Wrestling legend aims to inspire new generation of athletes in Huntley
An athlete who has won almost every award there is to win in freestyle wrestling now makes his home in Huntley, working to raise a new generation of not only great wrestlers, but also hard workers.
"Wrestling builds character and teaches many things, but one thing it teaches is self-confidence. It teaches you to believe in yourself because when you compete in wrestling, it is just you and your opponent out there on the mat, and nobody else can help you," Leroy "Lee" Kemp told the McHenry Times. "You must do this yourself, so wrestling teaches self-reliance."
Kemp is nothing less than a legend in the world of freestyle wrestling. Kemp began wrestling as a high school freshman and went undefeated while winning two Ohio state titles his last two years. In between high school and college, Kemp was one of only four American Junior wrestlers who achieved a dual meet win in a match against the Junior Soviet team, which was on a tour of the U.S. Kemp also won the Junior National Freestyle Tournament in the same year.
Kemp went on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a Division I National finalist all four years, going undefeated in the last three years. Even in his freshman year, Kemp only lost three times and placed second nationally. Perhaps an even bigger accomplishment was winning a match against wrestling legend Dan Gable, who was older and more experienced, and making a run at the Olympics. Defeating Gable truly established Kemp as a legend in the making.
Kemp indeed lived up to that potential, winning four World Championship titles, the first in 1978 at age 21, making him the youngest U.S. world champion ever, a distinction he would hold until 2008. Kemp would go on to win the World Cup four times, as well as the U.S. Freestyle National Championship seven times. But Kemp's chance at wrestling's biggest prize was snatched away. Kemp was considered a heavy favorite to win a gold medal at the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, which would have served as a monumental cap to an amazing career. However, a number of countries, including the U.S., boycotted those Olympics due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"It’s really hard for me to even think about it even now," Kemp said. "It didn’t make sense back in 1980, and it really doesn’t make sense now. The fact that the Olympics is every four years, and most athletes really only get one shot at it. 1980 was my year, and poof, it was gone." Kemp went on to say that while he values the Olympics and the opportunities for international glory they offer athletes, they also serve as an every-four-years reminder of the chance that was taken away from him.
Kemp retired from international competition in 1984 after a second-place finish at the Olympic trials. Kemp was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1990. Then, in a fitting place to receive such an honor considering the one award he was denied, Kemp was inducted into the United World Wrestling (once known as FILA) Hall of Fame at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, where he was serving as a coach for the U.S. team. Kemp was just the fifth American to receive such an honor.
A documentary about Kemp's career, "Ghost and Goblins" (not to be confused with the video game series Ghosts and Goblins) is in the fund-raising stages. It will chronicle Kemp's rise from the rough streets of Cleveland to international wrestling superstar. But for all the documenting of his career, Kemp said he hopes people who watch the film take away the lesson of seeing things through.
"It’s really about not giving up and persevering through tough times and understanding that disappointments will come, many of which are beyond our control, but in the end, we must persevere through our disappointments and downfalls, and persevere through them and never quit," Kemp said.
That perseverance is a lesson that Kemp is now teaching a new generation of young wrestlers in Illinois. Kemp is an associate head coach and program director at the Old School Wrestling academy in Huntley. Kemp hopes to inspire a generation that he thinks hasn't been taught the principles of hard work and determination.
"The problem with young people today is they don’t know how to work hard, and they don’t know when the job is done right, so most young people today do shabby work that is clearly not their best work, and clearly would not have passed the approval of my dad," Kemp said. "I want the young wrestlers to learn how to work hard, and I want them to understand the value of hard work. Most importantly, I want my son Adam, whose is 16 and a junior at Fremd High School on the varsity wrestling team, to learn the value of hard work through wrestling.
Wrestling builds character and teaches many things, but one thing it teaches is self-confidence. It teaches you to believe in yourself because when you compete in wrestling, it is just you and your opponent out there on the mat, and nobody else can help you. You must do this yourself, so wrestling teaches self-reliance."
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