Meet the Match

A Champion Wrestler Fights for Brazilian Women

Aline Silva was exhausted, but she had to keep diving for her opponent’s legs. Another takedown might bring her closer to history. It was the semifinals of the 2014 World Wrestling Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and she stood across the mat from Ochirbatyn Burmaa, a dozen-time Asian and international medalist from Mongolia. Aline was one win away from earning her place as the first Brazilian wrestler—male or female—to medal at a world championship.

“When you’re wrestling at that level you’re so tired,” Aline says. “You’re fighting your brain: ‘Don’t stop! Don’t give up! You can do it!’ Wrestlers can never give up.”

Aline didn’t give up. She won the match and earned her place in the finals, where she narrowly lost to American Adeline Gray, a gold medalist at the last two world championships. That evening in Uzbekistan, Aline made history.

The medals podium, however, is not where Aline’s story began. Raised by a hardworking single mother in Sao Paulo, at a young age she found herself hanging out with the wrong crowd. Her lifestyle led to many late and scary nights for Aline’s mother and her family.

“Without supervision, I started skipping school and spending most of my time on the streets,” Aline says. “I looked older than my age, so I hung out with the older kids. We smoked cigarettes and drank. I didn’t know kids did these things. I was 11 years old. But I wanted to be a part of the group.”

Afraid of what might happen to her daughter, Aline’s mother transferred her daughter to a new school, where she discovered judo and wrestling.

Finding a positive outlet through sports, Aline transformed herself into a promising Olympic hopeful. In 2006, she won her first gold medal at Brazil’s national junior championships, followed by a silver medal at the Pan-American Games in 2011. She finished on the podium in several other national and continental tournaments before her ultimate triumph at worlds.

“When I won the silver medal in Uzbekistan, I understood I would never again doubt myself,” Aline says. “I would never give up on my dreams.”

Aline qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished ninth in the women’s 75kg category, losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual bronze medalist. Aline was devastated, but still received the applause of the crowd. The support she received kept the dream from slipping away from her.

As she experienced her own transformation, Aline’s eyes opened to the millions of Brazilian girls wandering aimlessly through life. Poverty, domestic violence, pay inequality and societal stereotypes of women who play sports remain significant challenges in the country. A push toward gender equality over the past decade has seen women with greater access to education and economic empowerment, but Brazil still ranks outside of the top 100 in female political representation, and has been called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman for its high rates of gender violence and female homicide.

Aline says it’s as if “girls are never given the chance to start dreaming.” As someone who personally knows the powerful role sport can play in changing the course and expectation of women’s lives, she feels called to act.

“People laugh when I tell them that at the Olympics the Brazilian teams get together and say, ‘We must fight like girls, not men,’” Aline says. “Have you ever seen little girls fight? They’re tough! We need to remind women how tough they really are inside.”

Aline is already a role model to millions of girls across Brazil. She and her mother have created an association, Guerreiras na Luta (Women Warriors in the Fight) to expand her message of empowering girls through sports. Through this association, they work to provide wrestling classes for girls and women. Aline, who studied cosmetology and esthetics and is a sergeant in the Brazilian Navy, also teaches professional skills that will help women become economically independent.

“I didn’t win these medals alone,” Aline says. “My mom tells me every time I give a speech the people ask her, ‘How do you feel about your daughter?’ She answers with a big smile. She is proud and happy. My winning is her winning. Despite everyone who doubted, she could raise me to be a success.”

With a dream of extending her triumphs to girls across her country, Aline is partnered with mentor Julie Eddleman, global client partner for Google, who has been involved with the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program since 2012. Julie has previously mentored four Brazilians as part of the GSMP—Cassia Damiani (2012), Daniela Castro (2013), Paula Korsakas (2014), and Maíra Liguori (2016). A former athlete herself, she is among the United States’ most knowledgeable and prominent marketing and branding experts, and has helped Aline develop important management, fundraising, and business skills for her association. With Julie’s guidance, Aline’s dream of impacting millions of girls across Brazil through sports is steadily becoming a reality.

Mentor Match