Pictured (L to R): Gable Steveson, David Carr, Aaron Brooks, Roman Bravo-Young, and Carter Starocci after winning 2021 NCAA titles in St. Louis, Missouri at the Enterprise Center last March. Photo courtesy of David Carr’s Twitter Page (@Carrchamp).
Where and when a person grows up can change their perspective on the world. Also, growing up in the 1960s vs. growing up in the 2000s can provide a drastically different perspective.
SPIRE Institute and Academy wresting head coach Kenny Monday, who grew up in the 1960s in Oklahoma, competed on an all-black wrestling team.
“Oklahoma was pretty segregated,” Monday said. “It was a tough start as far as going to the tournaments. People did not want us coming and those kinds of things.”
Reigning NCAA champion David Carr, an Ohio native, now a redshirt junior at Iowa State, grew up wrestling in a reasonably diverse environment throughout the 2000s in the Buckeye State.
“I started wrestling in the fifth grade, and there were a few Black athletes around me,” Carr said.
Between Monday and Carr were wrestlers like Glen Lanham, now Duke’s head coach, who grew up in New York, and Angel Escobedo, Indiana’s head coach, who grew up in Indiana.
They each had different experiences. Lanham was pretty used to being the sole black athlete in the room, and Escobedo grew up in a 90% African American and 10% Hispanic wrestling club.
Besides their skin color, one of the things that bonds these standout wrestlers is how they got involved in the sport. Monday, Escobedo and Carr got involved in wrestling because of their families. Monday had brothers who competed before him, Escobedo had cousins and uncles who wrestled. Carr had his father, Nate Carr, an Olympian, and older brothers, cousins, and uncles who spent time on the mats.
For Lanham, the journey to wrestling was a bit different.
“When I was a kid, I had scarlet fever,” Lanham recalled. “I ended up missing about two months of school, and I was watching the state championships for wrestling on TV. I just really fell in love with [wrestling].”
Many young Black wrestlers had a similar experience to Lanham. Many eagerly and excitedly watched as Monday became an inspiration, becoming the first Black man to win an Olympic gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
“It [winning gold] was really amazing,” Monday said. “I couldn’t believe it when I started to think about it because all the guys that came before me, my journey is standing on their shoulders.”
Bobby Douglas, a legendary Black competitor and coach himself, was one of Monday’s biggest inspirations. Douglas helped Monday understand the magnitude of becoming the first-ever Black man to earn Olympic gold for the USA.
“The Olympic dreams and reaching your goals, those things were just icing on the cake,” Monday said.
Today, Jordan Burroughs is the face of USA Wrestling. The New Jersey native is an Olympic gold medalist and five-time World gold medalist.
Burroughs’ successes have undoubtedly helped continue to inspire other Black wrestlers and helped grow the sport as a whole.
“I think that what Jordan Burroughs has been able to do as the face of USA Wrestling over the past decade has been huge for the African Americans in our sport,” Escobedo said. “Someone like him is a great representation and example that anyone can make it.”
Unfortunately, the prominence of Black head coaches has been slower to progress on the NCAA DI coaching scene. Of the 78 Division I wrestling programs, only three are led by Black men – Lanham at Duke, Escobedo at Indiana, and Chris Pendleton at Oregon State. That means less than 0.04% of all D1 wrestling programs have Black head coaches.
“It’s not easy,” Lanham said. “Most Black coaches, when they are hired, we don’t just think about our jobs. We think about the next person, and you can’t give people excuses not to hire that next person that looks like you. You have to be on the top of your game and make sure everything is running.”
Escobedo echoed the same sentiment, saying, “There’s part of me that’s like ‘you can’t fail,’” he said. “You want to be able to succeed so that we can have more Black coaches down the line.”
As for the athletes themselves, 2021 was a massive year. Five out of the 10 2021 Division I NCAA national champions were Black – that included Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State /133), David Carr (Iowa State /157), Carter Starocci (Penn State /174), Aaron Brooks (Penn State / 184) and Gable Steveson (Minnesota / 285).
“It means a lot,” Carr said of the historic 2021 NCAAs. “The five individuals, we knew that we could make history going into the Finals, so we were like, ‘Let’s go all out.’ It’s awesome that wrestling has become a sport where we can inspire young Black men and show them that they can come and do it too.”
On the women’s freestyle side, Tamyra Mensah-Stock became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in the 2021 Olympic games.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Monday said of Mensah-Stock’s showing at the Tokyo Games. “It was emotional to see her win, but it was emotional to see the whole U.S. Team, to be honest. Watching Gable, now we’ve got five Black [Olympic] medalists. I was the first, Kevin Jackson was the second, Jordan Burroughs was the third, Gable was the fourth, and now Tamyra is the fifth.”
Being a Black wrestler has helped put the many years of oppression and struggles into perspective for Monday, Lanham, and Escobedo. The sport taught them that while a match lasts only six or seven minutes, life doesn’t stop after the whistle blows.
“There is no doubt that being a wrestler is hard,” Escobedo said. “Hard as it is, it’s nothing compared to the hardships that many Black men have faced before me.”
“I’ve always been proud of who I am,” Lanham said. “Wrestling teaches you how to deal with the struggles of being an individual. Every time that there’s been a struggle that I had to count on myself, I could always go back to the toughest [days] of wrestling. Life is tougher than wrestling, and there are no time-outs in life. Life goes on.”
Being in the minority, Black wrestlers at the top of their careers become role models to many wrestlers younger than them. It can be a challenge, but Carr likes to take it head-on and give back the same treatment and support he received as an up-and-coming wrestler.
“I just try to be myself and go out there and wrestle hard,” Carr said. “I also try to interact with anyone whenever I’m traveling, at tournaments, or going anywhere. I try to interact with the younger generation.”
Looking forward, Monday, Lanham, Carr, and Escobedo all want the same thing for the future of Black wrestlers and coaches everywhere within their beloved sport: opportunity.