Collegiate stars are making a leap from the track to the turnbuckle
A DyeStat story by Dave Devine
In an otherwise empty wrestling ring, Anna Keefer lay prone on the mat, staring at the ceiling.
It might have been tempting to pause there, under the glare of the house lights. Take a beat, ponder the improbability of her situation. But Keefer had no time to reflect. No time to appreciate this fleeting stillness in an otherwise chaotic day. Not even a moment to consider, yet again, what on earth she was doing here.
Here in this wrestling ring. In Nashville, Tennessee.
Auditioning to become a professional wrestler.
Because any second now, a whistle would sound, and Keefer would need to be up and moving again. Which, unlike body slams and piledrivers, was something she was actually good at — moving.
Keefer was a star sprinter and an All-American long jumper from the University of North Carolina, only two months removed from her May 2022 graduation, when she traveled to Nashville for this three-day tryout at the invitation of World Wrestling Entertainment. One of 50 recent collegiate grads recruited by WWE to audition as part of SummerSlam 2022, Keefer encountered 12-hour days packed with a variety of physical and mental challenges which somehow both closely mirrored and wildly deviated from her experience as a collegiate athlete.
And now, near the end of the second day, she’d advanced to the final round of an assessment called the “In-Ring Shuttle Run.”
It was a fairly rudimentary test for an aspiring wrestler: Begin flat on your back in the ring, spring up at the chirp of a whistle, sprint across the ring and hit the far rope, propel off the rope, barrel across to the opposite side, rebound again off the ropes, and then cross the finish line for a recorded time.
The field of 50 had been narrowed to five finalists: Keefer and four male recruits. She was the last to go.
The time to beat: 5 seconds.
While much of the preceding 48 hours had felt perplexingly foreign to this lifelong track athlete, this part of it — competing against the boys — was something she’d been doing her entire life. Whether in fourth grade gym class or middle school recess, whenever there was a chance to race, Keefer lined up and took on all comers. In the Minnesota cul-de-sac where she grew up, neighborhood kids would congregate in one backyard or another for pick-up football; Anna never worried about waiting to be chosen when the teams were…
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