Fostering a Champion

Feb. 5, 2008

Each day Lee Kemp walks into his Lee Kemp Cooler Wrestling Club in Alpharetta, Ga., he feels a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, and a sense that this is where he was meant to be.  And what he was meant to do as well.  He is focused on giving back to the sport that made him who he is today and simply trying to influence future wrestlers the way he was influenced at a young age.  He wants to be the coach that his athletes remember, because Kemp himself has never forgotten the coach that taught him how to be a champion.

Prior to excelling as a world champion, and before ending his career at Wisconsin as one of the greatest collegiate wrestlers to ever step on the mat, Kemp was a young man just trying to find a little stability in his life.

The man who everyone in the wrestling world has come to known as Lee Kemp, was officially known as Leroy P. Kemp, Jr., by the age of four-and-a-half, after being born Darnell Freeman to a mother and a father he would not meet until the age of 37.  On Dec. 24, 1956, in Cleveland, Ohio, he was born to 18-year-old single mother Barbara Freeman and father Theodore Mathis, Jr., also 18 and home on leave from Korea after a stint in the Army.  Already a mother of two and at the advice of her mother, Barbara Freeman gave her son up for adoption.  After spending time in two foster homes, Leroy Percy Kemp and his wife Jessie, both nearly 50 years of age, adopted young Freeman and quickly changed his name to that of his new father. 

It took nearly five years of uncertainty, but finally Kemp was given a chance at life and more importantly, two parents to love.

Jessie and Leroy, Sr., two honest and hard-working individuals, who had never owned a credit card until Kemp was in college, uprooted the family from Cleveland and purchased a 25-acre farm 30 miles northeast of the city in the rural town of Chardon.

Kemp called the move a dream come true for his parents, but for him, it was so much more.  It was a fresh start. 

A start to something special.

Initially Kemp's athletic career at Chardon High began on the basketball court, but life as a basketball player last all but two days.  His fellow classmates encouraged him to tryout for the high school wrestling team as a freshman in 1970-71, which he managed to win the conference tournament with just two one-point losses to his record.  But it would be his sophomore season where Kemp's life would change forever.  Chardon hired Richard Depenbrok as its wrestling coach and he quickly became a fan of the young and still inexperienced Kemp. 

"My high school coach shaped my whole wrestling career," Kemp said.  "He gave me the courage to dream and to be the best.  He saw potential in me when I didn't see it in myself."

Kemp became acclimated to wrestling with an average 11-8-3 campaign his sophomore season.  However in his junior year, he topped the defending runner-up and state champion in route to a perfect season.  He captured his second-straight Ohio state high school title in 1973-74 and finished his final two seasons with 24 pins and a record of 55-0-0.

His success in wrestling led Kemp to Madison and the University of Wisconsin, a town and school he immediately felt comfortable in, something other African-American student-athletes didn't necessarily feel for some time.

"Madison and rural Wisconsin were similar environments to where I grew up in a farming community," Kemp said.  "Chardon was a predominately white community, which prepared me for the environment in Wisconsin.  Typically your first year is really tough to acclimate, but it wasn't tough for me to get used to.  I had the benefit of being in a more diverse environment growing up compared to some of my black classmates."

Now all Kemp had to do was wrestle.

"I expected to win right away in college," he said.  "The coaches at Wisconsin allowed me to have those thoughts.  (Former UW head coach) Duane Kleven and I joke about it now.  I was a different type of individual, but he allowed me to be an individual."

It was at Wisconsin where Kemp earned the nickname "Lee" as well as immediate respect as a dominant wrestler.  The Badger freshman became the first rookie to ever reach the NCAA Championships title bout, but suffered a defeat by way of a split referee's decision in overtime.  Many feel the decision was unjust considering Kemp ruled the match and scored the lone takedown in the bout.

"My initial goal was not to ever lose a match in college," he said.  "I lost five my freshman year and three of those were to the same person.  I wanted to move the bar higher than where it currently was."

After that devastating defeat in the championship final, Kemp never lost again.

As an 18-year-old sophomore, he earned national recognition by defeating legendary Dan Gable and went on to win three straight NCAA Championships at 158 pounds, while compiling an impressive record of 108-0-1.  Kemp concluded his career as a Badger with a final mark of 143-6-1, including a streak of 87 straight victories and an unbeaten string of 103 consecutive matches.  That streak is fourth-best in NCAA history along with his winning percentage of .953.

"Winning my first national title was my most memorable moment," Kemp said.  "Keep in mind, I only started wrestling in the ninth grade, so to win the title in just my sixth year was pretty special.  And certainly winning my third national title was special as well."

In August of 1978, just two months after graduating from Wisconsin, Kemp defeated Bulgaria's Alexander Nanev to capture the World Freestyle Championship.  At the age of 21 years and 8 months, Kemp became the youngest American wrestler to capture a gold medal, a record that still stands today.

"That is probably the one thing I am most proud of," he said.  "I always wanted to do something that had never been done before."

Wisconsin's Lee Kemp became the first American to win the World Freestyle Championship three times.

He then became the first American to win the event three times, as he added the 1979 and 1982 titles to his collection, along with a bronze medal in 1981.  He also held the distinction of becoming the first American to win four straight Freestyle World Cups.  All this success pointed to an opportunity to compete in the 1980 Olympics.  Kemp was a favorite to win the gold in Moscow, but never had an opportunity to compete due to the United States' boycott of the 1980 Games.  However, Kemp did defeat the Bulgarian Valentin Raitchev, the 1980 Olympic Champion, in the Super Champions title match following the Games in December.  Four years later he placed second in the Olympic trials to Dave Schultz, who went on to win the gold medal in Los Angeles.

"(The boycott) bothers me to this day," Kemp said.  "It's tough to live with that thought.  Maybe that is the reason I got out of wrestling." 

Kemp retired shortly after the trials in 1984 and entered the business world, becoming involved in a variety of different ventures.  He worked in Chicago and New York City, and eventually took over ownership of a car dealership in a suburb of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in Minnesota.

In February of 1990, Depenbrok returned to induct Kemp into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, which he called a "confirmation of a lifetime of wrestling."

Perhaps it was also a sign to become more involved in the sport that provided him so much fame in life.

Kemp started the Lee Kemp Cooler Wrestling Club as his way to give back to the wrestling community.

"I get excited about going to practice each day," he said.  "I remember the impact it had on me, so I'm very aware of how much of an impact it could have on these kids."

The impact stemmed from Kemp's high school mentor just simply believing in him.  Now, Kemp shows his kids he believes in them.

In recent years, Kemp coached the U.S. World Freestyle Team World at the 2007 World Championships in Guangzhou, China, as well as the U.S. Junior World Freestyle Team at the 2007 Junior World Championships in Beijing.  Last November, Kemp was confirmed as Team USA's freestyle coach for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing this summer.

It took 28 years, but Kemp will finally have his chance to compete at the Olympics.

"I am thoroughly happy about the opportunity to help another athlete reach his dreams and ultimate goal," he said.  "It would be something that I could do that would last forever.  I have remembered my high school coach my whole life and probably will until the day I die."

And now Kemp's life has come full circle.  The sense of pride and accomplishment of his individual success is there, but now he is where he was meant to be and doing what he was meant to do.

Helping others become champions.