Former refugee Grace Bullen is fighting for female empowerment in Africa

The South Sudanese-born Youth Olympic Games wrestling champion for Norway has fought all her life for recognition, and is now intent on waving two flags at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, while improving the lives of those back home.
By Andrew Binner

When Norway’s Grace Bullen takes to the wrestling mat, she is fighting for something much bigger than herself.

She grapples in the colours of her adopted home, but she also wrestles for the country of her heritage, South Sudan.

She wrestles to show refugees that they can also improve their lives, and she fights for female empowerment back in Africa.

“I want people to see that it doesn’t really matter where you come from, or what the destination has to be. Just do what you want to do, and if you really work hard for it and really want it, it’s really possible,” the 23-year-old told United World Wrestling.

“The fact that I represent two nations means I have a bigger platform and can reach out to even more people.”

From refugee to wrestling champion

Bullen was just four when her family of seven left their Eritrean refugee camp in search of a better life.

After being placed in Norway by the United Nations, it wasn’t long before the future wrestling star had her first taste of the mat.

“My father started language school to learn Norwegian, and he met the [wrestling] coach that I’m still using to this day, Gheorghe Costin. They became good friends,” she continued.

“Me and my two sisters started wrestling straight away and I liked it from then on.”

After such an unsettled start in life, it was the wrestling fraternity in Fredrikstad that helped the youngster find her feet.

“I liked the community that was there, how they received me… Here was a place that I could have fun without having to talk, because I didn’t like to talk so much.”

“I won my first match and was OK, but I was still always beat down by my siblings! No one really saw me as someone that would become really good at wrestling in the beginning.”

While wrestling enjoys far less popularity in the Scandinavian country than other sports, its physicality suited her character down to the ground, in every sense of the word.

“I tried handball at one practise around the age of 10 or 11, but the workout there was kind of lazy compared to what I’m used to (in wrestling)!”

Taking wrestling to the next level

While many prodigies from more established wrestling nations train for a life in the professional ranks from a young age, wrestling would always play second-fiddle to her studies.

“Coming from South Sudan and being a refugee my parents were very strict, so for us school was the first priority and we took that very seriously,” she said.

But it wasn’t long before her passion and dedication and for wrestling became too strong to ignore.

Not only that, but she was starting to build a reputation in the junior ranks of the sport, and her father gave her a chance.

“I decided to take wrestling more seriously in high school. Right before the Cadet European Championship my father said he’d let me continue if I got a medal or did good. In 2013 I became European champion for the first time and he told me I can do it a bit longer.”

Allowing his daughter to continue proved a wise decision, as a year later she became the Youth Olympic champion in Nanjing, China.

“He was really happy I had something that I loved and kept me out of trouble, and kept my mind on something. But the main goal was still doing good at school as that was the main reason for coming to Norway, so we could get a proper education.”

Grace Bullen: The entertainer

Since becoming Youth Olympic champion, Bullen’s achievements have been credited for putting Norwegian women’s wrestling on the map.

The 57-59kg fighter is renowned for signature helicopter moves, high energy attacking game and vicious underhooks.

The defining moment of her career to date came in 2018 at the U23 World Championships in Bucharest, Romania.

Just two weeks before, Bullen suffered a blow to her confidence when she failed to medal at the senior World Champs, having been emphatically eliminated from the 57kg division by eventual winner Rong Ninging from China.

But Bullen rebounded to put a superb run of form together, which saw her make the U-23 final in the 59kg category, where she would lock horns once more with Ningning.

But this time the plucky Norweigian shocked the world by coming from behind to defeat the heavy favourite, and become Norway's first U-23 world champion.

“The previous time we met I lost by 10 points and that was a real slap in the face,” Bullen said of her world championship clash against Ningning.

“It was like ‘You’re not good enough right now’.

I wanted to be more calm and not take unnecessary risks. So not doing as many leg attacks as I usually do as I love to entertain was kind of tough! Going in there was frightening but really exciting.”

Fighting for Olympic qualification

At the 2019 world champs, Bullen’s quarter-final exit meant she didn’t qualify her berth at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

While she was undoubtedly unlucky to be placed in a stacked bracket that included eventual winner and reigning Olympic champion Risako Kuwai, as well as multiple world medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye, Bullen was undoubtedly off her usual high standards.

“I’m not happy with that match because my body and my mind were not connected.

“My goal is to become so good at what I do, that the best in the world can’t even defend against it.” - Grace Bullen to United World Wrestling.

But Bullen once again showed her ability to bounce back from a tough loss by taking out the 2020 European Championships gold medal in Rome.

With her Tokyo Olympic qualification now dependent on her performance at the European Olympic Qualifiers, it is vital that she maintains her positive start to the year once wrestling resumes.

“I think a lot about being at the Games and, holding both of my flags and representing both South Sudan and Norway, no matter where I go I always think about competing at the Olympics.

“I like talking about it and not holding it in because I feel like that's something that can become reality in [Tokyo] 2021 or [Paris] 2024, and it will be nice to get there soon.

“It’s something that drives me every day at practice because I want that feeling. Therefore it’s good that it scares me as it pushes me forward.”

Grace Bullen was Norway's flag-bearer at the Baku 2015 European Games.

Life after wrestling

Having used wrestling as a way of overcoming her unsettled upbringing as a refugee, as well as episodes of racism during her career, Bullen is certain that she wants to stay involved in the sport after retiring.

“I know I will stay in wrestling somehow,” the two-time European champion revealed. “I’ll probably go back to Africa and teach.

“We need more people in the sport, we need more girls in this sport. So I’m willing to spend the rest of my life just teaching people about this amazing sport.”

The South Sudanese-Nowegian wrestler is undoubtedly an inspiration on and off the mat. She is odds on to make the cut for Tokyo 2020, but even if she doesn’t make it to the Olympics this time, her place is secure in the hearts of all wrestling fans for having already triumphed in the face of life’s adversity.