Korina Blades: “I know I’m supposed to be here.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY • Korina Blades is ready to get back on the mat and prove that she belongs.  Back in May, the sixteen-year-old won both the 62 kg Junior division and, the next day, the 61 kg Cadet division at the Women’s National Championship in Irving, Texas.  For her double crown, Blades would earn USA Wrestling’s Wrestler of the Week honors, but she has her sights on something greater.

     Back in 2019, Blades made herself known when she won the U15 World Championship.  Now, two years later, and a better wrestler physically and, more importantly, mentally, she is confident in her chances as she chases two more gold medals that will take place about one month apart.

     The first of Kornia’s two world championships will take place this week in Budapest, Hungary—Blades will step on the mat Thursday in the Cadet division at 62 kg.  

     Two years ago, after Blades claimed her world title, she struggled through a few injuries and, ultimately, two surgeries.  Now, in a new club and with a new focus and mentality, she has grown not only in her wrestling, but also in her approach.

     Korina, who started competing in ju-jitsu at the age of four, quickly made the transition to wrestling when she kept losing to the same opponent who had a wrestling background.

     “When I was doing jujitsu at these tournaments,” Korina explained, “I would always lose to the same kid.  He was a jujitsu fighter who also wrestled, and the wrestling made him better.  My dad asked my sister Kennedy and I if we wanted to try wrestling.  And, since I kept losing to this kid in the national finals, I wanted to do it.  Kennedy and I were already super competitive—naturally athletic and just had so much energy when we were young—so we both started wrestling.”

     By the time Blades was seven years old, she and her sister decided to focus on wrestling and give up on the ju-jitsu.  However, their ju-jitsu background would serve them well moving forward because they were already accustomed to combat, and they were already familiar with fighting for position and scoring.

     From here, the sisters would walk into their first wrestling room at Riverside-Brookfield High School, but their greatest obstacle would be partners, not picking up the sport.  But, soon enough, the sisters were not just the girls wrestling in the corner, they were the girls the boys struggled to beat.

     “When Kennedy and I walked into that practice room,” Korina recalled, “we didn’t have any guy partners—no one wanted to go with us.  I remember we were standing along the wall and none of the boys wanted to practice with us.  Kennedy and I ended up wrestling with each other the whole practice.  Eventually, we were able to go against the boys and we were already beating the boys in our age group.  The ju-jitsu really helped us just because it familiarized us with being on the mat, and we were already athletic enough.”

     The sisters would thrive from that point moving forward in the sport.  And, even though no one in their family had ever wrestled before, their father, who had trained MMA fighters and understood combat sports, threw himself into his daughters’ new passion.

     “Our father was always taking us to practice and finding us the best clubs,” Korina commented regarding the importance of their parents’ support.  “My dad started to watch film and get familiar with the sport and get really knowledgeable in that sense.  He has always been there to support us and drive us everywhere and take us to these national tournaments and get us that experience.”

     And as he learned more and more about the top kids’ clubs in Illinois, the sisters would find their way to Martinez Elite in Fox Valley.  Once here, their wrestling would take a big step forward, especially in understanding the technical side of the sport at a very young age.

     “We have now known the Martinez family for a very long time,” Korina said.  “Jose and Nathan were our coaches for six or seven years, and growing up with Coach Jose, he was very technical and he cared about the little details—he was so focused on the little things and really breaking things down.  We never did sprints or a lot of live wrestling, but we learned a lot of wrestling and we are better for it.”

     As the girls were growing in the sport, and they were getting great technique and understanding the finer points of the sport and techniques, Korina spoke about what she and her sister needed in order to take the next step to be successful.

     “When I was in seventh grade,” she remembered, “we needed to get more aggressive and have these harder and more intense practices.  We’ve always known Coach Izzy and we knew his club was super hard and an intense training facility; so, we went there.  He welcomed us right away.  Going there and getting mentally tougher and even physically tougher, that’s what we needed and that’s why we went to Izzy Style.”

     When the sisters walked in, they were a bit unsure about what to expect, but they did know that they were going to wrestle hard and fight for everything—they were not going to be pushed around.   

     “I remember walking in and Coach Izzy was super loud and really excited for us being there,” Korina laughed.  “And the boys were not afraid to go with us—it didn’t matter that we were girls.  So right there, we knew it was going to be different in a good way.  

     The difference in the two clubs was noticed almost immediately by Korina.  “At Izzy’s,” she explained, “it was not as technical.  We worked more on our feet and sparred.  The sparring would get pretty competitive and it would turn into live.  Just that intensity right there, without drilling and breaking things down to all live and sparring, we were all always pushing ourselves because everyone wanted to win.  No one wanted to lose because we all had so much pride.  The mentality in there was to be the best.”  

     And anyone who is familiar with the sisters knows , they are well aware of the work it takes to elevate themselves to be the best.  Having each other ended up being more than a sisterly comfort, it became an inspiration and a healthy competition.

     “I wasn’t that nervous about wrestling at Izzy’s because Kennedy was in there with me competing,” Korina said.  “But we’ve been pushing each other because each one of us wants to be better than the other—we’re constantly going at it.  I probably would not have grown as quickly without her pushing me.  Just having her there saying, ‘I’m going to beat you at this or that’ is motivating.  And at practices, we’re always pushing each other.  If one of us sees the other slacking off or going soft—we don’t even have to say anything to each other—all we need to do is just give a look.  If she sees her little sister working harder than her, I know she’s going to push herself.  Or if I see my older sister working harder, then I’m going to push myself.  I don’t want to be seen as the slower or lesser sister.  So, we are subconsciously competing against each other and giving more.  But it’s all healthy.”

     In Irving, Texas, the best of Korina came out.  She would open up her two-day championship run in two different divisions with the more difficult tournament of the two—the Junior division.  

     For the most part, Korina did not spend too much time on the mat.  In her opening match, in the round of 32, she would take to the mat in her red singlet against Morgan Mackey of Nevada and, after a shot and coming up to an underhook position, Korina would throw her opponent to her back and win by fall in 00:33.  

     “I was pretty pumped going into that tournament,” Korina said.  “And throughout the day I was excited and I wanted to just get on and off the mat as quickly as possible.”

     Now in the Round of 16, she would again make quick work of her opponent, Justice Seely of Missouri, by way of a 10-0 technical fall in 1:02.  Blades would utilize an elbow pass to a low shot for her first takedown.  She would combine a shrug to another low single for two more points, and she would close it out by locking up a leg lace and turning Seely three times for the win.

     In her quarterfinal match, Korina would need twenty seconds more than her last match to close out Jordan Suarez of Texas.  Blades would pick up a four-point knee pick on the edge of the mat, score another four-points blocking a throw and exposing Suarez’s back, and she would end the bout with a strong defensive series that transitioned into a nearside cradle and gave her the final two points she needed to advance.  

     As bout 482 was called, Korina was confident and ready to face Florida’s Chloe Ogden in the semifinals, and Ogden was fearless coming after the former world champion.  In an opening sequence, Ogden would work in tight on Korina, body lock her, and lift her, taking her back, looking for a four-point throw.  In the air, Blades was able to free her body and come down in a non-scoring position to fend off the attack.  From there, Blades would score on a low shot on the edge of the mat.  In another flurry, Korina would give up a two-point crotch lift before scoring a reversal.  To end the match, it would be a second period two-point takedown to a two-point gut wrench, and one more four-point takedown with one final turn.

     Blades would now advance to the best-of-three finals with a 13-2 technical fall in 4:09.  In the match for the Junior title, she would have to wrestle Aliyah Yates from California. 

     For the first match of the series, Korina would be dressed in a blue singlet for the first time all tournament—but that was all that changed.  Blades would be dominant and score four points in the opening period with two takedowns, and she would score another six points in the second period with a defensive go-behind, an underhook to a takedown out of bounds, and end the match with a defensive switch as Yates had her in danger of a takedown.  The first match would end in a 10-0 technical fall in 5:27.

     Coming out for the second match of the series, Korina would be back in her red singlet, and the match would take place on the platformed championship mat.  After the first period, Blades would be up 4-1 and head back to her corner where Coach Izzy and her sister, Kennedy, coached her and motivated her to finish the match on top.

     Korina would do just that as she came out with a defensive hip toss from her knees to put Yates to her back before scoring on two trapped-arm gut wrenches.  Now up 10-1, it would take one more takedown, this time through leg defense, to close out the match.  Blades would take match two by technical fall and earn her first of two national titles.  All she had to do now was recover and prepare herself to wrestle.  

     “I knew that by the time I got to Cadets,” Korina said of wrestling in one tournament and then having to wrestle in a second tournament with less than one day’s rest, “that I would be sore and tired.  But throughout the Junior tournament, Coach Izzy made sure to tell me to be smart about resting between my matches and to get away from the wrestling arena as much as possible.”

     In order to get away, Korina would simply step out of the arena and try to distract herself from wrestling.  “After my matches,” she said, “me and Kennedy and Coach Izzy and Holly Holm would sit outside and just relax.  I would listen to my music or watch a show—kind of get my mindset off of wrestling.  And once I got back into the arena, a few matches before I had to wrestle, I would get ready.”

     And, aside from the rest and the breaks, Korina would be given further encouragement—what she needed mentally.  “Coach Izzy would always say something to me,” Korina explained.  “He would be like, ‘You go this.  This is your match.  This is your spot.’  I was pretty confident because my training leading up to that was really intense and I knew I was there; I just trusted Coach Izzy’s training a lot.”

     For the Cadet division, Korina would have to wrestle at 61 kg, one kilogram lighter than the Junior division.  On top of that, she would be sore from a long day of competition.  

     “I was really sore after juniors,” she said, “so I just rested.  I didn’t really go out—I was already on weight, so I just laid in bed, relaxed, and chatted with Kennedy.  And going into Cadets the next day, I was really excited to wrestle.  I was kind of tired, but once I got into that atmosphere the adrenaline kicked in, I didn’t even have to think about it—I just wanted to make two teams.”

     When the Cadet tournament began, Blades would have another day of wrestling in front of her, but she was confident that she had already wrestled the heavier and more skilled wrestlers a day earlier.  Additionally, she and Kennedy found a way to make the day fun, and even more competitive.  “Kennedy and I are super competitive,” Korina commented, “so we tried to see who could get the fastest pin or fastest tech fall between us, so I think that also really helps out because there is also that outside competition with my sister.”

     By the time the Cadet tournament ended, Korina had not only won seven matches and the 61 kg tile, she also won the quickest technical fall between the sisters by one second.  “I had an eighteen second technical fall during Cadets,” Korina laughed, “and Kennedy had a nineteen second technical fall.  So, I won—and that was also exciting.” 

     With the two sisters being so talented, so competitive, and so supportive of the other, their bond has allowed them to compete alongside each other, and be mat side for competitions.  But Korina is a different wrestler than she was in the past, and it is something that she had to work on by herself.  And, as she prepared for the Junior World Championships, she had one focus to help her stay in a healthy place.

     “I just need to stay mentally strong,” Korina explained.  “I used to have a pretty weak mentality, and I’ve been really working on that these past couple of years.  And having my back-to-back surgeries and these injuries, it gets me excited to finally get on the mat and be grateful for this opportunity to wrestle.  So, I’m definitely going to focus on staying mentally strong, knowing that I’m the best and that I’m here for a reason.  I trust in my training.  I know I’ve worked hard.  And I know I’m supposed to be here.  So, I’m just super excited to wrestle.”

     Aside from her training since the nationals, Korina just completed a one-week training camp with Team USA in Orlando, Florida.  “It wasn’t necessarily to push us or make us tired,” Korina commented, “it was more to focus on the smaller things we had to focus on, and focus on asking questions and being used to being on the team—team bonding.  The training has been pretty simple—nothing really too intense—and I think has been good for us.  I think it’s been good training.”

     And when it is time to wrestle, Korina, who has been on the world stage before, plans on keeping her wrestling simple.  “Technique-wise,” she said, “I just need to stay in position and not give these girls too much hype and opportunities.  It’s been a while since I’ve been overseas competing, but nothing changes for me.  I am just going to go out and wrestle.”

     Korina will compete at the Cadet World Championships this week, with her weight class competing on Thursday and Friday.  And, starting Thursday, this will be the first step in Korina accomplishing her goal of becoming a double world champion.  But, for now, this tournament is all that she is focused on, and she is as confident as she has ever been in her wrestling and, more importantly, in what she knows she can do.  “Above all,” Korina said, “I am super grateful and I know I would not be here if it wasn’t for God.  I belong here, I’m ready to compete, and I’m just staying focused on the gold medal.”

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