Justina Di Stasio talks career since graduation and revamping Olympic dream

SFU alum turned assistant coach feels the pressure of navigating double standards and media

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Justina Di Stasio wrestling in front of an audience
On top of it all, Di Stasio also works as a substitute teacher in her hometown of Coquitlam. Sara Brinkac / The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer 

In October 2018, Justina Di Stasio brought Canada a gold medal in the women’s 72 kg category at the World Wrestling Championships. That stunning victory underscores her passionate wrestling career. 

Today, Di Stasio is still a wrestling phenomenon. She is a member on Canada’s national team and assistant coach of the SFU women’s wrestling team, all on top of being a substitute teacher.

The Peak had an opportunity to speak with Di Stasio about her career and what it means to be both a woman and a Cree athlete. She raved about the opportunity to pay it forward, referencing her job at SFU. “Giving back to the sport and the girls, I wish that could be a full time job eventually. It’s the best.”

Di Stasio started competing internationally at the 2011 Junior World Championships. Since then, she has gone on to win gold in the Pan American Wrestling Championships and the Dave Schultz Memorial in 2015. 

But her proudest achievement as an athlete isn’t any of these impressive titles.

“I’d say coming back after COVID-19,” Di Stasio admitted. “I had my whole other life ready to go, teaching, and moving on from wrestling.” 

COVID-19 and not making the Olympic team for the second time also magnified the feeling. “I had two surgeries and went back to finish school, and I saw a lot of what life could be outside of wrestling, and it was really nice,” she said. 

But after missing the nervous excitement before a match, Di Stasio recommitted to her Olympic goal.

Since making her return, Di Stasio has been focusing on a new tactic: getting on the offensive early and placing pressure on the opposition. “Score the first takedown, so if something happens, you already have points on the board.”

On her childhood and growing up half-Cree, half-Italian, Di Stasio said her parents made sure she never felt different and praised her school’s wrestling team for being inclusive. As a result, she was surprised when people started asking for her perspective as an Indigenous wrestler. 

“I started getting pretty good at wrestling, and the questions started popping up,” she recalled. For her, being Indigenous, a woman, and a wrestler are all a cumulative part of her identity, so it was strange to have them separated.

Di Stasio explained she would often hear, “You’re so good for a girl, and like, you’re so good for an Indigenous athlete.” She added, “It should be, ‘You’re so good,’ period.” 

These sentiments put pressure on her to represent other Indigenous athletes. “I have to be perfect before I can speak on being Indigenous,” she said. “I feel a lot of responsibility to represent [my heritage] well.” 

The same applies for coaching, Di Stasio added, “Being a female coach in a strongly predominant male profession, there is a constant responsibility to do your job well because there’s a chance for other women or Indigenous women [ . . . ] to come after you, and you want to pave a very clear, good path for them to follow in.”

Overall, Di Stasio takes pride in her culture, but hopes younger Indigenous athletes won’t be put in a similar position. “I hope that it changes for younger athletes, both female and Indigenous athletes, [to know] that you don’t need to be perfect for your voice to matter.” 

After having 11 national qualifiers in their last match, the SFU women’s wrestling team look to wrap up their season at the NCAA championships on March 4 and 5. At the same time, Di Stasio is training for world team trials in Canadian Nationals, which take place at the end of May.