FORT LEE, Va. – The flyer announcing a youth wrestling event caught 6-year-old Jenna Burkert’s attention, and she was immediately interested in signing up.
Seeing it differently, a male classmate snatched the paper out of her hand and spat, “Jenna, you can’t do that. You’re a girl!”
She grabbed the flyer back and responded with a defiant, “Oh yeah! Watch me.”
Jenna – now 28-year-old Sgt. Burkert – went on to turn that episode of misogynistic disapproval into a sports show highlight reel depicting an individual holding her own in a male-dominated sport over the course of two decades and racking up a slew of titles and winning hardware.
Her list of accomplishments include 2011-2013 junior world team member; 2014 national champion; 2014, 2018 and 2019 world team member; 2019 U.S. National Championships silver medalist; 2019 Pan American Games silver medalist; and a World Wrestling Championship bronze medal, 55-kilogram class, earned in Oslo, Norway, last year.
A member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program – in which Soldier-athletes train full time and participate in competitions all over the world – Burkert underwent advanced individual training at Fort Lee in 2016 as a unit supply specialist. She returned here in January to attend the five-week Advanced Leader Course at the Logistics Noncommissioned Officer Academy.
Switching gears from training full-time as an athlete to solely focusing on her military professional development is not a difficult transition, said the Rocky Point, N.Y., native. “The competitiveness in me never turns off, so that’s to my benefit as a Soldier and athlete,” she pointed out.
On top of that, the 5-foot, 3-inch, 125-pound competitor’s commitment to the Army, despite her WCAP status, is strong and unquestioned.
“To me, this [academy training] is a stepping stone to promotion – getting to that next level," said the logistician. “That’s just as important as winning a gold medal at the Olympics or world championships.”
She expressed gratitude for an Army that allows her to pursue her wrestling interest and serve her country at the same time. Comparing it to the wrestling arena, she said she takes comfort in the fact that fellow Soldiers, like any other teammates, have her back.
“As soon as I [arrived at the academy], I started asking a lot of questions,” she said. “I reached out to my battle buddies who were glad to help. I think that’s the really great thing about this Army. I always say it’s one thing to open the door for yourself, but it's another to hold the door open for others. That’s how I try to live my life, and I've been lucky enough to have a lot of people before me to hold that door open and teach me a thing or two.”
Refocusing on her wrestling journey, Burkert said she grew up as a rough-and-tumble kid who horse-played around the house with her older, autistic brother. Her first push into competitive wrestling was from someone who thought she was unfit. The moment of resolve to stick with it followed a conversation with her mother, who – looking back on the flyer incident – was not sold on seeing her little girl in wrestling attire.
“She was like, ‘Come on, Jen, you’re going to be the only girl,’” recalled Burkert, “and I was like, ‘OK, what’s your point?’ She kind of froze and said, ‘I guess nothing.’ That’s where it started and never stopped.”
Her parents would not question her ambitions thereafter. They were “all in” and demonstrably so, spending time at meets and many dollars on training, equipment and travel – the latter a necessity due to the fact wrestling competitions that allowed girls were scarce where they lived.
“I lucked out,” Burkert said. “[They] pushed me to continue chasing my dreams when other people in the area didn’t like female wrestling. They still don't in some areas. It’s just not as common.”
Her parent’s go-for-it mentality buoyed her against a rising tide of those resistant to the unfamiliar. The simple belief, wrestling is not exclusive to boys, served as her anchor. She was aware there were those who disapproved of her presence and refused to let her head slip into those waters.
“I kind of noticed it, but held on to that New York attitude of ‘I don't really care,’ and I just continued on because I love it,” Burkert observed. “It’s fun and challenging and it keeps me disciplined. I guess I just enjoy that structure, so I really don’t mind that others think it’s weird.”
Therefore, the steady and undaunted Burkert – with her parents providing powerful engines of support and encouragement – raced toward an unknown wrestling horizon believing anything was possible. Illustrative of her belief was competing against, and beating, mostly boys at the beginning of her career. Burkert was so accustomed to competing against males she once lost what it was like to grapple with female competitors.
“My first loss ever was to a girl,” she admitted. “I went all those years wrestling boys and I lost my very first match to a girl. I was shocked because I didn't know what it was going to be like to wrestle another female.”
Burkert’s record against the opposite sex drew the attention of many. She was enrolled in 2008 at the Olympic Education Center in Pure, Mich., where she wrestled during her high school years. In 2013, she was invited to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. That is where she met several WCAP athletes to include world champion (and now) Staff Sgt. Iris Smith. Burkert was impressed by the Soldiers, the program and the institution.
“I think it was something I always wanted to challenge myself with,” she said of joining the ranks. “My grandpa was in the Army, and I have a lot of family members who have served. … I have a lot of pride when I wear my Team USA singlet, and I have a lot of pride being in this uniform. Knowing I have family members in the military, and knowing I can wrestle and serve my country; to me, the decision was a no-brainer. Being able to do both is the ultimate honor.”
Burkert has been a part of WCAP since enlisting five years ago. As a program member, she did not make the Olympic team representing the country in the 2020 summer games (delayed to the summer of 2021 due to COVID-19) but was named an alternate. Nonetheless, she decided against traveling to Tokyo, opting instead prepare for the world championships later that year. It paid off. Burkert captured a bronze medal, something she said is “everything.”
“It truly is,” Burkert affirmed. “I’ve worked my whole life to bring home a medal. … It wouldn’t be just for myself; I really knew that my teammates and coaching staff and everyone at the World Class Athlete Program had a part in it.”
In addition to having family and WCAP behind her efforts, Burkert has come to appreciate the growing body of troop support, which makes her even more prideful in having the formidable firepower of the institution behind her.
“For me, I have this bigger purpose and additional support,” she said. “You know, when I come to these schools and meet all of these other Soldiers, I now have more and more people rooting for me, and I always feel that support.”
These days, Burkert is increasingly appreciative of the support she has received over the course of her career – especially in light of her mother’s death last year – as well as the privileges she enjoys as a result and the fact there is more to life than wrestling.
“I’ve seen how hard my family has worked and all of the obstacles they had to overcome,” Burkert said. “It makes training easy for me because life’s harder than wrestling. So, when I step on the mat, I really enjoy my time because it’s not the hardest thing in the world. Life is more difficult.”
Not that Burkert lacked experience with some of life’s difficulties prior to her mother passing. She saw her non-verbal brother endure struggle after struggle and always felt the stares of those who saw her family differently because of him. It seems she was reawakened to what she always knew.
“I lost my mother just four days before the Olympic trials,” she recalled. “It was such a shock, it made me go in everyday appreciating life is short. My mom always said that. … I always walk this life with a lot of grace and a lot of hustle. I have an understanding of what life can be like, and its makes me work harder. It definitely fuels my fire.”
Burkert will need plenty of fire to fulfill her immediate goal of winning gold at the next world championships or the 2024 Olympics. There are plenty of supporters, no doubt, who think she has what it takes.
“Sgt. Burkert is a professional in every sense of the word,” said WCAP 1st Sgt. Alexis Ramos. “She exhibits a mental toughness and an ability to shift focus no matter the circumstance.
“From being an Olympic alternate to becoming a world championship medalist and then having the flexibility to excel in her military professional education only further demonstrates what everyone should know about this NCO. She is a winner and a ‘Soldier First.’”
Those words are redemptive in a way, symbolizing payback to the detractors and nonbelievers, one of which uttered an expression Burkert has since put into a proverbial headlock.