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PHOTOS: It's 'Wrestle Mania' On The Beaches Of Senegal

A wrestler flexes his muscles. "He was showing me how big and powerful he is," says photographer Nico Therin, who visited the country to document its national sport.
A wrestler flexes his muscles. "He was showing me how big and powerful he is," says photographer Nico Therin, who visited the country to document its national sport.

When photographer Nico Therin came across pictures of wrestling matches on the sand in Senegal, he was so intrigued he decided to take his camera and go.

It didn't take long for Therin to learn that in Senegal, wrestling is a national sport. As Khadim Gadiaga, president of the Senegalese Wrestlers Association, puts it, "Every Senegalese — mothers and fathers, even the president of the republic — they love Senegalese wrestling."

During his visit to Dakar this spring, Therin saw that enthusiasm manifest itself in kids wrestling in the streets after school. And in the hours before sunset he observed beaches fill with both kids and adults, professionals and amateurs, wrestling on the soft sand.

Two interlocked wrestlers form a graceful arch. "You see this intimacy they share, physically connected in their combat," says Therin.
/ Nico Therin
/
Two interlocked wrestlers form a graceful arch. "You see this intimacy they share, physically connected in their combat," says Therin.

Yes, on the sand. Even in stadiums, where professional matches take place before large crowds, the "ring" is a rectangle of sand, says Therin, 30, who was born in France and is now based in Los Angeles. As the wrestlers go at it, the sand settles on their skin, like a layer of grit. When they fall to the ground, the sand also cushions them.

"Each one is trying to make the other fall on the ground, but it is like an embrace," says Therin.
/ Nico Therin
/
"Each one is trying to make the other fall on the ground, but it is like an embrace," says Therin.

The sport has a long history in Senegal. The traditional form of Senegalese wrestling, "without blows," has existed for centuries, says Thierno Ka, vice-president in charge of Olympic Wrestling and Communications at the Comité National de Gestion de Lutte. "Without blows" means "people can't hit each other with their hands," explains sports journalist Oumar Diarra.

Champion wrestlers from different villages would compete against each other as part of celebrations after a good harvest.

Two wrestlers take a break from training. "Everyone wrestles," says Khadim Gadiaga, president of the Senagalese Wrestlers Association. "You go out in the streets or in the beaches, you wrestle with your friends. It's our pastime."
/ Nico Therin
/
Two wrestlers take a break from training. "Everyone wrestles," says Khadim Gadiaga, president of the Senagalese Wrestlers Association. "You go out in the streets or in the beaches, you wrestle with your friends. It's our pastime."

Starting in the 1930s, a different form of wrestling "with blows" became popular. It's "more like boxing and wrestling mixed together," says Diarra. In recent decades television broadcasts and commercial sponsorships have brought greater visibility and enlarged fan bases for the sport, he says, including youthful wrestlers hoping to find financial success in the ring.

The interlocked hands of a wrestler after losing a stadium match.
/ Nico Therin
/
The interlocked hands of a wrestler after losing a stadium match.
A wrestler lies on the sand, having just been flipped to the ground by his opponent.  "This is the moment he has fallen," says Therin. 'While he's falling he's kind of laughing, like, Wow he got me!  and then he gets back up and begins another match."
/ Nico Therin
/
A wrestler lies on the sand, having just been flipped to the ground by his opponent. "This is the moment he has fallen," says Therin. 'While he's falling he's kind of laughing, like, Wow he got me! and then he gets back up and begins another match."

Therin gained entrance to Senegal's wrestling culture with the help of one of the country's most famous champions, Lut Pathe Boy. Popularly known as Big Pato, he is also a policeman, with a T-shirt that sports dual photos of him in his police uniform and his wrestling gear, and the caption, "Le Flic de l'Arene," which Therin translated as "The Cop of the Arena."

"He told me, 'I get up in the morning to serve others,'" says Therin. "Without him I could not have photographed this work."

Diane Cole writes for many publications, includingThe Wall Street JournalandThe Jewish Week, and is book columnist forThe Psychotherapy Networker.She is the author of the memoirAfter Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is.

Ricci Shryrock, a photojournalist based in Senegal, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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