Wrestling takes more than words to become a GOAT

Updated: August 15, 2023

Photo: Kenny Monday won an Olympic gold medal in 1988 after first capturing an NCAA title for Oklahoma State in 1984 and before he added a World championship in 1989. (USA Wrestling photo)

By Kyle Kingman

This isn’t an indictment about wanting to be a World and Olympic champion. This is an indictment on those who say it so casually.

“I want to be a World, and Olympic champion,” says every wrestler during a post-match interview.

Okay, maybe it’s not every wrestler, but enough where you can start to see a pattern. It’s neck and neck with using a GOAT (Greatest of All Time) emoji or saying that someone is “goated” on social media.

Calling someone a GOAT is a hyperbole and a term of endearment. There is presumably only one greatest of all time, so calling someone a GOAT means you’ve likely done something spectacular.

It’s a hollow term that lacks meaning.

Winning a World or Olympic gold medal is different. You can’t call someone a World champion or an Olympic gold medalist unless it happens, but some try to talk or type it into existence.

“That’s a future Olympic champion right there,” someone posted on social media after a wrestler hit a spectacular throw.

Really? The barometer for winning an Olympic gold medal, in this instance, is a sweet move against an unknown opponent.

It’s easy to get excited about someone’s future, but it needs to stop. It places unrealistic expectations on someone and it shows how little people know about the Olympic process.

Making an Olympic team is insanely hard. Harder than you can imagine. Winning an Olympic gold medal is much more difficult than that.

Even if you think you know how hard it is, you don’t. This is a nearly impossible path where most fail in their quest.

“Winning the Olympics takes talent. That’s first and foremost,” said 1988 Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday. “Beyond that, it’s an environment with great workout partners and great coaches so you can focus on getting to your best.

“You have to have a level of intelligence to get to the top and the ability to implement your technique. Then it’s the sacrifice to get your body where it needs to be. There are a lot of people who could have gone further, had they not gotten injured. It’s understanding my strengths and weaknesses, and pushing my body as far as it can go.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but here are seven thoughts on the matter:

1. The Olympics happen every four years and — as of right now — there are six weights in three different disciplines: men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle, and Greco-Roman. Every country has to qualify for the Olympics so there’s no guarantee that your weight will be qualified.

2. Under the U.S. system, you have to qualify for the Olympic Trials, you have to win the Olympic Trials, and you have to win the Olympics, which, as we know, happens every four years.

3. You have to assume a war or a boycott doesn’t stand in your way. Lee Kemp was primed and ready to win a gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but the United States boycotted due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Olympics have also been canceled due to world wars.

4. You have to assume that an injury or a positive COVID test doesn’t knock you out of contention.

5. Your workout partners and coaches have to be as invested as you are.

6. You have to push your mind and body beyond the point of no return.

7. You can do everything right and still not win.

As it stands today, 12 American men and two women have won wrestling’s triple crown of a national collegiate title, a World title, and an Olympic gold medal. (See the chart below.)

Some people say they want to be an NCAA, World, and Olympic champion and other people mean it.

There is a distinct difference between the two.

(Kyle Klingman, the former director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, is an editorial content provider for Flowrestling.)