Inga Hammer is her real name.
“People have asked me if it’s fake, if it’s like, a wrestling name. This isn’t WWE, this is Olympic-style wrestling and Jiu Jitsu. So, no, I don’t have a stage name,” Hammer says after a training session.
“It’s on my passport and everything.”
In the skeptics’ defence, it is a name almost too perfect for a wrestler or martial artist.
“Every time I throw someone, it’s a Hammer toss, or if I get somebody on the ground, I’ve dropped the Hammer,” she says.
A little less on the nose, but still equally funny, is: “All my pants are Hammer pants.”
She had to embrace it after taking her husband’s surname in 2016, she says.
“You can’t try to fight it, you got to just lean into it and expect to hear the same jokes all the time,” Hammer says.
There was nothing wrong with her maiden name of Van Vliet, of course, but an added bonus of Hammer is easier spelling.
She was still Inga Van Vliet when University of Regina Cougars wrestling coach Leo McGee recruited her and other rugby players for the 2006-07 season. She was sold on wrestling as a way of staying in shape during the winter and that her tackling would benefit from the training.
She gave it a try and loved it. She quit playing rugby because she didn’t want to risk an injury that would affect her wrestling.
In her time with the team, Hammer won bronze medals at two Canada West championships. She reached the Canadian university meet twice, placing eighth in 2008 and seventh in ’09.
“I like how much it challenges you. It’s one-on-one … and you both train and you both put your heart and soul into this,” Hammer says.
“When you step on that mat, you can’t hide behind other teammates or make any excuses. The work you put in is going to show and the work you didn’t put in is going to show.”
Her love of the individual element of wrestling is the first hint that Hammer is a true competitor. She jokes about always having a competitive drive “like a crazy person.” Everything had to be a competition, so if you were eating spicy foods with her, you were probably in trouble.
She had three younger siblings, but says family rivalry wasn’t a big factor. “I think I’m just very motivated to try to be better than myself, more than anything,” Hammer says.
She played soccer and swam when she was younger. Before she got into rugby, she was a member of Luther College High School’s cheerleading team. While the dance component wasn’t one of her strengths, she joined the team because of her desire to win.
“It was the most competitive team that they had for women’s sports. They were the team that won,” Hammer says.
She says the cheerleading experience was a lot of fun, despite being a self-described terrible dancer. “I am not co-ordinated and I am not graceful, so if there’s a dancing part, you probably want to hide me in the back and just let me throw people in the air,” Hammer says.
But it was wrestling that ignited a passion right from the start, though she wasn’t a natural. “It was terrible. I was so bad. I tried hard but I basically just tried to tackle people, which hasn’t improved all that much. I’m still not a technical wrestler. Half of what I do is still just trying to tackle someone,” Hammer says.
She didn’t know the method or the rules. Her first match lasted 13 seconds before getting pinned. Getting beat that quickly was very motivating, Hammer says. “If somebody can beat you that quickly, just think about how much you can improve and how much there is to learn,” Hammer says.
“Something you can master quickly, where’s the fun in that? There’s no challenge there.”
Her first win came as a result of using one of the only rules she knew: You get a point knocking your opponent out of the circle.
“I picked the girl up and I would walk her out to the edge and basically drop her and I got a point,” Hammer says. “Leo laughed and he had tears streaming down his face, going “Do it again!” ‘
Not a technically flawless victory, but the bearhug approach worked. She improved from there, even though years removed from that start, she says there’s always more to learn.
To Hammer, there are five pillars of being a good wrestler: strength, cardiovascular fitness, technical ability, tactical thinking and mental toughness. She believes you can have some of those stronger than others, but you can’t compensate for being poor at all of them.
While she was succeeding at wrestling, Hammer was getting her undergraduate engineering degree. She took her time finishing and stretched out her last year of classes to use another year of wrestling eligibility. She was already working full-time at engineering firm Clifton Associates during the 2008-09 season.
After finishing her degree and carrying on with her life and career, for seven years Hammer thought wrestling was in the past. But when she returned to the U of R to do her Master’s, Hammer decided to resume her wrestling career with two remaining years of eligibility. She asked McGee about returning to training with the team, but is pretty sure the expectations were low.
“The first couple practices, I thought I was going to die,” Hammer says. She had been working out during her absence, but says wrestling requires a different level of conditioning than what you get from going to the gym.
After a couple weeks, she found her groove again. Her determination separates her from people who wouldn’t get any enjoyment out of feeling like their heart was going to explode.
“There’s a little part of me that goes ‘Oh, this is fantastic,’ ” Hammer says. “I can barely move the next day: ‘Wow, that’s great.’ ”
Her dedication paid off as she won one gold medal and two silvers in the first year of her return.
Hammer was surprised just like everyone else when the university announced after finals were finished that it was cutting the wrestling teams, along with the men’s volleyball team. She had been training all through her second year of her return and was ready to respond after a disappointing nationals finish due to a dislocation in her neck. And, obviously, Hammer responds to losing by working even harder. The decision to axe the men’s and women’s wrestling program kept her from that opportunity.
“The wrestling program has been the most successful varsity team at the university, so nobody anticipated being a team that would be cut, nor did we realize that cuts were going to be happening in the athletics department. It was a complete shock,” Hammer says.
The rug was pulled out from her and she responded by fighting to save the program for future athletes, even though the cut was already done.
With wrestling gone, assistant coach Myke Lee encouraged team members to join in morning workouts and convinced Hammer to try Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the North West Academy.
Andy Gonzalez is a coach at Aces Jiu Jitsu Club. He has earned his purple belt under Professor Mikal Abdullah. Follow Andy on Twitter at @GoGoGonzilla
Andy lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Amanda and their 3 beautiful children. Andy is also the father of a Marine who is honorably serving in the United States Marine Corps.