Hard work, perseverance and gratitude move Tanefeu twins
A fresh dusting of snow covers the sidewalk at Bismarck High School on a Tuesday during Christmas break. The North Dakotan in me peers around for the person who will orient me in the direction of the wrestling room. With a glance toward the entry doors, I lock the gaze of two pairs of smiling eyes. I know them, but they do not yet know me.
“You must be the Tanefeu brothers,” I say to the twins, Christian and Wilfried, who affirm my conclusion. “I’m here to watch your practice today and interview you for the North Dakota Living magazine. I hear you’re quite the talent.”
And I mean talent. Both have earned individual national championships and are two-time state champion wrestlers. Their prowess on the mat – and in the classroom – has earned them full-ride, no-risk scholarships to the University of Michigan (Michigan), which runs a top NCAA Division 1 wrestling program in the Big Ten Conference.
“Oh, thank you so much. We so appreciate that,” Wilfried says.
You can hear the genuine gratitude in their voices. As we pass trophy cases lining the hall to the wrestling room, humility carries their gait.
In friendly conversation, it would be hard to deduce the Tanefeus were not born in this country. Or, that they grew up in a French-speaking family and only learned English after immigrating to the United States from Cameroon, Africa, just seven years ago.
“When we were in Africa, we didn’t know a lot of things. When we came here, there were a lot more doors that were open, different pathways,” Wilfried says. “We don’t take anything for granted.”
The Tanefeu family was granted permanent resident status in the United States through a government immigration lottery program and joined other family members who had previously resettled in Bismarck from Cameroon.
“Our parents came here for better opportunities to take care of our family,” Wilfried says. “Our parents, they work tremendously hard. They didn’t speak any English. Now, our mom is an LPN (licensed practical nurse).”
“We definitely learned a lot from our parents,” Christian adds. “No matter what you have, even if you are at your lowest low, you can always get somewhere.”
Their first challenge as new Americans was learning the English language. Christian and Wilfried were enrolled in an English Language Learner (ELL) program at Bismarck’s Wachter Middle School.
“ELL helped me a lot. That’s another great resource that America has,” Christian says. “We weren’t on our own since the beginning – we had great teachers that helped us in classes, and a tablet that we used for Google Translate. Super awesome resources, super thankful.”
Still, I listen to the twins in awe during our conversation after their two-hour practice. Their vocabulary is impressive for high school seniors, and they’ve certainly mastered the fast pace of speech for which Dakotans are known. Their wrestling coaches say it is a testament to their intelligence, work ethic and desire to learn.
“Both of them are good in the classroom,” says Scott Knowlen, a former Bismarck High School (BHS) head wrestling coach who now volunteers with the team. “Their inquisitive nature helped them overcome some barriers – language, culturally, academically and in wrestling.”
Wilfried has a 4.1 GPA, and Christian maintains a GPA of 3.9.
“They’re willing to work hard, and it transfers to reality,” says BHS Co-Head Coach Mark Lardy. “They’re extremely quick studies and soak everything up.”
WHAT IS WRESTLING?
A middle-school teacher and coach took notice of the Tanefeus’ work ethic and encouraged them to try wrestling.
“I didn’t even know what wrestling was, honestly,” Wilfried recalls. “I went home and talked to my dad about it. And we looked up wrestling and just saw WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), so we kind of laughed about that.”
But even Hulk Hogan in zebra Zubaz pants didn’t stop Wilfried from giving wrestling a shot. He found out the sport was “tough and hard,” but stuck with it after starting his freshman year. Christian tried his hand at basketball that year instead but joined wrestling his sophomore year.
“(Wilfried) came home with a bunch of trophies, so I was like, if he can get trophies, I can get ‘em, too,” Christian says with a laugh.
And Christian did. Together, the two honed their skills alongside each other – and fast. Their quick start out of the gate, accelerated development and success is something their wrestling coaches, with over 80 years combined coaching experience, haven’t seen before.
“You don’t find guys coming out of the gate like that,” says Jeff Schumacher, who shares head coaching duties with Mark.
“The sport of wrestling can really play to the hard work ethic,” Scott says. “Coming into wrestling later like these guys did as a freshman and sophomore, you can’t make up this type of ground and have this kind of success in wrestling. It’s a testament to their hard work ethic.”
When they were starting out in the sport, Christian and Wilfried would attend practices – even if they weren’t on the practicing team or club’s roster – three times a day, or whenever they could get some mat time with coaches. Perhaps some of their success comes with the advantage of having a built-in wrestling partner, and a little sibling rivalry adds to their drive and determination.
Watching them drill after drill, I am surprised by what I see. Wrestling suddenly appears graceful. Their moves are smooth, and I get lost in their synchronicity. They seem to know what the other will do before it’s done, like a disciplined figure skating pair.
During the pandemic, Christian and Wilfried watch a lot of wrestling videos and practice in the basement of their new family home. For the first time, each brother has his own room.
“We build on each other,” Wilfried says. “Consistency is key. He’s there to pick me up, and we hold each other accountable.”
“We probably push each other way too hard than what we need,” Christian says.
Christian and Wilfried duel in the center circle; their teammates, including two female wrestlers, surround them and do the same. Then, Coach Mark tells me a story.
Christian and Wilfried had traveled with Mark to Fargo for the 2019 Junior National Championship. Mark sensed something different in them – they were nervous.
Who wouldn’t be? Held in July, Fargo nationals has been described as a “who’s who of wrestling” and has become synonymous with the highest level of high-school wrestling. Most brackets feature 60 to 100 wrestlers, who must qualify just to attend. It is not uncommon to see some of the top-ranked wrestlers meet in the early rounds of the tournament. A national title is not the only thing on the line, as this is a premier scouting event for college wrestling programs. The Tanefeus, still very new to wrestling at this point, would be competing against wrestlers with far more experience on one of wrestling’s biggest stages.
In his coach’s wisdom, Mark had “the talk” with the Tanefeu twins. The topic? Gratitude.
“We had a really good talk about gratefulness, and it calmed them down,” Mark says.
That week, Christian and Wilfried took home national titles – Christian at 106 pounds in the Greco-Roman category and Wilfried at 113 pounds in the freestyle category – with college scouts watching. Before signing with Michigan, Mark saw those nerves again, and the boys felt better after having “the talk” one more time.
“These two, they’re the epitome of perseverance,” Mark says. “They’re solid individuals, just solid kids. You don’t have to worry about them doing something stupid on Friday nights. They have the right mentality to be better wrestlers, better people. Gratitude moves them.”
A ceiling won’t stop the Tanefeu brothers, their coaches agree.
“They’re not content with where they’re at,” Mark says.
And yet, Christian and Wilfried remain grounded in their goals and dreams for the future.
“I was actually looking at Michigan academically first, not because of wrestling,” Wilfried says.
Both wish to pursue degrees in computer engineering – a field with great employment prospects. Christian has an internship now with BHS in the IT department. Wilfried expresses an interest in travel, learning about the world and developing a knowledge of other people and cultures. They see Michigan as an opportunity to explore these experiences and diversity.
“They’ll be able to experience things (at Michigan) they wouldn’t be able to here,” Mark says. “There’s a large world outside of what North Dakotans typically experience. Anytime you can experience diversity, it’s good for all of us.”
Christian and Wilfried are staying open to the opportunities and what lies ahead. Perseverance and commitment light their path, and they hope to set an example for younger students and their three siblings.
“We want to be role models and show that even though we don’t have a lot, you can work hard and make something of yourself,” Christian says.
“We know where we came from and we know how we got here. We’re definitely grateful,” Wilfried says.
The bustling wrestling room is now quiet. Coach Jeff and I light-foot around the mat during our visit, as Coach Mark cleans the floor. My sources tell me Jeff is an integral part of the Tanefeu twins’ development.
Early on, Jeff noticed Christian and Wilfried’s potential.
“What’s different about them is you can bring them in and teach them, and they have the ability to pick it up,” he says. “And they were willing to do anything I asked them to do.”
When Jeff held 5:30 a.m. practices for the younger kids in his wrestling club, Christian and Wilfried were there, too. Jeff would work with them intermittingly while conducting practices, he put in extra time outside of practice and the club pitched in financially to help provide more wrestling opportunities.
“They were always there,” Jeff says of the Tanefeus. “They were always asking, ‘Coach, when’s our workout?’”
When Christian and Wilfried aren’t at the gym, they can often be found at Coach Jeff’s house watching wrestling videos – and eating. The fridge is always open.
“They love apples,” he says with a smile. “They’re two special kids.”
“You’re going to miss them, aren’t you?” I ask Jeff.
He pauses, taking in the enormity of the question, as if it’s the first time he’s acknowledged this reality. He hopes to see them in the Olympics someday.
“They dot their I’s and cross their T’s in everything they do. They get things done,” Jeff says. “Their work ethic will carry them to all ends. It draws them to where they’ve gotten in school and in wrestling. When you asked me if I’m going to miss them – I really am. You just don’t know how awesome of kids they are. They want to help every person – they wouldn’t hurt anybody. These guys came in and worked for everything. They said, ‘I’ll do my responsibilities and more.’ They got good grades, are good team members and they give you everything they’ve got.”
Cally Peterson is editor of North Dakota Living. She can be reached at email@example.com.