team. Now I've been on a few world teams and I've been on an Olympic team, so I'm a little more prepared. I was super nervous going out on the mat during the Olympics [during the 2008 games in Beijing, China where she finished fifth]. I think it'll still be nerve-wracking, but I know what to expect now."
She says her body is 100 percent now and she has the training schedule down. On any given day, she may get up and practice from 7-8:30 a.m., then she rehabs her injury from 8:30-9:30 a.m. After a short resting period, she goes back to practice from 1-3 p.m., followed by another hour-long rehab session.
She rests again, then trains for another couple of hours (6-8 p.m. or about that) before going to bed, only to get up and do it all over again. She does this five times a week, with a few days of less activity planned to let her body heal and catch up to all the fatigue.
"I go lay down and I text my mom and let her know I'm still alive," she said of the busy day. "I wake up and do the same thing [the next day]."
She said the training sessions are pretty much the same from four years ago.
"It's the same stuff, I'm just trying to sharpen up some stuff," she said. "Sharpen what I'm good at, and looking at some of my opponents and their weaknesses and see where I could maybe attack and hopefully win."
Bernard is currently ranked No. 1 in the United States at the 72 kg weight class. She's wrestled most of the competitors in her class and she could very well be considered one of the favorites to bring home the gold medal.
"A lot of the girls that are at my weight class, they've been around just as long or longer than I have," she said. "I don't know if I'm a favorite, but I do have that experience."
She does have a plan of attack set up for everyone she could potentially meet, too.
"I try to focus on my style rather than how they wrestle, but I've wrestled the number one and the number two [ranked wrestlers] and I wrestled the old Olympic champion last year, so I've got a good idea of what my game plan is going to be against them," she said.
She currently doesn't have any return trips back to New Ulm before departing for London. She's planning on continuing to work in Colorado Springs, then she's off to London on July 23.
The trip is all business until she wrestles. Once she's done with that, she plans on staying a bit longer to take in the sights.
"We go to France first, then we go to London and go to the opening ceremonies and then go to France and train for a week and then come back [to London]," she said. "I've decided I'm going to stay for about two weeks and see Europe a little bit and take a vacation outside of wrestling."
As of right now, Bernard is unsure of what will happen after the London games. Retirement was a possibility before the door opened for the 2012 Olympics, so she'll worry about that decision when the time comes.
"I was definitely thinking about retirement," she said. "I'm unsure about after the games about retiring or what will be going on, but it's definitely a possibility still."