Beat the Streets alumni are known to fight hard and achieve a great deal, but it’s not every day their ambitions send them all the way to Africa. Sara Andresen is living proof that if you’ve made it here, you can make it anywhere.
Andresen graduated from Hunter College High School and now studies political science and international relations at UMass Amherst. She chose those fields as someone with a love of travel and the diverse cultures of the globe. Being mixed race herself, she felt fortunate to meet so many people of different backgrounds growing up here. “ I simply love seeing the way other people see the world,” Andresen said.
It was this interest that led her to the International Student Volunteers, an organization that places students in community development programs in underdeveloped areas. They connected Andresen with VA 32, a nonprofit that works to create sustainable environmental and community improvement projects in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
Andresen spent five weeks traveling between South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana. Most of this time was in South Africa rebuilding a school in a small village called Cefani, located near the city of East London.
“The children within the community would play with us while we worked,” Andresen said, “so they could also be involved in the improvement of their own community while sharing their interests and culture with us.” The locals taught Andresen and the others about their politics, history and language.
“Although we traveled there to give to their community,” said Andresen, referencing the volunteering in soup kitchens that she and her compatriots also did, “ I believe most volunteers found that they gained much more in return by learning about new ideas and lifestyles that are less rooted in such a materialistic focus of living.”
Andresen picked up wrestling in her sophomore year of high school. “ I did gymnastics for about ten years when I decided it was time for a change of pace and I found myself at wrestling practice with my friend Cece.” Even after just one year of wrestling, she felt as if she had been wrestling her entire life. The sport came naturally to her: “Tenacity and clean technique in combination with a healthy lifestyle and a family-like team? What’s not to like?”
One of the memorable moments BTS has helped provide was meeting her favorite wrestler, Helen Maroulis, who just became the first U.S. woman to win a wrestling gold at the Rio Olympics. Andresen met Maroulis at a Beat the Streets Gala, where she briefly warmed up with her prior to Maroulis’ exhibition matches. Andresen had no idea that she was practicing with a future Olympic champion.
“I didn’t know who she was at the time, but by the end of the night when I saw her match I made it my business to figure it out.” Maroulis’ match left a strong impression on Andresen, who called it “the most spectacular match I had ever seen.”
“She was so fast and had perfect technique, every time I see her wrestle it reminds me of why I started doing it in the first place,” Andresen said. Andresen even watched Maroulis’ underdog triumph against Japan’s Saori Yoshida, the three-time reigning Olympic champion, with fellow wrestling alumni at an event hosted by BTS. “Her Olympic victory was in the making for a long time, I’ve been rooting for her since that first day.”
Andresen is a big believer in the old wrestler’s motto, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” “
“Something that all wrestlers have in common is the will to fight back, persevere and keep working to achieve your goal,” Andresen said. “Wrestling has defined my lifestyle in such a way that there is no goal that I can see with an impossible fate. All goals take time and patience, but that they are achievable if you are willing to put in the work for it whether it’s for opportunities to wrestle, study, travel or for a job.”
She also admires the sport for the way that it is especially empowering for young women. “The change that I have seen in my teammates as a captain have been astronomical. Their confidence has allowed them to not only feel comfortable with their bodies, but also to trust in their minds and goals despite anything that the media or social convention has taught them.”
When she was serving others in Africa, Andresen still managed to find the time to enjoy the scenery. She traveled to Johannesburg, Magaliesburg, Blyde River Canyon and the Kruger National Park in South Africa. “I went on safari rides and went cliff jumping, hiking, caving and walking with elephants.” Her group stopped by an orphanage in Swaziland, a country where more than 50% of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, and donated food, clothes and toys while playing with the kids and learning about their culture.
In Mozambique, Andresen found the time to go surfing and scuba diving in addition to helping to clean a beach for Nelson Mandela Day, a day named to honor the legendary South African freedom fighter. “I went on a two day safari in Botswana camping overnight in Chobe National Park, went white water rafting down the Zambezi River, visited Victoria Falls and went bungee jumping in Zambia. It was a fantastic trip filled with wonderful people, new experiences and new attitudes on life.”
Andresen’s advice to current BTS members is to take advantage of every opportunity that is available. “There is so much that you can do to succeed if you just take it upon yourself to seek it out.” Even a simple google search or trip to the guidance counselor, she says, can expand your horizons in ways you never thought possible.
“There are so many scholarships, internships and colleges that would love to have driven people like BTS kids, they just need to be willing to find what’s out there for them.”