Lee Kemp

Lee Kemp is one of the greatest wrestlers in United States history. He was a three-time Gold Medalist in the World Championships, a four-time Gold Medalist in the World Cup of Wrestling, a two-time Gold Medalist in the Pan American Games, a seven-time national champion, and was named the United States Wrestling Federation “Man of the Year” in 1978. In 1989 he was inducted to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Although he was an overwhelming favorite to win a Gold Medal in the 1980 Olympics, Lee was denied his chance to compete by the USA’s boycott of the games that year. In 2008 Lee was selected to coach the 2008 Olympic Wrestling Team.



Lee Kemp at the University of Wisconsin



I read that you started wrestling in high school because you got cut by the basketball team. Is that right?

LK: Actually, I quit because I knew I wasn’t going to play. My freshman year in high school I went out for the basketball team; I played in 7th through 9th grade and I scored two points in two years of basketball. I sat on the bench the whole two years. In the first scrimmage of 9th grade, I didn’t play. On the way back from practice I walked by the wrestling room and noticed their practice was still going on and I just started watching for a little bit. The next day instead of going to basketball practice, I went to wrestling practice. I just watched and tried to learn and then I started to get in there and mix it up a little bit and then the third day I decided to just wrestle. I wasn’t going to play in basketball anyway.

What was it when you were watching the wrestling practice?  What attracted you to the sport?

LK: The first thing I liked about it is was this it looked like everybody was participating. In wrestling practice, everybody was wrestling. Once I got in the wrestling room, I liked the fact that I was playing and then the coach told me that there was an open spot at 138 so I would be on the team if I went out. So that first match when I suited up in the uniform, I was the guy. I’d never been the guy before…and I won my first match and I won my second match and I won my third match and it was fun winning and being the guy—the number one guy. So my freshman year…I lost two matches and that next year I wrestled at varsity and my record was 11-8-3, not a real good record … but then the next two years I went on to be in and win the state tournament so that’s a story in and of itself.

You say you won your first three matches. Was that your first experience really winning?

LK: Yes, absolutely my first experience with winning and the thing I liked about it was I controlled everything. There was no coach deciding when I went in and when I went out. It was just me making all the decisions, making all the shots. The coach was there but I completely understood that it was just me—all me. Nothing controlled my destiny but me and then I realized I could get better by training harder, by learning more moves, by getting more focused and all that stuff.

Once you started wrestling, how quickly did you realize you could be really good— champion level good—at it?

LK: There was a guy on our team that was having a hard time making weight as a freshman so he went up to 138 and he beat me so I went to 132. I ended up winning conference because I cut down to 132. That was my first experience with making a sacrifice in order to win and being successful. That’s when I realized I could be really good. I realized the things that could separate me from everybody else was my positioning and my strength and my ability to endure until the end and not give up.

That’s interesting. Even people that are not real familiar with wrestling as a sport know what mental fortitude and toughness it takes to compete at any level in wrestling. Do you think that type of mental toughness is inborn or can it be developed?

LK: Well, I think it can come as a result of circumstance but the circumstance would have to be pretty dire, meaning you don’t have a whole lot of other choices. I guess what I’m trying to say is sometimes your back gets put against the wall and you accomplish things you had no idea you could accomplish. You know, we live in Western society that’s so comfortable that you can quit at any time so there’s a lot of athletes I know…where you can see there’s a little stage the get to and then they’re not trying quite as hard and then they walk off the mat and he has his home and his lifestyle and he goes out to have pizza with his friends. So there’s no real consequence to it. But I created a situation in my mind where I had to win. It was life or death. It was like  I was on the battlefield and I wasn’t going to come back alive if I didn’t do this. Thats  a whole different pressure level that you put on yourself where you absolutely feel like you have to win.


Nobody ever found Lee’s “off button”

How did you do that, specifically? How did you make yourself think that way?

LK: First of all, you have to feel like it’s all or nothing. If you think there’s an alternative or a way out, then there’s always an off button in your mind. I learned that from Gable (Dan) I guess. So I guess you could say it is learned because everything that was written about Dan Gable suggests that he was that way. I had the chance after my 11-8-3 season to be at a camp that he was at. I got to, first hand, absorb him. I was the only guy in the room that was sucking it out and so I decided there that I could win if I could be like him, if I adopted his kind of mentality. I just took that little snippet of his personality. Then I started to practice with better guys, guys who could make me quit but then I would come back a little stronger and I would train in a way that caused me to be mentally tough. I just knew that I had to develop this mentality that I was never going to quit at it. I was always that guy that was going to get the last lap in or to run one more mile. I didn’t know that that was building my mental toughness. I was just doing what I thought Gable would do and so as it turned out nobody that I ever wrestled was able to find my “off” button. We all have one somewhere but nobody could find mine and I realized that by actually training with Dan Gable. When I got to be a little older I got to go to training camps and I got to actually work out with him every day.

You actually beat him in a match one time.

LK: Yes, I did and what I learned from that match was that you can beat someone that is better than you. I learned how to be ahead when the time runs out. I learned how to control position and control my tie-ups and set-ups where it makes it difficult for a guy to score. After our match when Gable came off the mat, one of things he said to a reporter was that he couldn’t get [me] out of position, [I] was very strong and [he] couldn’t get [me] tired. So those were the three things he didn’t have control over. And before you even learn any wrestling moves, you have to be in a place where you don’t get out of position. Once I was able to do that, thenit was all-good.


Lee’s defeat of Dan Gable was huge news.

What does that mean, ‘before you learn any wrestling moves, you have to be in a place where you don’t get out of position’? Are you talking about balance or strength or what?

LK: It’s learning leverage and learning when I’m out of position. That allowed me to develop that mindset that I couldn’t get scored on because. Position comes before a wrestling move. You can’t execute a wrestling move until you’re in a position to do it. It’s like if I’m a quarterback and I’m always getting sacked before I even get my arm back to throw the ball. I’m not even in position to throw the ball yet because my linebackers or…my tackles aren’t doing their job. And that’s what wrestling is. If a guy’s always controlling you and shooting at you, and controlling your arms, you’re not ever even in a position to shoot or score. But if you learn position and you learn to control the match, control the tie-ups, then you can be in a position to win.

What’s the toughest thing athletically, physically or mentally that you’ve ever pushed yourself through? Was it in a match or in training?

LK:  I learned early on through some of the practices that Dan Gable put me through. They were so intense and so hard that once I finished them, I realized that I could do almost anything. I just believed that I could do anything now because I was able to survive his practice.

How do you push yourself that hard and not get hurt? Let’s say you have the mental toughness, but how do you make sure your body keeps up with your mind—or is that the responsibility of your coach and your trainers?

LK: Your coach and trainers certainly have to be aware of your limitations because there were times when Gable would take us to practice and I truly wonder how he knew how far to push us. I just didn’t know because I felt like I was at the end. Because I think in his wisdom, he knew his athletes well enough that he knew what they could handle. But I will say this to you though—at my first time being coached by him in 1978, I think he honed out everybody on the team except me. I think the other athletes weren’t able to deal with that level of intensity. I think that it took them—they got broken down, they got hurt, so there is some genetics to it. I was one of the guys that I could handle the type of intensity he threw out but at the same time, you look at a guy like Cael Sanderson and he certainly worked hard. Did he work as hard as Gable? Maybe, I don’t know. John Smith, Bruce Baumgartner—and they all had different training styles but the common denominator is that they all worked hard; they all worked extremely hard.

You coached at an Olympic level and you also do a lot of youth camps. How do you teach focus? 

You have to practice focus. My coach early on in high school had us wrestle situations. He’d say one guy start the leg and we go live in 30-second drills. This forces you to focus on that one maneuver at a time. I got good enough to where I could score almost every time I was in the position. If I didn’t score, I tried to figure out why I didn’t score and then I made adjustments. So, you have to train in a way that causes you to focus. Another way to do that is to go short goals. [My coach would say], “Ok, here’s the situation: Lee, you’re down by one point and there’s 30 seconds left, you’re on your feet and you have to score, “so you start that way or you start in that particular situation, or “you’re on top, you’re riding, you’re losing by a point and you have to turn this guy, etc.” So there’s intensity, urgency to the situation and it creates this situation where you are always aware of the intensity that’s needed to make something happen.


Lee and the rest of 2008 Olympic Wrestling Team with President George W Bush.

You were competing internationally from very early on and back in your days, international competition had a much different flavor because of the Cold War. To kids now or wrestlers who have no idea what it was like, what was it like back in those days going up against the Soviet machine or can you describe that? Is it different today than it was back in those days?

I think it is different. I think that the area of technique. The Soviet Union was all one major conglomeration of all those republics and they could draw all the various republics and you had one tough guy who’s representing the Soviet Union. Now because it’s split up, Russia in and of itself, they’re still the best but differently because you’ve got these other good wrestlers that come out of these other republics. The area of technique was more centralized back then, which I think made it a little bit tougher. The technique isn’t as good from Russia now as it once was because they’re decentralized now. I’ll watch matches and I’ll say to myself, ‘wow, that doesn’t look as technical as I remember it.’

It seems to when you were wrestling there was more of a political element to it. The USA competing against the Soviet Union in 1972 or 1976 or 1980 means something very different than the USA competing against Russia today, but maybe I’m wrong.

LK: No, you’re not wrong. But I was not distracted by it. I’m trying to wrap my head around how put this to best help athletes reading this interview. I think the one key thing you need to win is dedication and when I say, ‘dedication’ that means you’re picking and you’re choosing what to pay attention to. When you choose to be good at something, you choose to neglect something else. When you choose to include everything, or as much as you can, then everything is going to get diluted. Being so dedicated that you become sort of one-dimensional is a little scary, because we want our kids to be well rounded. But when I look at someone that’s really good at anything, they’ve devoted their life to it. Like Arnold Palmer still golfs; he golfed his whole life. He became good at it and he made a career at it. People can criticize Dan Gable as being too one-track minded, but no one had a career like he had. He was so focused on it that it just became an obsession. You become good at the things you focus on and things that you’re dedicated to and you will improve. You will always improve when you get focused and you start doing things in more of a focused manner.

See Lee Kemp’s Huge  Upset of  Soviet Wrestler Alexander Markovich



To learn more about Lee visit his website also visit Forza By Kemp his special brand of nutritional supplements for high intensity athletes.






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