When WWE Divas champion Charlotte comes through the curtain, the walk, the outstretched arms and the “WOOO!” are elements of her legendary father’s entrances. She is the daughter of Hall of Famer “Nature Boy” Ric Flair after all.
But the front flip outside the ring, the split under the ropes and the back handstand to her feet are all reflections of her years as a competitive gymnast growing up in North Carolina.
Before she was Charlotte, Ashley Fliehr competed as a gymnast and a high school basketball and volleyball player. She was a star on the volleyball team at Providence High in Charlotte and was a member of North Carolina 4A state titles teams in 2004 and 2005. She then went on to play volleyball at Appalachian State before transferring to North Carolina State.
Now, less than four years after signing her developmental contract with WWE, Charlotte has been the Divas champion since September and is getting set to make her WrestleMania in-ring debut on April 3 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. WWE expects more than 110,000 fans, making it the largest WrestleMania in history.
Charlotte will face Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks in a triple threat match for the title. Along with NXT champion Bayley, they have been dubbed the Four Horsewomen and have been the catalysts for the Divas Revolution that began last summer when Charlotte, Lynch and Banks were called up to the main WWE roster.
As part of Girls Sports Month, USA TODAY Sports talked to Charlotte about her athletic background, what the Divas Revolution means to her, why the Divas championship should be renamed, her parents and her advice for young women.
Q: Overall, from playing in HS and college to what you do now, how would you describe the role that sports has played in your life?
A: It’s really what’s catapulted my career from the get-go. I was a gymnast for almost eight years then was in cheerleading, played basketball and volleyball. I just happened to pick up volleyball quickly. Those experiences are the only reason that I picked up wrestling so quickly. I had all those different backgrounds so I had used so many different movements.
In terms of looking at my character, I’m Ric Flair’s daughter and the one catch phrase that I used was ‘genetically superior.’ But I’m also larger than most of the girls and extremely acrobatic and you don’t so that very often. Being so involved in gymnastics and volleyball helped me get to where I am today.
Q: What is the value that you see for young girls in participating in sports?
A: It gives you something to focus on and get better. You should want to get better every single day at something you’re passionate about and something that takes you away from the normal monotony. … It’s socially good for anyone. It makes you feel good that you’re accomplishing something you love and seeing results.
Even afterward if you stop competing, look in the women at our office that have high-level jobs that mostly men had. They are women in a man’s world, but they excel just as much as men have. It’s huge motivation. That’s in anything. Those roles aren’t just for guys.
We had the first female coach ever in WWE when I started in developmental with Sara Del Rey. Men had always been teaching the Divas. The perception was men are better, they know more, they have more experience so the guys should be training the girls. They brought in a female coach and look where we’ve taken things.
Q: Having spent a good part of your life playing team sports, are there specific challenges for girls sports whether in terms of team dynamics or other issues?
A: You develop bonds with the girls you train with, but we are all competing to get the highest score and the team all-around. When I transitioned into volleyball, it’s a team sport. You won’t win unless you work together. I think jumping to wrestling, most people think of it is as an individual sport or sports entertainment. But it does take the other person even if it’s not looked at that way.
Most people focus on one sport and excel. I’m grateful that my parents had me in so many different things and always working with a personal trainer. I was a gymnast at a high level and then played Division I volleyball.
I’m not saying it’s selfish, but it’s a completely different mindset. I’m sure male tennis players vs. football players, they all still have drive, the determination, the dedication and mental focus. It’s all pretty much the same, whether you had the chance to play at high level of an individual sport or a team sport. In terms of wrestling, with the Divas Revolution, you’re seeing women aren’t different than men. We work just as hard as men. We can tell a physical story, even if we are women, just like the men can.
Q: Whether you call it the Divas Revolution or the renaissance of women’s wrestling, what’s your view on what the impetus for the movement has been?
A: It’s the Year of Women in sports with Rhonda Rousey headlining shows, Serena Williams and the women’s soccer team. Our WWE Universe started to want women’s wrestling and there was a need for it. We don’t just want to see pretty girls. With the success women athletes are having all over the world, why can’t we see WWE women as the main focus who are athletes?
The Divas Revolution has been going on since Trish Stratus and Lita. What happened for me at NXT was we had the Four Horsewomen main event a show, and that had never happened before. It was labeled the Divas Revolution in WWE because the group came up (to the main roster).
What it means is more time, more storylines, more focus. I main evented Raw a couple of months ago. It’s not just being a model, but having a distinct character while being feminine and beautiful and also athletes.
Q: You have indicated that you’d like the Divas championship to return to being called the women’s championship. The NXT title is now known as the women’s title. Why is that important to you?
A: It’s an honor having the Divas championship and there is lots of history behind the Divas championship. I look at it as a new beginning for women’s wrestling so let’s have a new title. While I’m honored to have the Divas championship, this is 2016 — Let’s make it the women’s championship. But I will be privileged to represent women’s wrestling with a women’s championship or the Divas championship.
Q: A big part of the Divas Revolution – and being a WWE Superstar – is being a role model, especially with the younger portion of the audience. Now that you are a heel, is it harder to represent that notion?
A: It is. My first thought in going heel mode was I’m not going to be able to portray who I am and what I’m like in real life. I think Stephanie McMahon is who I’m tying mold myself after. She is the biggest villain on TV, but there is no one who is more empowering for women than Stephanie McMahon.
I play that character and then portray who I am and what I stand for whenever I get the chance. I don’t look like a typical model. I’m strong, athletic and can kick butt like men can. That’s what I hope people take away from my character.
Q: You were a personal trainer before you got into wrestling and you recently were on the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine and use that cover image as your Twitter avatar. Do you feel like your look and more athletic females are changing the perception of beauty?
A: I really deep down hope so. When we look at magazines and newspapers and see on TV is that skinny is what’s considered beautiful. I hope that I’m sending the message that no matter what shape and size you are, that’s beauty. Being strong is beautiful.
Working out has helped me overcome obstacles in my personal life. In working with Tapout and a lot of things that I post on Instagram and Twitter, the message I try to send is taking the dream and being positive. Not focusing on what I look like, but focusing on being comfortable in my own skin.
Q: Obviously we hear a lot about your dad, but being a sports parent is not an easy thing, especially when one parent is away from home a lot. What should people know about your mom’s role?
A: She was a a busy woman. Between me going to gymnastics five days a week and then competing on the weekends and my brother Reid wrestling, she worked out carpool situations, and my brother and I were close to our coaches. Sometimes my mom would go with me to a volleyball tournament and my brother would go with his amateur wrestling coaches. My grandmother lived with us for a while just to help my mom. The older we got, the more dividing of the schedule happened. Who was taking us to school, who was picking us up, who taking us there and there? She did all of that.
Club sports are expensive. I remember two of the girls in high school couldn’t afford hotel rooms for a volleyball tournament. My mom would always bring those two girls with us and help those two girls to make sure that money wasn’t an issue.
We used to have a rotation for snacks at the games in high schools. When it was my turn, she was the one packing. She did the ugly work like a lot of sports parents that’s not talked about — cleaning the uniforms and the knee pads.
Q: You told a story about how fitness was part of your life early on — especially because your dad was a wrestler and owned a number of gyms in the Charlotte area – that your dad would send you with protein bars and a shake when you went to school. You would pocket the protein bars and then dump the shake in the lawn on your way out. True story?
A: Yeah, I wish I appreciated it then like I do now. He was helping me take care of my body. I remember another story, we were at a volleyball tournament and my dad brought three coolers of Gatorade and Powerade and power bars and Metrix bar. I remember who’s dad it was but I won’t say and the other dad opened it and was like, ‘What are these bars?’
We were 14. I was kind of embarrassed. I remember saying to my dad, Why can’t you get bags of grapes and celery with peanut butter like the other parents? That happened quite often (laughing).
Q: So I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about WrestleMania. You’ve been there to watch and were involved in Triple H’s entrance a few years ago, but it’s the first time being in the ring. The excitement has to be building?
A: It’s giving my goosebumps just thinking about it. I really hope with all the hard work that all the women have done in the last few months that WrestleMania is a huge payoff for us. I’m hoping we’ll get the time and and be able to show the world on the grandest stage that we’re not divas, we’re superstars. This is an opportunity to treat women as women at WrestleMania and we’re going to steal the show. I don’t even know the right words here, but we’re going to be highlighted on something on that level with the largest crowd ever and people all over the world watching us. It’s amazing how far women have come.