A tumultuous year, both on and off the mat, has members of the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades wrestling team questioning the future of the program.
The club lost its original head coach Raj Virdi in November, then parted ways with assistant coach Gurjot Kooner in December. In that wake UFV appointed facilities coordinator Stacie Anaka to run the program on an interim basis.
Anaka has now stepped down from that position, and the program is now left with no one to guide the ship. A job posting to fill the role has yet to be posted, which could prove to be difficult because past coaches were not paid a salary by UFV.
Recruitment, which normally would have begun months ago, is at a standstill and wrestlers, former coaches and those close to the team have heard very little about what the plan is going forward.
Coming to Abbotsford was supposed to be a step towards stability for the wrestling dreams of Manitoba native Amber Wiebe.
Wiebe went through a disappointing experience in 2018, after the University of Regina cut its wrestling program and left her without a team.
She was considering giving up the sport altogether, until Raj Virdi – then head coach of the Cascades wrestling team – gave her a call.
“Virdi reached out to me and asked me to come to UFV,” she said. “I had a full-ride scholarship in Regina, but the training here was better than anywhere else so I took a loss on the scholarship to come here and wrestle. He told me at the time that if you have dreams past U Sports that UFV is the place to be, and I believed him.”
Wiebe said Virdi is extremely well-respected in the Canadian wrestling community and helped build the Cascades program from nothing. The team was created in 2013 and began official competition in Canada West in 2014-15.
Wiebe said she was told that when Virdi and co-founder Arjun Bhullar put the program together, they were told by the school that the duo would have to figure out the financial details on their own. Then, after three years, the school would take another look at the financials and potentially reconsider.
However, after three years, a new president (Joanne MacLean) and athletic director (Steve Tuckwood) came aboard, and those discussions have not taken place. There is still no funding for the team or coaches, and nothing has been re-examined.
“No one has taken responsibility over this contract or the program because of all the turnover,” Wiebe said.
The issues between the school and the program reached its boiling point this past November when Virdi was let go by the school.
Wiebe said she and her teammates were stunned by the decision.
“They called us all in (on) the Thursday after our SFU tournament in November, and Steve basically said there have been disagreements between him and Virdi about how to run the program,” she recalled. “Virdi told us that Steve was micromanaging everything and didn’t want to send athletes to tournaments in the U.S. and other places. Steve didn’t want us to be putting money into that.”
Wrestler Simren Brar, who was also recruited by Virdi and competed for the Cascades this past season, said the lack of communication following Virdi’s dismissal was frustrating.
“Steve told us Raj used too much of the budget but there were no details on why he was fired,” he said. “And that was the biggest problem: nothing was told to us. When they don’t tell us anything? It makes us all wonder why should we even keep wrestling.”
President MacLean was not made available to comment on the dismissal, and Tuckwood told The News that he is not at liberty to talk about human resource matters.
“My first thought after hearing he got fired was: they’ve just destroyed the wrestling program and any chance they have of being successful in the future,” Wiebe said.
Following the firing of Virdi, assistant coach Kooner assumed much of the head-coaching duties for the Cascades.
But the disappointment from the team over Virdi’s dismissal led to another meeting with UFV vice-president Alisa Webb. During that meeting, every member of the Cascades wrestling team wrote letters that called for Virdi to be re-hired and outlined their worries about the team.
Wiebe, who was present at the meeting, said there was zero follow-up from Webb regarding the team’s concerns.
“The meeting turned out to be useless,” she said. “Nothing was taken into serious consideration. They never acted on any of the concerns and we heard nothing back from her (Webb).”
The News asked to speak to Webb about the meeting, but she was not made available. Webb was the interim vice-president of students and enrolment management at the time of the meeting, and was hired permanently in the role on March 15.
Wrestlers were told that Kooner was the new man in charge – until he suddenly and unexpectedly wasn’t and was let go prior to the holiday break.
“Gurjot is very dedicated and at least he’s someone who has been around us and knew us,” Wiebe said. “He told us a contract with him was supposed to be drawn up but then they withdrew his contract and took away his opportunity to be a head coach.”
When asked about Kooner’s removal, Tuckwood said he cannot speak on human resource matters.
From there, Stacie Anaka was pegged to run the program.
Anaka was a national wrestling champion while competing at SFU in 2007, 2008 and 2010, but wrestlers said her lack of coaching experience wasn’t a positive for the team.
“She’s a very nice person but I wonder if she was forced into the role by Steve,” said Brar.
Wiebe was more blunt in her assessment.
“She’s a phenomenal athlete but does not know how to run a university wrestling program and had no business running practice for us,” she said.
Despite all the coaching chaos, Cascades wrestlers had strong showings nationally, with Brad Hildenbrandt and Ana Godinez Gonzalez both winning gold in their respective divisions. Wiebe pointed out that both wrestlers were recruited by Virdi, and she wondered how much better the entire team would have fared if he had remained on as head coach.
Anaka, who remains employed by UFV, was not made available to speak about her time as head coach.
Tuckwood told The News that the season wasn’t ideal, but that he wants the program to shake off this season and move forward.
“I admit that changing coaches is very disruptive but sometimes you’re in a position that it needs to happen,” he said. “Our timing was very challenging for the athletes and I don’t downplay that challenge.”
He pointed out that the school has to figure out the future of the wrestling program and its structure in regards to pay.
“If you look at other Canada West wrestling programs, they have a hybrid situation where you have a club team with younger athletes who are partnered with the varsity program,” he said. “You have a feeder system that is a revenue generator and it creates a job opportunity for someone who runs the club and varsity teams.”
Tuckwood said the Saskatchewan Huskies follow that model, and he said other wrestling programs – such as at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta – have head coaches that also teach at the school.
“I’m open to changing,” he said. “For UFV to fund a head coach alone would be challenging. When our program was started, it wasn’t linked with a junior program so maybe it comes down to finding a partner there. I’m also in conversations with B.C. Wrestling and Canada Wrestling. We need to press reset and figure out what the program is going to be.”
He also said there are no plans to cut the program.
“I think we can be a good U Sports program,” he said. “We just need to find the right fit for the team budget-wise. My intention is to keep it. We’re providing a good opportunity for wrestlers in B.C.”
Wiebe reiterated that she wants the best situation for herself and her teammates.
“Wrestling is the most inclusive sport,” she said. “Steve and the university want things done their way but they don’t understand what it takes to build a team.”
She said the Cascades athletic department seems to be pouring money into making the jump from Pacwest to Canada West in volleyball, but are forgetting about wrestling and all the success the team has brought to the school over the years.
She also called out to the community to assist with fundraising for the team, which is the only Canada West wrestling program in the province. Wiebe said she knows first-hand how devastating it is to see a program die, and doesn’t want to see that occur again.