A little over a year after experiencing one of her lowest points of her wrestling career, Litchfield native Victoria Francis experienced one of her highest.
After being sanctioned by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for taking a supplement that had an unlisted banned substance called Ostarine in it, Francis came back to defeat Alyvia Fiske at Final X Rutgers in two straight matches to earn her second trip to the world championships, which will take place in Nur-Sultan, Kazahkstan on Sept. 14-22.
"I had visualized that move so many times," Francis said of the throw that led to a win by fall in her second match against Fiske. "I don't do as many mental reps as I should, but that one just stuck with me. It was almost hard to be excited in the moment, because mentally, I had been there so many times."
The sweep of Fiske at Final X avenged a loss to the Simon Fraser University junior, who had beaten Francis 5-4 at the U.S. Open on a takedown in the final seconds.
More importantly, the wins meant Francis, who turned 25 in February, was back after a tumultuous 2018 that saw her unable to compete for one year and unable to train with the U.S. Wrestling team until Jan. 6.
"That was the hardest part. I was basically my own coach for a year," said Francis, who wasn't allowed to train with anyone who had a U.S. Wrestling card. "
"There is something about that environment, the culture, the social aspect of being on a team. Not being around female elite athletes, just having that social bit, was tough."
Once the initial shock of the sanction was over, Francis said she did her best to treat the suspension like an injury and work to get herself mentally and physically back into peak performance. That meant training with college athletes from the University of Maryland and Navy, as well as some high school teams in the Baltimore area, where she and her husband Jacob live.
"Within a week, I could be in four different rooms with four different coaches. I had to balance not having a coach in the room with me every day," Francis said. "It's been a maturing process and has made me take the reins of my own progression. It sucked at the time, but it's probably one of the best things that could have happened."
Francis said that the experience increased her confidence, partly due to putting herself in situations out of her normal comfort zone.
"Looking back, right before my sanction, my technique was probably more refined, but this past year, I've really expanded my horizons, partly because I'm wrestling folkstyle men instead of freestyle women," she explained. "It's put me out of my comfort zone, but now I'm a little more comfortable in those positions. I feel like mentally I'm in a better place. I feel more confident and hungry and dominant. It's like, 'Yeah, I'm here, but I want to be there, and there.' I just want to keep pushing forward."
Since the end of the suspension, Francis has connected with coaches Ashley Sword and Christian Flavin of Life University in Marietta, GA, who worked with her in preparation for the U.S. Open and Final X. They'll continue to work with her in the coming months as Francis has a tournament scheduled for Poland in August and just took gold at the Canada Cup in Calgary on June 30.
"Most of the world team isn't going, but since I haven't competed internationally in a year, I needed another tournament under my belt," Francis said before going to Calgary. "I feel like in the past, I've always had confidence issues going up against international opponents. Looking at the flag on their singlet, it holds too much weight. I'm hoping this year I can just go out and wrestle. I'm not going to worry about who's who. I'm just going to worry about me and wrestling my match."
She will also be going to a training camp in Japan with other U.S. Wrestling team members in July, a trip that she hopes isn't her last one to the land of the rising sun.
Tokyo is the home of the 2020 Olympics and after finishing second at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials, Francis is hoping to do one better.
Like her comeback, that road won't be easy either. Francis qualified for the world championships at 72 kilograms, which isn't a weight class in the Olympics. That means that Francis will have to compete at either 76 kilograms or 68 kilograms, neither of which is a sure thing.
"I'll have a stud on either side in Adeline Gray (76) or Tamyra Mensah-Stock (68). Both are fantastic wrestlers and are very dominant," Francis said.
Gray, who beat Francis in 2016 to make it to the Olympics, qualified for the world championships at Final X Lincoln and will be competing for her fifth world championship. Mensah-Stock will also be making the trip to Kazakhstan, after placing third in the world in 2018.
"Looking on the international scene, I think I will fair better at 68. At 76, everyone has three inches on me heightwise. So I'll try to go down," Francis explained, adding with a laugh, "I haven't weighed that much since middle school, so that will be interesting."
The plan now is to be down to 68 by December, for the U.S. Open. That will give Francis a feel for whether the cut in weight will be doable for the Olympic team trials, which will be held on April 4-5 in State College, PA.
Regardless of what weight class she will be at, expect Francis to bring the passion and competitiveness that she has had since she was a little girl.
"I was always competitive and I always wanted to be the best. I remember when I was in fifth grade, I told my teacher I was going to be the first female president," Francis said. "That's a lie, because I'll never be a part of politics, but I knew that was the highest thing I could ever do, so that's what I was going to do. Hopefully someone else makes that happen before I'm 35, but we'll see."
Francis hasn't only found her confidence on the mat, but off it as well. She is a staunch supporter of equality for female athletes and uses her voice to support those causes, especially on Twitter, at @VicFran9412.
"You want your daughters to see strong female role models," said Francis. "I know I only have 600 followers, but those 600 followers are going to see what I believe in. Hopefully I can educate some people."
Francis said she also hopes to open a wrestling academy some day and give kids the same opportunity that she had to participate in a sport that means so much to her.
"It worked out for me, but I know for some girls, it's not their sport. But if it's something that interests you, go for it," Francis said on what she would tell other female athletes considering a move to the mats. "Understand that there are going to be obstacles. Wrestling in general is hard and not everyone can do it. And being a female wrestler, it's going to be even harder. You just need to realize that you're tougher than your obstacles and if you really want to do it, you'll find a way."
Spoken like someone who has had those obstacles in front of her, and didn't let them slow her down a bit.