Kelsey Campbell’s journey started with a bet

By John Canzano | The Oregonian May-2012
As is the case with a lot of interesting things in life, it started with a bet. Kelsey Campbell’s friends at Milwaukie High School knew she was athletic, tough and strong. But they told her during her senior year, “You wouldn’t last two weeks wrestling.” They bet on it. She lasted more than two weeks.

(Her overall record is posted HERE) – (Her FaceBook page is HERE)

“It started as a big joke,” Campbell, 26, told me this week. “I never intended to continue with it, but it all worked out.”

Campbell wrestled the boys in high school. And no doubt, some of them reading this column shudder at the memory of getting pancaked by a girl from Milwaukie High years ago. Rest easy, fellas. That 5-foot-2 girl ended up as the best wrestler in her freestyle weight class at the (2012) Olympic Trials.

In August 2012, there were men all over Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties who sat in their living rooms, watching Campbell wrestle against the world’s best, and proudly announcing, “Yeah, I mixed it up with her, kiddies.” Some of you beat her. Some of you lost. But you’re all in this together now, and it’s undeniably cooler, I’m guessing, for dad to have suffered a jarring head-and-arm take-down at the hands of Campbell.

“My mom gave me the freedom to try new things,” Campbell said. “My brother and dad, too. None of us thought it would continue the way it has. My dad and my brother would practice WWF wrestling moves on me. Dad still asks me if I can use chairs and jump off the rope.

“I have to tell him, ‘This is real wrestling, Dad.'”

This is the third Olympic Games in which women will wrestle. There are only four weight classes. There were no girls high school teams in 2002-03. Campbell wrestled with the boys, and remembers tournaments in which opponents forfeited rather than face her, or went easy on her. “Some opponents,” she said, “didn’t care if I was a girl or not, some wanted to get it done quickly, and some didn’t want to wrestle me.”

Campbell said she can’t blame them.

“When I first wrestled girls, I was nervous.”

She got over that. Campbell wrestled one year at Pacific University and became the first and only female wrestler at Arizona State in 2007, where she won two NCAA women’s titles. She thought about doing other things with her life. She helped start a church. She pursued a degree in communications. But last month, a wrestling bet took her to the most unthinkable place: the grip of Helen Maroulis.

Now, I’ve never met Maroulis, but I’ve heard of her legend. She’s a three-time U.S. Open champion, and was the top seed at 55 kilograms in the trials. Campbell had never beaten her, and as she said, “There wasn’t any reason for the average Joe to think I’d upset the No. 1 seed.”

But she did the right things. She put in the work that was needed. And in their best-of-three championship, Campbell won the first two rounds. That was that. And Campbell, who had told herself all along, “I can do this!” pulled it off, but just stood there in the center of the mat, with tears streaming down her cheeks. She was stunned, and looked around at everyone in the building, including wrestling legend Dan Gable, cheering for her.

“The buzzer rang,” she said, “and I was the winner. Unthinkable.”

Most of the time, that’s where the story ends. Neat. Clean. Cool. It’s where we smile, and nudge each other, and tell the little girls growing up in our homes, “See, you can do anything you want in life.” But for Campbell, all this is just beginning to get interesting.

She’s not picked to win in London. Why would she be? Nobody picked her to beat Maroulis last month. And so the top wrestlers from Canada and Japan are being asked about each other, and how they’ll make history, but nobody, it seems, is expecting much from that girl who won her bet at Milwaukie High School all those years ago.

“To get to this point, I had to beat someone I never beat before,” Campbell said. “Why stop there? Why not go to the Olympics and defy the odds?”

The favorite in London at 55 kilograms is a wrestler named Saori Yoshida. She won gold in Athens (2004) and in Beijing (2008). She’s widely recognized as the most decorated male or female wrestler on the planet, winning 119 consecutive matches at one point. Yoshida has won seven straight world championships at 55 kilograms and won every world- and international-level tournament she has entered.

Basically, she’s Ivan Drago from Rocky IV.

“What makes Yoshida so lethal is that she wrestles every second of every match,” Campbell said. Which is why Campbell keeps reminding herself that all wrestlers have to put on the singlet and a pair of shoes and take the mat. “You do enough of the right things, you prepare the right way,” she said, “who knows?”

I love the Olympics. It’s the greatest sporting event in the world. It features the culminating, hard-earned, inspiring moment of truth in a person’s life. This is put on a repeating, recycling hourly loop that lasts 17 days in the smack middle of the summer. You can have Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and all those medals and records. I’m interested today in the journeys such as the one Campbell finds herself on, with the world looking at Yoshida and the other top competitors, and overlooking Campbell.

There were no stakes in the bet Campbell made in high school. It was just a bet. “If I won anything, it’s news to me, but it’s taken me places,” said Campbell, who lives and trains at the Olympic Training Facility in Colorado Springs, Colo.

No doubt, those classmates at Milwaukie High have beat us to it. They know how to motivate Campbell. They understand her. But in case they haven’t done it yet, I propose a wager.

Ms. Campbell: Bet you can’t win an Olympic medal this summer.

Now, go do what you do.

John Canzano: 503-294-5065;