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Yelena Makoyed Q&A: Journey to North Central, eye-opening Olympic Trials, having a “shark face”

by Joe Wedra, USA Wrestling

Photo of Yelena Makoyed by Tony Rotundo

This year, will interview one collegiate wrestling athlete each Thursday as a part of a new Q&A series for the 2021-22 college wrestling season. Stay tuned each Thursday for a new feature, spotlighting these student-athletes both on and off the mat.

This week, we talked with U.S. National team member Yelena Makoyed about her journey to the highest level of wrestling. Below, she talks about being introduced to the sport in high school, making the decision to go to North Central and embracing the “shark face”.
Makoyed also discusses her experience at the Tokyo Olympic Trials and her key motivation moving forward.

Q: What was your high school experience like, wrestling out of Bella Vista in California? Did you know you were talented right away and what was that experience like for you?

A: I decided to join wrestling in my freshman year of high school, and one thing that really got me into it was my coach. Even to this day, I always stress that the relationship between the coach and athlete is so important. One thing that brought me into the sport was the coach at my high school. You could tell he was very passionate about the sport. He was so welcoming and he just welcomed me with open arms into wrestling.
I started wrestling and didn’t really like it at first because it was hard and really awkward. I was one of the only girls on the team, and it was the men’s team, so it was literally just me, Alex Hedrick and another friend who didn’t know much about wrestling either. So I had to wrestle against just some really good guys, and I had no idea what I was doing. It made me want to quit. But, there was just something about it where I just wanted to keep on going. I looked at the people around me and realized they’re good at this. Alex was good, and if all of these people can succeed in this sport, so could I. That’s truthfully all it was.
I continued, and I kind of understood the sport really well. I know I started a bit late, but I kind of just “got it”. And that goes with all sports – they just come easily to me. I know for some people it’s academics, or cooking, or something. But for me, sports just come easy to me. I really understood wrestling and I had a good feel when I first started.
Q: After having success in high school, what was the process of choosing to go to North Central like?
A: It was definitely a no-brainer. Sometimes, I’m really impulsive with my choices. And sometimes, they turn out really good and I say thank God I didn’t put more thought into this, because who knows where else I would’ve went. This choice, it was an impulsive decision that I made. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after I graduated high school.
Coach Joe [Norton] called me, started recruiting me and he was just really persistent… No one else was really calling me. There were some, but they weren’t as persistent or passionate as Coach Joe. So, I decided to go to North Central and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Q: What is it like to be able to work with the coaching staff there at North Central and what it’s like to have that energy around all the time?
A: Both Coach Joe and Coach (Zach) Cook, they’ve been there from the beginning. They’ve been fighting for this program for such a long time, especially during COVID when everything was getting shut down. They fought so hard to keep us going and to have us train. It’s great energy every time I go into the room. You can never tell if they’re having a bad day.
We talk about “shark face” all the time, like having a shark face. If you look at a shark, it has the same face all the time. No matter if it’s cruising through the sea or if it’s ready to attack, it always have the same exact face. So we stress that in the room all the time. Whether your day is amazing or if something really bad happened, you always have the same exact face and the same attitude. That’s how our coaches are.
Coach Cook’s family just had a baby, and we never hear him complaining about staying up all night, or anything. Coach Joe has a wife, a dog, a lot of things going on with having two huge teams here. We have a team of like 40 girls now, and he’s also taking care of the men’s team. It’s very stressful, but we never hear them complaining. They’re always the same, super consistent every single day in the wrestling room. It’s great because we know what we’re going to get. That’s what I really love about our coaches.
Q: You had a strong finish at the Olympic Team Trials – what was that experience like for you now looking back?
A: I don’t think I was as prepared for that tournament as I should have been. I think it was a weird year, coming out of COVID, getting COVID… it was one of the biggest tournaments that I’ve ever been to and I just wasn’t used to the big stage. There were so many people watching. I am really fresh and new to this stuff, so I was pretty nervous.
One thing I think that redeemed me a bit was the World Team Trials, where I did pretty good. I ended up beating some of the people I lost to at the Olympic Trials. But, the Olympic Trials was just very nerve-wracking and I know I didn’t perform as well as I could have.
Q: You had a very busy year, wrestling at multiple Trials events. What was it like to have so many high-level competitions for maybe the first time ever?
A: Yeah, it’s really awesome and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to travel and compete and wrestle a bunch of new people, but it’s nerve-wracking. I’m fresh to this, and I get really nervous sometimes. But the more I compete, the more confident I am in my abilities. At first, it was really stressful and that affected my wrestling. But the more I’m competing at a higher level, the more used to things I’m getting. Now when I wrestle, it comes to who trained harder and our technique versus me getting into my head.

Q: As you look ahead at your career, especially with the sport of wrestling being somewhat new to you, what would you say is your biggest motivation moving ahead?

A: What motivates me in everyday life – in wrestling, in work, in school and everything else – is wanting to be the best at what I do. I want to be the best in everything I do. Giving one-hundred percent in everything I do is really what motivates me. I’m going to do whatever I can to get there, whether it’s taking the stairs every day, training twice a day, eating clean, doing whatever I can to be the best at what I do.