BISMARCK — Bismarck High co-head wrestling coach Jeff Schumacher received a text Saturday from two of his wrestlers, Christian and Wilfried Tanefeu. The twin brothers were wondering if he could come in and coach them at 6:30 a.m., Monday, when the Demons weren’t scheduled to practice.
It didn’t surprise Schumacher, even though Monday was Presidents Day, and there was no school. The Tanefeu twins could’ve slept in, but they had work to do and things to clean up. Both will be vying for their third and final individual state wrestling title later this week.
Sports have always been present in Christian and Wilfried’s lives, but soccer — or what is called football where the Tanefeu brothers are from — was their first love. Born in Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, the two-time defending North Dakota Class A state champions were latecomers to wrestling.
The brothers will be headed to the Big Ten Conference next fall to compete in a sport they didn’t even know existed six years ago. The twins announced their commitment to the University of Michigan in September and signed their letters of intent with the storied program in November. Michigan is ranked No. 2 by InterMat Wrestling in the latest NCAA Division I rankings.
Christian and Wilfried emigrated from Cameroon, a country in west-central Africa located along the Atlantic Ocean, in November 2014. The twins, their parents and siblings were able to move to the U.S. permanently through a government lottery program. The family was seeking better opportunities.
The French-speaking Tanefeus didn’t speak English when they moved to Bismarck to live with an aunt, who had already been in the area for about five years. The twins describe their home country as laid-back, seemingly the opposite of the pair who have never shied away from a task, no matter how daunting.
Wilfried had no knowledge of the sport when he went out for it in eighth grade at the request of one of his teachers, who was also a wrestling coach. He went home and did a quick internet search after telling his parents, and WWE was what showed up. From there, he didn’t exactly know what he’d be getting into.
“Now, we laugh about that,” Wilfried said.
Wilfried also chuckles thinking back to his first-ever match. He was pinned but didn’t know it. He didn’t know why it ended or how he lost.
That memory has vanished into the rearview. In no time, Wilfried captured his first state title at 113 pounds as a sophomore, and won the 113-pound Cadet championship at the Junior and Cadet Championships at the Fargodome five months later.
He went undefeated en route to his second state title at 120 last year as a junior, and he has put together an 111-18 career record, including this season’s 7-0 run.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Wilfried was third-string when he started with the Demons program as a freshman, with two eighth-graders ahead of him.
“Willy wasn’t worried about getting varsity time or being the lead guy or any of that stuff,” Schumacher said. “All he wanted to do was get better, and he was improving at a great rate.”
Christian went to the wrestling room with Wilfried for a week and a half at the start of the freshman season, but wanted to go out for basketball. He wasn’t the biggest fan of wrestling at first.
“It was such a hard sport. I was like, that’s not for me,” Christian recalled. “I gave it some thought, and then two months later, I decided to come out.”
He joined at the end of his freshman year after basketball season, when the wrestling season was already over. Schumacher runs MATPAC Wrestling Club, and he got the twins involved in the club program.
“Their improvement level was just so dramatic,” Schumacher said. “They’re strong for their size and weight and extremely quick as wrestlers, and they pick up things awfully fast. You get a thoroughbred like that, you gotta put time into them.”
Christian won a state title at 106 the following year as a sophomore. Seven months later, he won the Greco-Roman national championship. Christian won the 113-pound title as a junior. He enters the state tournament 11-0 this season and 103-13 in his career.
Schumacher has seen a lot of talent come through Bismarck’s wrestling room, but he’s never seen anyone pick up the sport as quickly as the Tanefeu brothers, who learned freestyle, Greco-Roman and folkstyle.
“You don’t pick it up that quickly. Just no. It’s a rough sport, it’s a hard sport, it’s a grueling sport,” Schumacher said. “And because they're putting in the time, they've been able to pick it up quickly.”
In unison, both brothers said their teammates and those bonds are what kept them coming back to the sport. Over the years, the twins have gotten countless rides from teammates offering to pick them up for practice or take them home.
“They’re really grateful to all of our team captains and wrestlers on the team,” Schumacher said. “Everyone really contributed to helping them out. Wrestling is like a family and that's what family does for each other.”
“The two words I would use to describe them would be humble and grateful,” Bismarck co-head coach Mark Lardy said. “You’ll never hear these two boast of themselves or anything like that. They’re very eager to help other kids out and truly just want to soak up every bit of knowledge you can give them.”
Christian and Wilfried learned hard work through their parents. Both brothers intern at Bismarck High in the IT department. Wilfried, who holds a 4.0 GPA, also works at Sanford as a dietary aid and wants to go into computer science at Michigan. Christian carries a 3.92 GPA and wants to go into computer software.
The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, as well as North Dakota State, were the final schools the twins were looking at. Wilfried liked the idea of going to a college with a diverse student body, which Michigan has.
For now, they have their sights set on a third straight individual championship and fourth straight team dual title. The individual side of the tournament is slated for Thursday and Friday at the Fargodome.
The Demons (12-0) are the No. 1 seed from the West going into the dual portion of the tournament, which will be held Saturday, Feb. 20.