The six-time frestyle wrestling world championship medallist and Olympic bronze medallist will carry Sweden's hopes at her fourth Olympic Games in 2021 where she's out to show she's at the top of her game and more
Tears of joy. Relief. Peace of mind.
That’s how Sweden’s top wrestling star Sofia Mattsson described her emotions after nabbing her spot for Tokyo 2020 last March during the European Olympic qualifiers in Budapest, Hungary where she defeated Stalvira Orshush of Russia in the 53kg class.
“My dream was to compete in Tokyo and the wait has been so long. So now I finally can go home, and [can] just make a plan and work without feeling this kind of stress in my head,” Mattsson said in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
This will be Mattsson’s fourth time representing Sweden at the Olympic Games with expectations at an all-time high. After winning a bronze medal at Rio 2016 – her first Olympic medal since her debut – there's pressure on all sides to repeat or surpass her past Olympic victory.
But not for Mattsson who's taking it all in stride.
"Well, having a [Rio] medal in my bag, I just feel like if I didn't have it, I would be more nervous and more stressed because I [already] have this long career and I have now all the medals from the championships."
Having qualified for the Games now gives Mattsson an additional boost for Tokyo, where she's already brewing her game plan.
“I think I am the same kind of athlete, each and every time I step on the mat, I really want to win,” she reiterated.
With six world championship medals under her belt plus an Olympic one, she’s far from being complacent and only wants to be at her best in Tokyo.
“Right now I'm doing a lot of hard training and I train a little bit outdoors. I do running, I do lifting. I do long sessions on the wrestling mat and try to build up my physique a little bit. And after that I will get into more and more of wrestling,” Mattsson said.
Carrying the legacy of the nation
As a female wrestler in Sweden, Mattsson carries a lot of tradition on her shoulders and more.
Sweden has a long history in the sport of wrestling and won its first gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in London 1908 Games. In the 20th and 21st century, Sweden has amassed 28 Olympic golds, 27 silvers and 31 bronze medals in both Greco-Roman and freestyle.
While Greco-Roman wrestling remains a more popular sport in Sweden, women freestyle wrestlers have already been making a name for themselves on the international circuit. But the Olympics took a longer road for women. In fact, Mattsson's bronze from Rio 2016 was just the second medal won by a Swedish female wrestler at the Olympic Games, following teammate Jenny Fransson’s historic win in the same Games.
But Mattsson believes that female wrestlers from Sweden are at the top of their game and will continue to make a mark. And not just in the Olympics but around the world.
“It’s true we have a very big tradition of Greco Roman, but we also had some success on the women's side as well. For example, we have our head coach now for the Sweden wrestling team, Sara Eriksson, who won the World Championship two times. But, yeah, it's always been more men practising [wrestling] but now we are very strong also on the freestyle wrestling side,” Mattsson said.
She explains that women's wrestling has managed to grow on its own because they were given the right tools to begin with.
“So many of the factors that I compete with today are still in the team. [For example] those young girls who started wrestling in the same club from up north, we have followed [each other] since we were little kids until now. Some of us have kids and some of us study and have a job, but we are still wrestling,” Mattsson said.
Swedish wrestler Sofia Mattsson talks to Tokyo 2020 about qualifying for her fourth Olympic Games.
The female tradition
There are hundred wrestling clubs around the country which provide opportunities for future generation of wrestling stars, male or female. Mattsson - who herself started wrestling at a very young age - attributes much of her success from the training and development she gained from her local wrestling club.
“I also learnt the core values that if you want to become a good wrestler, it's hard work and there are no shortcuts. You need to do the hard work.”
Mattsson hasn't stopped wrestling since the age of six.
And from the time she won her first bronze medal at the 2007 European Championships, she has been a fixture at the most prestigious wrestling meets. No competition – whether it is the European Championships, World Championships or even in her last three Olympic Games (Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016) – would be complete without Mattsson’s presence on the mat.
Each and every time I step on the mat, I really want to win.
As world no 1 in the 53kg class, Mattsson is held in high esteem and feared by her opponents. Those who defeat Mattsson breathe a sigh of relief when they win over the Swedish champ.
“She is a six-time World Championships medallist and won the bronze in Rio. She is a strong opponent and dominates her weight category,” Vinesh Phogat, who beat Mattsson in the 2019 World Championships, told India's The Tribune before the competition.
However, Mattsson remains humble about her accomplishments and continues to acknowledge those who have helped her in her athletic journey.
“Well, the key for me was I had a great trainers and they have given me a lot of tools to work with and I started to get the biggest ground to stand on from the start. They knew what was necessary to get to the top and what I needed to get there."
A different type of fighter at Tokyo 2020
Two decades on, Mattsson is still at the pinnacle of success. But there’s also something else she prizes more: being a mother.
“For me, as I have a family now, the world has become bigger before. The world was like quite small. That was what the sports world was - the training arena. Now I have more things in my world which I'm really happy about because that makes me a kind of bit more relaxed when I step into the mat,” Mattsson said.
This new phase in her life also helps her look at her career in a different light especially now that she is a veteran athlete. Known for giving 110 per cent in her training, Mattsson now finds herself looking more at what could truly serve her best.
“I need to remind myself that, OK, now I am little bit older, but it takes a little bit longer to recover between the sessions. So I need to focus a lot of to do the training with quality and that everything I do, I need to [ask myself] ‘So why am I doing this? Why is this benefiting me? Because I need to focus on the quality a lot more.”
Even her view about winning and losing, the ups and downs of being an athlete, has truly evolved. When she lost to Phogat at the 2019 World Championships, she took away the lessons, and not the heartbreak.
"I think that's something you're getting better at as you get older and you have to face all of those challenges. And I think the most important thing when when you lose a match or something, not go as planned, is to get back home and really, really try to break it down."
"If you want a different result, you need to change your plan and really look at the small pieces [and ask] 'what did I do wrong?' and then each and every day and focus on those things and try and improve in the areas where it didn't work," she said.
© Jack Mikrut Dagens Industri/SOK
This is the kind of winning mindset Mattsson carries for her fourth consecutive Olympic Games. And now with the Games inching closer, Mattsson remains confident about her chances.
"I'm not stressed about [it]. I just feel like getting a new medal would make me super happy. And I think that's a good feeling to have," the 31-year old said.
More than anything, Mattsson is proud to be carrying Sweden's flag once more in the Games.
"I think when I step in the mat in Olympics, I just feel like I'm competing for Sweden and that we are all a whole team together. And everyone is with you on the journey and for the people who have supported you for such a long time - and it's huge."
"It's the biggest event you can participate in as an athlete. So of course, you want to do good. And there's only one chance every four years. So, yeah, I think it's the whole atmosphere around it and [with] the Swedish people, we are all one team when it comes to the Olympics."
Will Mattsson win another medal for Sweden at Tokyo 2020?
Whatever happens, Mattsson already holds the crown for Sweden, and as a trailblazer of the sport, one who will be emulated by future generations of female wrestlers.
Watch Mattsson in action when wrestling lights the Olympic stage from 1 to 7 August Makuhari Messe Hall A.