Being born amidst conflict and turmoil in Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa, wrestling champion Grace BULLEN (NOR) was no stranger to adversity.
The Bullen family fled to Eritrea from war torn Sudan so they might safely live in peace and raise a family away from the violence plaguing the region. On February 7, 1997, Grace was born.
“My family actually escaped from Sudan to Eritrea so we can be born safely, but not long after my mother gave birth to me the war started again, so we have to move across the country,” Bullen reflected.
For over four years Bullen and her family were forced to evade military conflict that had spread into their country. Moving from location to location within Eritrea was commonplace for Bullen throughout her time spent in proximity to the Eritrean–Ethiopian War.
The region was extremely poor. Resources were sparse. The simple fact was, Eritrea was no longer deemed a safe haven.
Bullen and her family were fortunate enough to be permitted exit from Eritrea and found refuge in Norway, where they reside to this day.
Upon arrival in Norway, Bullen’s father placed her into wrestling, mainly as a means of daycare. What started as a reluctant, even resistant, endeavor, turned into an opportunity filled with promise and passion.
“[Wrestling] shaped me as a person because I’ve learned to trust myself even though it was scary,” Bullen said. “I didn’t know the language. I didn’t want to learn the language. I didn’t want to meet new people because I was scared of where we were going to end next.”
Once Bullen realized Norway would be her long-term home and the necessities to create a great life were solidly in place, she began to buy into the idea how wrestling and what it could bring to the table.
“After a while I understand we are going to stay here. It was kind of safe. I started to be a part of activities that was outside of wrestling and getting more engaged with other people around me,” she said.
The relationships she made in the wrestling room made the transition of moving across the world easier. She leveraged her time in wrestling to learn to speak Norwegian. More so, Bullen realized the opportunity staring her down.
“I have learned I can be something big. Not just be born and come to an amazing country from being a refugee. I can do something with it, take the chance I’ve been given, and represent my country, my two countries, and that I feel is amazing,” Bullen said.
Bullen has found success in wrestling on a global scale. Among her many accomplishments include a gold medal at the Senior European Championships, three titles at the Junior European Championships, gold at the Youth Olympic Games and gold at the Cadet World Championships. This only skims the surface of her talents.
This week, Bullen competed at her first Junior World Championships and came away with a bronze medal at 59kg. She recorded three pins across her four contested bouts. In the bronze-medal match she finished Jing JIANG (CHN) in the second period.
“The feeling of getting a medal is really huge,” she noted following her performance in Tampere, Finland. “I’m really thankful and grateful to be able to represent Norway. I have to say, I’m a little bit disappointed. It’s not that I wanted a bronze when I came here, but I also have to appreciate that this wasn’t my best day, and I have to learn it so the moment it really counts I can do better.”
Outside of the competition itself, Bullen’s perspective and life experiences allow her to appreciate every aspect that goes along with it.
“It’s always amazing to come and see how many wrestlers there is in the world, and being able to be a part of it, that itself is good. Qualifying from the European Championships to this, it’s overwhelming,” Bullen said.
Seizing the opportunities she has been given is a common thread in Bullen’s life. Two major opportunities are set to play out in the near future for the 20-year-old.
Recently Bullen announced she will move across the globe yet again, this time in pursuit of education in the United States. After attending a training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo. and discussing the idea with American coaches, she elected to attend Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Kentucky this fall, and compete for one of the top women’s wrestling programs in the U.S.
“I want to also be a part of something that always grow, and I feel like I’ve done it with Norway, my club, and I see if I can do that with other places. Not like I’m a miracle person like going there, but I want to be a part in kind of a journey. That’s why I chose Campbellsville,” she said.
Before making the move to America, Bullen will take part in the 2017 Senior World Championships being contested in Paris, France later this month. Her Junior Worlds outing has Bullen that much more excited for Paris.
No matter the wins and losses on a wrestling mat, Bullen has approached her life with a zest hard to match and an outlook to bring a certain kind of joy to others wherever she goes.
“Wrestling has given me an opportunity to do something big. I get to go every day to training. I get the opportunity to see the world. I get the opportunity to meet new people. I always can learn something new…there are all different people that talk another whole language and you can only communicate by wrestling. It’s like another language that only us wrestlers know and that’s what I love about wrestling.” she said.