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When Franki Strefling goes to work from her home in Orlando, Florida, she passes some sand volleyball courts that often are brimming with activity. Strefling, a former first-team All-Mid American Conference outside hitter at Eastern Michigan, would like nothing more than to join in.
The pull is natural. Volleyball was her life. At age 8, she gave up pursuing all other sports to reduce the risk of being injured for volleyball. Her father, Vince, was her coach throughout most of her formative years in Niles, Michigan, located less than 100 miles east of Chicago.
Her life’s map was laid out: College, professional volleyball, then on to coaching at the college level. Preferably at a big-time Division I school.
She never for a second imagined something could consume her life the way volleyball had.
Until she got contacted via Instagram by WWE.
You see, when Franki Strefling, “now known in the ring as Izzi Dame,” goes to work, she heads to the WWE Performance Center — past those sand volleyball courts — to hone her skills in the art of professional wrestling. It’s a wildly divergent career path but one Strefling is eager to let play out.
“When I got this opportunity, it was kind of like, let’s see how it goes,” Strefling said. “So when I did this, it was super exciting, super surreal, but am I willing to give up the one thing that I have known and loved my entire life?
“I went (to the tryout) and, no joke, had the best four days of my life. It was an absolute blast. And when I got (a contract), I was like, no frickin’ way this is real. And, honestly, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I was going to take the contract. I knew I was going to fall in love with something else at this point.”
Perhaps Franki Strefling, who performs under the ring name Franki Carissa, was being groomed for pro wrestling from the start.
Growing up in the Strefling house, there was always competition, which usually happens when there are seven siblings. Strefling said she and her brothers and sisters could take anything and make it competitive.
Volleyball was the obvious way for her to channel her competitive instincts. Vince Strefling played professionally in Europe and is a longtime club and high school coach. He estimates Franki was in the gym with him from the time she was 3.
“And, if I’m going to be honest, I was probably spending more time with her than I was with my team,” he said. “She was just a huge sponge and loved it. It was fun to watch everybody … ‘How old is she?’
“I’m hitting balls at her pretty dang close to as hard as I can by the time she is 5, and she’s passing. So I would use her as an example of how to pass.”
She had the physical gifts to pair with her desire to win: 5-foot-10 frame, strong legs, live arm. She also never was one to shy away from contact, whether it was diving on the floor, running into a wall during training or even bowling over a teammate to make a play.
All of that served her well at Eastern Michigan, where she became only the sixth player in program history to record at least 1,000 career digs and kills. But those same attributes could be channeled into the wrestling ring.
Her former coach at Eastern Michigan, Darcy Dorton, said Strefling also has some intangibles that are suited for the bright lights and hype of WWE.
“I think Franki so naturally understands ‘game time,’ ” said Dorton, who recently joined the Ball State coaching staff. “She can get into game mode, and she’s a natural competitor. While volleyball games aren’t a ‘performance,’ per se, I think that there is a certain mentality that comes around game time when you can just kind of click into that mode.
“And she was one of those people that, when she would compete, there wasn’t anything that was going to stop her. You were going to have to bring your ‘A’ game. And she came into every match ready for a fight. The transition into that (WWE) world is going to be very natural for her.”
Added Strefling: “I was the one who carried the weight of the team. Always. I loved having all the eyes on me and all of the pressure.”
Strefling, 23, freely admits she knew next to nothing about pro wrestling while she was growing up. Sure, she knew big names such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena, but that was about as far as it went.
And in her circle of friends, all they talked about was volleyball.
That changed one day last year. Strefling had just finished her first year playing professionally in Cyprus and was home for the offseason. Her contract to return to the Nea Salamina club already had been renewed, she still had her apartment there and most of her belongings remained on the island nation.
Then came the Instagram message from WWE.
Franki and her father had, essentially, the same reaction.
“My first thought was, no way this is real,” Franki said. “There’s no way they’re reaching out to me.”
Added Vince: “My first thing, honestly, was, ‘Franki, it’s a scam!’ ”
But seeing the verification check mark next to the message convinced Strefling that it was, indeed, legit. She connected with a WWE representative, and the wheels were set in motion.
This is when she found out she had friends who were closet WWE fans. She said when she informed them of the opportunity, they “went absolutely crazy.” Some more than others. One of them, she said, quit their job to come to watch her tryout in Nashville.
Her family was giddy as well. They were glad to see her branching out into something new.
For her father, however, it was more bittersweet. Volleyball was something he had shared with Franki for practically her entire life.
“I am still sad she’s not playing,” he said. “I’m not disappointed by any means, but not having her play volleyball after probably 19 years of watching her play and being her coach, I was a little sad. But by no means were we unhappy.”
So it was off to Florida to embark on this exciting but unknown endeavor.
WWE vice president of communications Greg Domin said the organization holds two large tryout events each year: One at WrestleMania and one at SummerSlam. Strefling had her tryout at the 2022 SummerSlam in Nashville.
Each tryout has a pool of around 50 athletes, and, from that only a handful are chosen to enter WWE’s developmental branch, NXT. There were 15 total athletes selected in Strefling’s “class,” including former Eastern Michigan track and field athlete Chukwusom Enekwechi, who served as a grad assistant strength and conditioning coach during Strefling’s senior season at EMU.
“Before the tryout, they sent us a little packet of some things we could do to practice to get ready for the tryout,” she said. “Just basic rolls, shoulder rolls, back rolls, how to get up properly from the mat.
“Obviously, training now that I’m in it is a lot more intense. I’m learning how to fight. It’s pretty crazy.”
For her part, Dorton, after getting over the initial surprise of Strefling’s sudden change in career, said it seemed appropriate.
“I went pretty quickly from, like, shock and ‘What in the world?’ to like, ‘Oh, actually that makes sense,’ Dorton said. “Franki is just one of those people who I have known from the day I met her as a 15-, 16-year-old that she was going to be successful.
“I had no idea what it was going to be. She could have become a brain surgeon, and I would have been like, ‘Yep. That’s Franki.’ ”
Domino said WWE, in recent years, has moved away from scouting strictly wrestlers in independent circuits to looking at high-level athletes from other sports. The aim is to see if their prowess translates to the wrestling ring.
Matt Bloom is the head trainer at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, and he, Domino said, has indicated on numerous occasions that volleyball players are some of his favorite athletes to try out from the women’s side.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that WWE likes to give women’s volleyball players a chance. One of the company’s best-known performers — male or female — played college volleyball: Ashley Fliehr, known to the world as Charlotte Flair, daughter of wrestling icon Ric Flair. She played two seasons at Appalachian State (2005-06).
Dorton said she can understand why women’s volleyball players might be able to transition into wrestling better than other athletes.
“I think she’s going to be able to match the physicality,” said the former Penn State and College of Charleston player. “That contact element, obviously, is very different from what you see in our sport, but I think when it comes to, like, diving on the floor and doing rolls and doing the aerobic stunts, I think she’s going to be brilliant.
“We (volleyball players) are not afraid to dive, not afraid to hit the floor. But we also know how to fall with grace, know how to fall and land in a way that we’re naturally going to protect ourselves. I do think it makes sense: the ability to be able to dive on the mat or jump from the ropes and how to kind of twist yourself in the air and land somewhat safely.”
Dorton said she will be most interested to see how Strefling throws a “punch,” given her hair-trigger arm that pounded so many volleyballs into the floor.
Strefling, though, has been on the receiving end of a few blows during her training. Though professional wrestling is largely scripted, a lot of the contact is real. And really hurts.
It also can result in frequent trips to the dentist. Strefling said she has chipped three teeth during training.
“This is pretty real if you ask me,” she said. “And we’re really going after each other and fighting. Sometimes, you just happen to get punched in the face. I’ve gotten hit in the face a good amount of times now where it’s breaking my teeth.
“But I’ve gotten them fixed. I ran off, cried a little bit, went to the dentist the next day, then got right back in the ring.”
Aside from the physical aspects of wrestling, a big part of what goes into a performer’s success is his or her personality.
Strefling said she always was an outgoing person and never one to shy away from being the center of attention. Still, there were facets of her character WWE has helped to bring out.
In the run-up to her selection as part of the NXT class, she was required to do skits with other candidates and do a “promo” for herself on stage in front of the other prospects and (gasp!) some WWE A-listers.
Bianca Belair, the longest-reigning WWE Raw women’s champion, was at Strefling’s tryout.
“I’ve never had to be entertaining before,” Strefling said. “It got me outside of my comfort zone, but I enjoyed doing it. That’s how I knew I would be OK in this industry.
“I had no idea I was this creative. Like, wow, I have a whole new skill set I didn’t even know about.”
The in-ring persona she has developed, she said, leans toward that of a villain or, in professional wrestling parlance, a “heel.” (“Face” is the term applied to the “good guys.”) That revelation made her father laugh.
“I was like, ‘Yep. That fits right there,’ ” he said. “(She’s) not going to be this angel on WWE. They got her pegged really early on.”
Strefling said her image wasn’t something she was instructed to take on or had scripted. She said what viewers see when they watch each performer is a character that simply is an extension of the “real” person.
“Just turned up a notch,” she said. “I definitely see myself being more of a ‘heel’ in WWE terms. Naturally, I just give off more ‘heel’ energy.”
Strefling, er, Izzi Dame, makes her NXT national debut on the company’s “Level Up” (LVL UP) show Friday, July 21 (10 p.m. Eastern on the Peacock streaming service). She previously performed for NXT at regional shows around Floirda. Her next step would be to get called up to the “big league.”
When that happens for Strefling depends on how she performs. Domino said she is on a multi-year contract, so how long she continues down this road will be anyone’s guess.
Strefling is hoping she can last a long time. To help her longevity, she has sought the advice of veteran WWE stars, and some of the most poignant words of wisdom came from none other than Charlotte Flair.
Strefling said she asked Flair what she did to have a life outside of pro wrestling. Strefling already had some idea, having been immersed in volleyball for most of her life and having few interests — or spare time — outside of it.
“One thing she told me was, you don’t,” she said. “This is your life, and you have to do it while you love this, or you’re not going to want to do it anymore. And I think that kind of changed it for me. With volleyball, I didn’t really have a life outside of that either. I just fell in love with volleyball, and I was OK with that.
“I don’t know why I expected something different (from wrestling). But hearing it from her perspective and just seeing how much every person who does this job says it’s the greatest job you could ever have in the world … it’s a lot right now, and it doesn’t always seem like that. But once you see how much people love it, you kind of find a whole new appreciation for these athletes and what they’re going through.”
Of course, she always has volleyball as a fallback plan. She already has some coaching experience at the high school and club levels, and she hopes to parlay that into a college head coaching job someday.
Volleyball has taken a back seat for now. She still keeps a ball in her apartment but only to bounce it off the wall now and then. And she has to keep on going when she sees those beach volleyball courts every day, no matter how strong the desire to play.
Leaving that life was hard. But this new life is full of possibilities.
So, for now, Izzi Dame will keep on going until her path in professional wrestling reroutes her back to her first love.
“I didn’t actually think I was going to make it,” she said. “They (WWE performers) are all incredible human beings. The majority of them started right where we’re starting, so they will come back sometimes to our training center … They’re so kind, and they give you advice and take time out of their day to talk to you and train with you.
“I’m starting to fall in love with it. I’m wrestling for a living. How crazy is that? … I don’t have an out right now. I want to see how far I can take this as long as my body allows me to.”