ASU's historic female wrestler set for London Olympics

The road to the Olympic Games is a long and enduring challenge. Often, it begins at a young age where resilience and hard work ethic are characteristics lacking in the future Olympian’s peers. At this year’s 2012 London Olympics, a former Arizona State University Sun Devil and two-time National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Champion will take to the mat in a dream that started off as a high school joke. 

Kelsey Campbell, a 2008 Communications and Justice Studies graduate, started her journey to become an Olympian without even knowing she had begun. An all-around athlete, Campbell tacked her track, cross country, soccer and basketball letters to her wall but it wasn’t until a group of guy friends challenged Campbell to attempt the wrestling program that she set herself off on the passage to be a U.S. Olympian.

“I had some guy friends on the wrestling team at my high school that said I couldn’t last two weeks of wrestling,” Campbell said. “I thought to myself, ‘ I could totally handle two weeks and, obviously, I did.’” 

At Milwaukie High School (Milwaukie, Ore.), Campbell earned All-America honors after placing eighth at the Fargo Nationals. She lettered in wrestling and was also selected as the Most Inspirational Athlete for her high school in soccer (2000 and 2002) and track (2003).

“I was just trying to prove some guys wrong,” Campbell said. 

After moving to Arizona in 2006 to aide in opening a new church, Campbell joined the ASU wrestling squad as the Sun Devils’ first and only female wrestler in school history. Campbell made it clear that being the first at anything is not ever easy.

“I don’t think any college wrestler walks into a room and expects to see a girl,” she said. “Some welcomed me with open arms and some didn’t want me there. There was a lot of room to learn and grow but it made me really tough.“

Even though her time at Arizona State wasn’t always shining lights and glamour, her lessons in work ethic and drive played a role in Campbell’s future success.

“It was either going to be I was resilient and tough or I was going to quit,” Campbell said. “It was the best place for me to at the time. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that time at ASU.” 

Campbell competed in seven events, placing in all six tournaments in the 2007-2008 year as a Sun Devil. In 2007, Campbell earned her first tournament victory and national title in the 63kg weight class after going 3-0 in the tournament as an unseeded underdog against the No. 4, No. 2 and No. 1 competitors. Campbell followed up a year later claiming her second crown in the 59kg class. 

“I’m grateful for the experience,” Campbell said. “I’m happy I did it and I’m happy people pushed me to do it.” 

Campbell never really focused on the idea of being the best after falling short multiple times following her time at ASU. She used her loss in the first round back in September’s World Championships in Turkey - where she was a favorite - as motivation to turn her career around.

“This journey that I’ve had here there has always been this sense that I haven’t done what I came here to do,” Campbell said. “If you lose the way that I lost, it’s painful and exposes you. You either quit or make the changes you need to.” 

Campbell made the changes and on April 21, Campbell beat top-seeded Helen Maroulis at the U.S. Olympic Trials for the first time in her career at 55 kilograms. The victory earned her an Olympic berth. 

“It never came together until I made the team. Not one time. I never beat that girl. I never medaled at the world championships,” Campbell said. “But it took that. I just want to do my best. No matter what, I would have left knowing I did my best and gave it my all.”

Campbell upset Maroulis within the first two matches in the best-of-three championship series going, 2-0, 0-1, 1-0 and 0-2, 1-0, 2-1. 

Even before the clock ran out, Campbell dropped to her knees, her hands covering her face as she wept tears of joy and relief after years of fighting what seemed to be an uphill battle. 

“It was an intense out of body experience,” Campbell recalled. “Up until that point, I didn’t really focus on the outcome; I just focused on the moment and I embraced that moment.” 

Since the challenge in April, Campbell has continued her training and competing in tournaments to help prepare for her upcoming world showing in London.

“I don’t think there are any secrets. You work on things and work on them everyday,” she said of her strategy going in to the competition.

Campbell hasn’t lost the spirit that originally pushed her to prove a group of high school boy wrestlers wrong. It’s just now, that spirit brings a heftier goal to mind.

“I think I can make it as big as I want to. My goal is to win a gold medal. If I win a silver or bronze I will be stoked but we aren’t training to lose in the finals.” 

Campbell will represent the USA on the mat in London, beginning Aug. 8.