From Sierra Leone to the mat, this trio of George Mason wrestlers is tied together

[READ ARTICLE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

One is an Olympic hopeful. The other two are the first members of their families to attend college. All three trace their roots to a war-torn country across the Atlantic Ocean, and by varying routes, they all found their way to the same college wrestling team.

Ibrahim Bunduka and Konbeh Koroma were 7 years old when they arrived in Alexandria after fleeing Freetown, their families desperate to escape a civil war that claimed at least 50,000 lives in Sierra Leone. Sahid Kargbo remained in Alexandria all along; his parents and older brother left Freetown in 1991, just before the war spread.

The three George Mason University students share a unique heritage, but their true common ground is on a wrestling mat.

Kargbo opted to redshirt this winter in an effort to qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Koroma will wrap up his college career this weekend at the Eastern Wrestling League championships in Lock Haven, Pa., where Bunduka, a redshirt sophomore, will look to cap a strong season as the Patriots’ lead-off wrestler at 125 pounds.

With their final meet together looming, the three brothers in singlets find themselves on the precipice of new phases in their lives — a long leap from where they began.

Sharing a distant origin

Bunduka doesn’t like to dwell on his early childhood. Even when he does, it only comes to him in painful flashes: the gunshots, the basement hideout, the nighttime escape through the bush, riding his mother’s back as their home burned a few miles east of Freetown.

In early May 2000, Revolutionary United Front rebels advanced on Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital in West Africa. Their arrival caused widespread mayhem and prompted a large-scale military intervention by the United Kingdom, one of the last flashpoints in a brutal civil war that spanned 11 years and displaced 2.6 million people.

“We sat in the basement, and all you hear is bombs and shooting outside,” Bunduka said. “It was terrible. It was really, really bad.”

Koroma’s recollections of those days are even murkier. One year before Bunduka’s family fled north to Senegal, Koroma, his two sisters and his mother got out of Freetown and headed east. They wound through Guinea and Ivory Coast, paying people to stay in their homes wherever they went. Koroma remembers hearing stories about people’s arms being chopped off and children being turned into soldiers, but mostly he recalls fleeting memories of eating strange food and moving constantly from place to place.

Koroma’s family immigrated to the United States from Ivory Coast in 1999, while Bunduka’s came from Senegal in 2000. Only years later did their paths cross through the allure of an unfamiliar sport.

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Meeting on the mat

Hayfield wrestling Coach Roy Hill first noticed one of the best wrestlers he has ever coached on Hayfield’s football field, where a skinny sophomore looked woefully out of place. Kargbo was a 110-pound cornerback trying to tackle one of the Hawks’ best wide receivers, and he wasn’t getting very far.

“He was like a little gnat biting this guy’s ankle, but he wouldn’t let go,” Hill recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know if you do any sport in the winter, but with your tenacity you might do well against guys your own size.’”

That December, Kargbo met another undersized wrestler whose untapped potential rivaled his own. He was at his first junior varsity jamboree at Mount Vernon High, sitting cross-legged and taking mental notes while more experienced wrestlers tussled a few feet away. Move your arms this way. Grab his legs. Don’t get pinned. Don’t look stupid.

Crouching next to him was a T.C. Williams freshman taking notes. Quiet, bespectacled and hardly taller than 5 feet, Bunduka didn’t scream elite athlete, nor was he sure what to make of “this WWE-type thing.” That first season produced mixed results for Bunduka, but it also sparked a fire in his belly. He hated losing more than anything, so one day he approached Omar Maknassi, the Titans’ best wrestler, and asked about his path to dominance.

“I was like, ‘Dude, what do you do to get really good?’ ” Bunduka said. “And he was like, ‘Well, you’ve got to wrestle in the offseason.’ I was like, ‘There’s an offseason? I didn’t know about that.’ ”

A few months later, Kargbo and Bunduka were warming up in Hayfield’s mat room, preparing for Hill’s weekly Gunston Wrestling Club practice, when a newcomer walked in and stirred up bad memories. Kargbo remembered Hayfield’s spring pep rally two years earlier, the one where the big fight broke out next to the track. He remembered being in the stands and shaking his head at the group of boys who rolled over from nearby Lee High and started the altercation. One of those boys just rolled into the mat room.

“I was like, ‘Oh no,’ ” Kargbo recalled. “It’s him!”

Koroma, now a criminal justice major, hasn’t been in a fight since that day seven years ago, his violent side too steeped in wrestling to rear up elsewhere. Like Bunduka, Koroma was initially wary of this masochistic sport that cycled its athletes through a gantlet of sprawls, sprints, shots, pop-ups, military crawls and other methods of misery designed to cleave the timid from the determined. But those grueling spring evenings established a bond between Koroma and his two new friends that would elevate them from naive novices to indomitable competitors scouring the country for fresh challenges.

“They’re like family to me,” Koroma said. “If things don’t go well school-wise, wrestling-wise, they’re always talking to me and pushing me, and I’m trying to do the same thing for them.”

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The road to progress

Every Saturday morning during the spring and summer, the three boys sat silently on the curb, their drowsy heads hung low in the predawn darkness. Hazy visions of ferocious takedowns and primal roars flickered in their minds as they waited for the van that would carry them to glory.

Just like it did every week, Hill’s familiar Ford E350 conversion van rumbled steadily down Telegraph Road en route to Hayfield Secondary School, its high-topped black exterior disguising countless bumps and scratches before the sun reached the horizon. The weathered cross-country vessel — one of Hill’s two vans with more than 275,000 miles in its wake — might have been a battered clunker with a replacement bumper to some, but to the boys up ahead it was a tantalizing portal leading them to places unknown.

Hill, Hayfield’s wrestling coach since 1992 and the Gunston Wrestling Club’s director since 1994, never knew whether he would be piling four or 10 guys into his roomy six-seater. But between 2010 and 2012, he always knew he would be greeted by at least three mainstays.

Bunduka, Kargbo and Koroma brimmed with talent, but their desire to extend brief wrestling careers into college stardom faced one major obstacle: lack of experience. While most Division I grapplers grew up on wrestling mats, these three had never given the sport a passing thought before high school.

So there they were, cramming into a van bound for far-flung tournaments, starving for more mat time and more improvement. They never really knew where they were going — Virginia Beach, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, it didn’t matter — nor did they fully understand that they came from the same place. They just wanted to get better.

“Especially now in this day and time, there’s not a lot of kids, not even a lot of adults, who are really willing to commit the amount of effort that it takes to be the best at something,” Hill said. “When you have kids that are willing to do that, you’ll move heaven and earth to try to make that possibility available to them.”

It took a while for the three teammates to realize their shared ancestry in a country 4,523 miles away from Washington. Koroma began to wonder about Kargbo during those Gunston practices, when he occasionally heard the Hayfield standout suck his teeth the same way his mother, Matilda, would whenever she got mad.

Even when they put it together, though, it was more coincidence than revelation, just one more thing they had in common. The trio’s bond doesn’t hinge on its point of origin. The real source of strength lies in the jokes they crack after practice, the early-morning workouts they initiate on weekends, the countless hours they spent in Hill’s van.

“It’s not about the background,” said Bunduka, who like Koroma is the first in his family to attend college. “We’ve done so many things for each other, it’s like, ‘You know what, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you meet someone and they share the same interests as you.”

On Friday the three brothers will gather at EagleBank Arena and await a charter bus coated in green and yellow. It will take them to some town in Pennsylvania, to some tournament with some other teams. With Koroma set to graduate in May, it could be their last wrestling trip together.

The wrestling part of that equation will fall out, but the sport was always meant to be a vehicle leading the boys to whatever comes next.

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