Battling the Odds – The Phenomenal Ascent of Leigh Jaynes-Provisor

Margo Lovett
  • Leigh took up wrestling, and her determination and passion made her the 2015 World Bronze Medalist in women’s freestyle wrestling, and a competitor for Team USA at 2007, 2012, and 2015 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships. She is also a U.S. Army veteran.
Reading Time: 16 minutes

I was challenged to wrestle; I was dared to wrestle. The coach came over to me in the cafeteria and said,” You always have a scowl on your face, and you look like you’re ready to fight somebody. How about you try wrestling? I don’t think you’ll last two weeks with that attitude.”

The legendary poet Maya Angelou once said, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential.” Leigh Jaynes-Provisor was born with the immense potential to convert adversity into success. Naysayers are telling the mother of 35-odd years to retire, but Leigh has always marched to her drummer, in her own words. She is changing the game for wrestlers everywhere by pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming ‘faster, higher, stronger’ by training for the next Olympic games at an age conventionally associated with an exit from the game. Leigh had a rocky childhood spent in a group home because of unstable parents.

Her father, a Vietnam war veteran, struggled with drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder and her mother could barely support the family financially. Leigh opted to get emancipated early in life, and at the fragile age of 16, she was fending for herself by taking up jobs and finding shelter wherever possible. The world today knows Leigh as a wrestling champion, but her indomitable spirit in the ring was forged by fire. She overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles with sheer will to succeed and change her life’s circumstances.

What started as a high school dare by her coach turned into a lifelong career and eventually her life’s mission. Leigh took up wrestling, and her determination and passion made her the 2015 World Bronze Medalist in women’s freestyle wrestling, and a competitor for Team USA at 2007, 2012, and 2015 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships. She is also a U.S. Army veteran and credits their intense training regimen as a crucial ingredient to her success. Today, Leigh is a wrestler, mother, and wife and continues to chase her Olympic dream fearlessly.

Welcome, Leigh Jaynes!

Thank you for giving me this opportunity, Margo to share my story. Every time an Olympic athlete or anybody gets a platform to reach out to people and to hopefully inspire them, to touch their lives in some way – I always like to be able to be a part of that. Because sometimes when you are training, you get so involved in self-improvement and your internal motivation and your headspace that you don’t get a chance to make sure that our purpose is being laid upon the world. It is a benefit to everybody around you that your light is shining on everybody so I am very grateful and appreciate this opportunity.

Will you take us back to the beginning – what did those beginning days look like so that our listeners will understand why I’m cheering for you every step of the way?

I was born in New Jersey, and I was in a single parent situation. My father had already been in and out of jail for cocaine trafficking and two other violations. So he wasn’t a part of my early childhood. My mother raised me up until I was 11 years old when there was a massive breakdown in the family structure, and I was placed under the care of the Youth and Family services which now I know is not uncommon in New Jersey. But as an 11-year-old child, still in middle school to become a ward of the state was incredibly traumatic and I wasn’t sure why things were happening that way and why my family was targeted for crisis intervention. Now I’m older, and I understand a lot more about the support that my mom reached out for when she needed help and how the division of Youth and Family Services may have misinterpreted and not helped in a way that my mom had initially expected.

So, a deterioration of my family may have been caused instead of the creation of a support system. My brother was sent to a group home in Borghese, New Jersey and I was placed in Stepping Stones Group Home on Phillips Road, and that’s where I spent my high school years. High school is hard enough. You’re trying to figure out your identity, you’re learning how to get along and not get along with people, there are lots of cliques, activities and such and I so badly wanted to crawl under a rock – it was so incredibly painful. I battled with so many emotions while trying to be successful at the same time. 

At that time I determined that the only way to beat or circumvent the system or to rise above it was to participate in school and be as good in the activities that I chose to be a part of. I tried to be as normal as possible. It was simple things – the government van that would drop us off outside of the high school – I asked them to please drop me off down the street and give me the dignity to walk in without people seeing me get out of a special van. I would try to do all my school work and make sure that I got straight A’s and I ended up getting ‘Student of the Month’ once or twice. I participated in literally every activity that I could get my hands on. I ran track, and I cheerleaded to stay involved. The last thing I was challenged to do as a high school senior was interesting.

I didn’t have a winter sport, and I was in a youth group that happened to be led by the high school wrestling coach. I had a bad attitude, I always had a scowl on my face, and I was always arguing, fighting and getting into altercations. While I had a healthy respect for authority being under the system, I still had problems and issues that I wasn’t able to express to everyone and that not everybody understood. I emancipated at 16, and so I was living in and out of houses that would take the boarding money from the state. I was challenged to wrestle; I was dared to wrestle. The coach came over to me in the cafeteria and said,” You always have a scowl on your face, and you look like you’re ready to fight somebody. How about you try wrestling? I don’t think you’ll last two weeks with that attitude.”

Wow, what a dare!

That was the start of it. That challenge changed my life forever. You know that at this point the toughness attitude was a facade. I was completely broken and devastated. I had to put on a brave face for everybody so that they didn’t know how damaged I was at the time. I walked up to the wrestling room, and I was terrified. I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” I looked through the window, and the walls were sweating. There was condensation, and it looked like it was 150 degrees in there – the coaches were shouting, and people are throwing each other all over the place. I told myself that I had accepted the challenge and I am not going to turn around now. So I took my first steps as a high school senior in the wrestling room.

What was that like – was the coach surprised that you came through?

I think that the head coach was surprised. At the time, it was unheard of to have girls in New Jersey participating in wrestling because it was a co-ed team and I was participating against boys. So there was a healthy skepticism – what is she here for, what’s the reason, the purpose, where’s she going to go from here, and is she going to be a distraction? That’s just within my room. The conversation that took place outside of wrestling was that – you’re doing this just for attention, it’s just a phase, and what kind of wrestling is this, and you’re wrestling around with the boys. When they apply those connotations, they have never seen me training, the struggles, and the character-building element that should be offered to both boys and girls. I think that the divine intervention that occurred when that coach challenged me to a sport like wrestling unknowing of my life’s circumstances at the time – it was exactly what I needed. I got taken down, probably a million times, and a million times I had to stand back up again. And there’s one time out of my high school year that I got my hand raised, but that was enough hope to know that if I might win. 

Taken down a million times, and you got your hand raised one time – that is sheer strength! You were an emancipated minor, and you were working with that.  It was not like you won every match – you did the inside work to keep going, and was it enough to fuel you?

Going to the group home, going through the early challenges, and when people are telling you that you are chronically depressed or appositionally defiant or giving you labels – it challenged me to take a look and say, ‘Am I those things? Do I need to change? Do I need to work harder? What do I need to do not to be the things that they say?’ Of course, did think that “I am depressed. I have no parents. All of a sudden, I am a ward of the state. And now at 16, I’m on my own when my brain has not scientifically even fully developed, some would say.” Of course, obviously. Maybe I was all of the things they said I was, but I didn’t feel that way. I felt that I was given a very challenging set of circumstances and it was going to take me a lot longer to win or get my hand raised than other people who were given a more solid foundation or an easier path than I was. I was going to have to find a way. I’m grateful for the process now. Looking back, I think I was very insightful for my age, and it could have been the opposite.

It sounds to me that God’s grace just took you through at that tender age. You are on a trajectory that says I’m all in! Take us onto how a person becomes a part of the Olympic team? How is it that you had that in your sights? Tell us about that journey.

You mentioned God’s grace, and I can’t even express to you how clear it is in my life. Opportunity, inspiration, motivation, challenge – it was like night and day – it was so easy for me to make those decisions. I think it’s also because I was open and willing to take the risk, the challenge, and the leap of faith to see where it takes me. My path was pretty direct. After high school wrestling against boys, we were informed of a national championship in Michigan that was an all-girls competition. And I didn’t know it at the time, but New Jersey is an excellent state for wrestling.

We have a strong wrestling pedigree, and it turns out I was pretty good even though I lost all my matches but one against boys. And so I went out there, and I placed All-American, and from there All-Americans were put in the USA Wrestling Magazine and colleges that were starting women’s wrestling scholarship teams recruited from that magazine. I was recruited, and I went to work for my high school coach and his family at Long Beach Island in New Jersey for the summer. I received a phone call from my high school coach’s wife, and she said, “I have some good news for you. You’re going to college!” And they said you’re going to Missouri. They paid my friend Kelly Robbins to drop me off to college. I received an academic scholarship because of my grades and an athletic scholarship as well. I was left with a little bit of remaining balance.

I didn’t have a lot of guidance so I feel like I would have got a little bit more financial aid had we had the proper documentation for a ward of the state. I was happy to be there and get an opportunity to continue my education and get a degree. That was important to me, and I got to continue my wrestling journey with other women who wrestled. Every time I land in a new place I look around in awe and gratefulness. Maybe some people have their sights set on Ivy League colleges but for me, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was only trying to navigate. I was very grateful to receive a call from Missouri Valley College. Because of my gratefulness, I worked as hard as humanly possible to represent the school that gave me that opportunity to the best of my ability. To cover my remaining balance, I joined the Army.

I needed a lot of structure. I was like a little bit of a wild animal. I was not very ‘domesticated.’ I just roamed and did whatever I wanted to do without consequence. I could use a little bit of discipline and a little bit more money. I enlisted in the Army as a combat medic. I served at the 325th Field Hospital in Independence, Missouri doing drill duty while continuing at Missouri Valley College. My first two years, I was pretty bad at wrestling, and I didn’t win many matches. But after I joined the Army, I believe the discipline and the peace of mind of the financial aspect that the Army gave me, helped me become a two-time All-American and College National champion at my last year.

Episode 9: Unforgettable Story with Leigh Jaynes

Sounds like things were lining up – your mind shifted in some way – do you agree with that, Leigh?

Definitely. I had already been independent for two years prior to arriving in college. I didn’t get the impact of the freedom that maybe some of my teammates and classmates felt enticed by. I felt that the path of success for me would be tightening the reins a bit on myself and remaining focused. If I failed, there would be no safety net. If I went to jail or flunked out, I was responsible for my actions. I was very afraid at the time to fail. When I lost in matches, it would take me a lot of time to recover from failure and loss because I knew how my life depended on it.

The story is just mounting up. Thank you for serving the country for a total of 14 years in the Army, is it?

I did about 12 years – some of it as active duty and some as a reservist. I ended up doing the ROTC program so that they could pay for my taking a Masters degree. I ended up getting a Master’s which is where my business idea came from during my business management classes. I was commissioned for an officer in the United States Army in the medical service’s core and received my Master’s degree from Missouri Valley College at the same time.

Somebody better make a movie on you! You are an officer in the Army, you got your Master’s and so take us onto what happens in 2015?

In my last year, I did win every single match. Once I commissioned, we had an officer who told me that the Army has a World Class Athlete Program and they provide active-duty pay for athletes to achieve their goals of becoming world and Olympic champions while they represent the United States and the United States Army. And they have very successful women on their team who were Iris Smith, a World champion and Tina George; a two-times World silver medalist. I was blown away, and I had this opportunity now. I went to Nationals that year, and I wrestled Tina George in the first round.

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I panicked, and I was so excited that I lost my next match. I wrestled Tina George for third place and ended up fourth. She is a champion and years later I saw a picture of her and me and realized she was still bitter about that loss because she had drawn armpit hair under my arm! I placed fourth, and that qualified me to become a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center. They provide room, board, and the best food ever and I was there for almost ten years.

I arrived at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado because of my savings and the financial support of the Army. As I drove through the gate, the excitement overwhelmed me as I saw the rings and got my credentials. Sherry, a wonderful woman who works there and helps athletes find their way, showed me around and I immediately knew that I would make the Olympic team and I would make this opportunity work with a lot of gratitude, motivation, and excitement. Till this point, I had never looked back, I just kept climbing, and that’s how my Olympic journey began. I won Nationals and the Women’s Senior Open the following year. I qualified for the World Class Athlete Program, and through it, I was able to represent my country all over the world, as well as train, practice, and participate in Team USA. I made seven consecutive National teams at that point. I won two National championships and made two World teams prior to 2015. There was a shift in 2015 in my mindset and thought process because I had lost two times in 2007 and 2012 World championships and at the time I was afraid to make decisions outside the normal structure of practice. When the 2015 World championships came along, I was in my mid-30’s, and I had nothing to lose by making my own decisions that my heart and body said I needed to make – not without a lot of risk by my coaches both at the Olympic Training Center and Army.

For the first time in five or six years, I was able to make some decisions for myself pertaining to my preparations for the next World championships. After my failure to make the team and medal at the 2012 Olympics I got married and started a family. My daughter Evelyn was born in 2013. I was in a lonely situation. I came back from having a child, and nobody had any expectations for me to participate and win anything. I failed previously, so the pressure was a false pressure because I thought I was committed and that I was doing everything right for the first World championships, but I failed at it. So here’s an opportunity for me to change myself and to change my thought process once again and to reinvent myself as a mom and a wife and to go out there and compete for fun. In Las Vegas, all of my friends, college team and the Army were there to watch, and all I could think about was about how much fun I was having. Another defining factor was that my training partner Will Smith is a profound Christian.

His wife supported him and me despite it not being easy to be in a co-ed partnership. His faith, the way he approached life and their prayers, good words, and positive thoughts and energy helped inspire me. They selflessly gave me the things that I needed to prepare for that competition, and I went in with a smile on my face. I was excited to participate. I was blown away, excited, and grateful to be able to wrestle at 35 years after having a baby in front of my friends and family. My dad was there for the first time. He was crying in the stands. I go out there, and I win my first match which was my first win at a World championship. I won the second match as well against an unknown opponent at the time who I found out later was a European World champion and winner of multiple Grands Prix. I got caught and pinned in my third match in the semifinals against Herhel from Ukraine who later failed her drug test from meldonium.

But that’s not why I lost. I lost because I got caught and I was in a poor position. I decided to put it behind me. I made a mistake, and I needed to get back up. There was no time to be devastated like I used to be. If you cry yourself to the next match, you will not have enough energy to participate. That is when I decided just to put that match away and keep going. If I continued to be down in the dumps, I would lose the next one. So that was a big difference. I went into the third round, and my daughter would not let me put her down. People were urging my husband – “Take the baby! Take her! She [Leigh] needs to get ready!” – so my arms were tied, and my daughter was warming up with me! I go out there, and I just have enough energy to achieve a last-second win against the [opponent] from Azerbaijan, and that’s it – I am a World medalist!

I didn’t even know how to feel! Obviously, I was excited, but I was also surprised and couldn’t believe that this was happening to me! After everything that I have been through I had actually won a medal! The medal put the USA on the podium that year in team points and catapulted the USA to third place in the World Championships so I was able to help my team too, and that was important.

You speak of challenges, and you met the challenges in your life. You reinvented yourself and shifted your mindset so Leigh Jaynes what is on the horizon now? You mentioned that you had a business idea, are you working on that right now?

Women’s wrestling is really new and because of that so I noticed that we didn’t have For example, in gymnastics, gymnasts wear a leotard or a shimmery outfit that fits like a glove and all the gymnasts look very professional. That’s their culture. However, in women’s wrestling, we were still wearing men’s uniforms and clothes because it’s a male-dominated sport. During my Master’s I decided to survey women wrestlers for my Business project to see what they wanted. The wrestling singlet is a spandex suit that we wear when we compete. At the time it was very low-cut underneath the arms, and the neckline was very low.

As you can imagine it wasn’t a very good image to put on while wrestling when you’re trying to gain acceptance and respect. So I ended up continuing my project and reaching out to companies that manufacture wrestling gear. Some of them had very small lines of one or two very plain stock singlets, but there was nothing customized that could help wrestlers match a team. One company named Brute agreed to help me produce a new women’s wrestling clothing line. I worked diligently for about a year with Bruce and I still have them as partners to create a women’s wrestling singlet to could be customized to match their boys’ team so that the women could go out and focus on what was most important – the competition. No longer do women have to worry about the inappropriateness of an outfit while wrestling. So that’s how it started.

Now I own Chick Wrestler LOC, and I have one partner. I produce my own girls’ wrestling singlets as well as other apparel such as head caps. I also have a program where I produce a girls singlet that allows girls who are participating in boys teams to match their boys’ team costumes cost-effectively. It’s a great program called ‘Copycat.’ We also have a ‘Maia’ program that helps developing organizations wanting to build their girls wrestling community. It is a profit share program that allows them to create and design a singlet for purchase. Half of the profit goes back to the organization to help build its girls program to provide the resources. Chick Wrestler is a girl’s wrestling apparel company. I want to fill every need, so I welcome anybody reaching out with ideas. My mission is to support the growing needs of girls wrestling and to be able to troubleshoot any problem that girls might have. Women should not have to worry about low necklines or see-through singlets.

Thoughts like that can only come from an insider. You represent yourself very well as well as the USA. You are now representing the current and next generation of female wrestlers. Thank you, Leigh Jaynes, for sharing your awesome story! Just one last question – how does a person get in touch with you?

I have a website – leighjaynes.com – which is my personal website. I am most active on Instagram @Chick_Wrestler. If anybody needs help with women’s wrestling, do reach out!

Wrestling has long been an exclusively men’s club. Leigh Jaynes has established herself as a formidable force in the wrestling and is showing women all over the world that they can carve a niche for themselves too if they have the drive. Leigh has taken each challenge life has thrown her way to emerge a winner. But a true winner creates an environment that helps everyone succeed. By making the rocky road of women’s wrestling a little smoother for women everywhere, Leigh has distinguished herself a true champion of the game.

WomELLE Issue 18 (WomLEAD)
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