Homer coach visits Azerbaijan with wrestling delegation

Wrestle Like a Girl, led by Homer resident Tela Bacher, is participating in a 10-day U.S. Department of State sports diplomacy exchange between the United States and Azerbaijan.

Bacher is a coach and former Olympic wrestler.

The theme of the exchange is “empowering women and girls through wrestling.”

A press release notes that the exchange program is funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs/ Sports Diplomacy Division. With support from the U.S. Embassy of Azerbaijan, the delegation coaches will visit sports organizations throughout the country as they promote sports as empowerment for girls and women in Azerbaijan.

Bacher left Homer on Friday and the rest of the coaches joined her in Baku, the capital city of the country, on Monday. Baku is the westernmost point of the country, on the shore of the Caspian Sea. There are 15 delegation coaches from the United States and two from Jordan participating in the project.

Four of the coaches are from Alaska. These include Bacher; Robyn Chaney with the Dillingham School District; Chloe Ivanoff, assistant wrestling coach at Kodiak High School; and Ed Lester, principal and head coach at the New Halen School on Lake Illiamna.

This is the fourth international wrestling exchange Wrestle Like a Girl has coordinated. The first was in Pakistan in 2019. The second took place in Homer with Alaska and Canadian wrestlers in 2022 and the third was in Mongolia in 2023.

“The main purpose of a sports diplomacy exchange is to connect countries through sports, reduce extremism and untrue narratives; that’s the U.S. state department’s goal. The mission of Wrestle Like a Girl is to empower girls and women to become leaders in life,” Bacher said.

Bacher said the Pakistan exchange goal was to reduce gender-based violence.

“I came away from that exchange with my eyes open wide because I always knew that sports was valuable but this was another way to recognize the that sports really has the power to connect communities and lives and create an opportunity for change, other than just winning games.

“We have all these tools, sports, theater, arts, that really shape the world around us and I saw that as the big picture during that first exchange.”

The Alaska/Canada exchange goal was to look at how sports can contribute to reducing mental health concerns in Indigenous populations. Homer’s Resilience Coalition participated in coordinating that exchange.

In all of these exchanges, a primary goal is to look at how sports can contribute to social change in the world.

Bacher noted that the four Alaska coaches use sport every day to socialize youth in the state.

“Azerbaijan has a very strong wrestling culture in the country, partially due to proximity to and influence from Russia. They have a particularly strong Greco-Roman style heritage,” Bacher said, “and they’re really starting to develop a women’s interest in wrestling.”

Bacher noted that in the U.S., women’s wrestling is the fastest-growing sport in the nation. She said that about eight years ago there were approximately 6,000 women wrestling participants in the nation. There are now more than 150,000 and “maybe closer to 170,000” girls who wrestle in high school, she said.

“We’ve seen really extreme growth in a very short period of time, due to the advocacy that groups like Wrestle Like a Girl are providing,” Bacher said.

Bacher herself wrestled in high school in Homer. At that time girls in wrestling was often treated as weird, annoying and just not very accepted, she said.

“Now, there is so much more opportunity. The wrestling community has really opened its arms to female inclusion rather than closing doors.”

Homer High School’s athletic director Justin Zank said there were five girls who participated in the high school wrestling program this school year.

“I think there is a lot to learn and share in Azerbaijan. Much of the wrestling there takes place around Baku, but we have heard interest about expanding to the more rural areas of the country. So, it’s great that we have some rural residents of Alaska coming to help share about rural wrestling in our state,” Bacher said.

She notes that it’s not just about the wrestling but all of the other potentially positive social effects.

Bacher also said when she’s traveling she will have the opportunity to meet with another former Homer resident, Haley Kallenberg, who is currently a music teacher in an Azerbaijani school.

Kallenberg is now married to an Azerbaijani man who works in mixed martial arts and helped connect Wrestle Like a Girl with people and organizations in women’s wrestling in the country.

“Even though I’m traveling to a country I had barely heard of until last year, I’m going to get to meet a fellow Homer, Alaskan, person who I grew up with. Homer is a small town and really our own little world but a neat part of our community is how many connections it can help us find internationally,” Bacher said.

Despite global conflicts, she said “exchanges like this remind us that we are human and make connections through the good that we do. When we can see people beyond their beliefs it can be very humbling if we just see them as human beings.”