The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Former three-time World champ now shares his knowledge with Wisconsin-Whitewater and others
During the 1970s and ‘80s, Lee Kemp was considered the sport’s best wrestler of that era: winning three NCAA championships for the University of Wisconsin (1976-78) and became the United States’ first three-time World champion in freestyle (1978, ’79 and ’82). Born on Christmas Eve in 1956, the native of Cleveland, Ohio, would also become one of just seven wrestlers to beat Dan Gable — at the 1975 Northern Open in Madison, Wisc. — but never got a chance to compete in the Olympics even after making the team in 1980 for the Games in Moscow, which the U.S. eventually boycotted.
After leaving the sport as an alternate to the 1984 Olympics to Dave Schultz, Kemp joined the business world, first in advertising and marketing for Clairol hair supplies in New York, 1985-87, then became a long-time dealer for the Ford Motor company in the Twin Cities from 1988 to 2005, when he was named to the NCAA’s 75th Anniversary team. He then moved to the Chicago area, where he started a wrestling club in Palatine, Ill.
But it wasn’t until 2008 that Kemp’s love for wrestling was reignited. USA Wrestling supporter John Bardis invited Kemp to the Olympic Trials that summer and later as a member of the U.S. freestyle coaching staff that competed in the Beijing Olympic Games.
This fall, Tim Fader, the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, hired Kemp as a special assistant coach for the NCAA Division III program. Kemp, who still lives in the northwest suburb of Chicago, recently spoke with WIN Editor Mike Finn about his work with the Whitewater program and his return to the sport as an entrepreneur in sports nutrition and inspirational speaker. He created a website, “leekemp.com”, where fans can learn more about Kemp and his current life.
WIN: What brought you back to wrestling, especially your connection with Whitewater?
KEMP: I think it was a combination of things. After I got to be a part of the 2008 Olympic Team, I learned from that experience and that I belong in wrestling. I really believe this is where I need to be.
At this time in my life, I get a great deal of satisfaction in wrestling and to take a quote from the late Joe Frazier, “People keep wanting to hear what I have to say so I keep coming back.” I feel the same way.
After I moved to the Chicago area, I started to meet other people and developed a relationship with the Southern Lakes Wrestling Center in Elkhorn, Wisc., which is down the road (18 miles) from Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Someone told me that Tim Fader might be interested in your help and since I regularly made a trip to Elkhorn, I might as well do something at Whitewater. I’ve known Tim for awhile after doing clinics for him in the past. So we talked about it and Tim put it together. He’s an aggressive coach who wants to give his team an edge and he saw an opportunity to get me in there.
I’m happy to work with the college kids. I’m not there that much. I’m there at least one day a week and if I can be there more I will. I think Tim saw an opportunity that any time you can work with a former World champion, there is some value to that.
I gained a lot from that idea in my early career of working out with tough guys. Dan Gable was the guy I idolized when I was younger and I valued my time with him on the mat more than anything else.
Now I’m just getting to know the (Whitewater) guys and who they are. Coach Fader has me talking to the kids before practice and he even created a forum for me to speak to the entire athletic department.
WIN: What types of advice to you give them?
KEMP: My (recent) topic was, “What you do today does matter.”
We always wonder how we end up somewhere in life. I know I do it myself.
You come to the sobering realization that no matter how good or bad the event is, you are the one responsible for it. You can blame everything on someone else. Once you become cognitive of the fact that you are responsible for everything that happens, you will start making better choices.
People today become stagnant and don’t believe what they do matters. A young wrestler may say I’m never going to be a state champion because I have too far to go and they may not try as hard and you rationalize what you do today doesn’t matter. I’m telling them that it does.
WIN: Talk about the time when you left wrestling.
KEMP: In 1983, I went to graduate school when Dave Schultz won the Worlds.
Tactically, it wasn’t the best approach (to go to school) because I felt then I was a hair better than him. (After the Olympics) that’s when I officially retired and went into business.
WIN: Did you ever lose your love for wrestling?
KEMP: Every city I lived in, I would work out with local teams.
When I lived in New Jersey, I worked out with the Montclair State University team. When I was a car dealer in Minnesota, I would drive up to J (Robinson’s) practices (at the University of Minnesota). I also worked out with Forest Lake High School. I always wanted to be involved in wrestling.
WIN: Do you feel there are a lot of veteran wrestlers like yourself, who would like to be part of wrestling today and could add to the sport but are not asked enough?
KEMP: Absolutely. Part of the problem with wrestling, for guys like me, was that we wrestled when there was no money in wrestling. The only way we could make money was put on clinics. When I lived in the Twin Cities, I never thought about accepting money to work out with the college team.
That mentality is changing now. There are a lot of opportunities now.
There has to be a mentality out there where people are willing to pay. If you wanted to develop a good hockey player and hired a professional to work with him, you wouldn’t expect to do it for free. There is no mentality like that except for wrestling.
Tim was willing to raise the money to pay me to be there. Tim is trying to create some interest and excitement about his program. He’s doing what I’d do.
This could open the door for other guys like me, who live in the area of a college and would love to go back into a room for nothing. But that guy should also be paid to be there and provide an opportunity for an athlete like myself to stay connected with the sport.
WIN: What is it about the sport that carried through your life? It seems like you need to be around a mat again. Is that the case?
KEMP: I always had a commitment to stay in shape. All those years, I was out of wrestling and working in business, I worked out on the mat as much as I wanted to. I went to a health club and tried to work out as much as I could like biking. But I realized those were things that I did not enjoy as much as wrestling.
John Bardis was one of the first to get me back into wrestling when he invited me to come to the 2008 Olympic Trials at a time I was going through some tough times in my life like a divorce. At that time, I had not been around wrestling for a long time. I didn’t even go to the college matches when I was working in Minnesota.
From the moment I walked in the door at the Trials in Las Vegas, I said, ‘Wow, I feel back home.’ After all the people I saw, I felt like I should never have left wrestling. My personal life took me away from wrestling.
I got out of wrestling and thought I needed to do something else. But I was in an environment where people did not understand how important wrestling was to me. As a result, I totally walked away from it because I felt that I had to. But I didn’t have to. I could have made a living in wrestling.
Look at what Ken Chertow is doing. He’s a smart guy who loves what he is doing and helping kids. Look at the young men he’s helped become champions. He’s developed good character and is a man of quality, just like Gable or John Smith or J Robinson.
I want to do the same thing and now that I’m back, I want to be that to all these young people.