Hero wres­tles to re­demp­tion

Kevin Wallen has used his sport to fight his way out of poverty and be­come, at 48, an inspiration for oth­ers

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Commonwealth Games -

At 11, Kevin Wallen was a wastrel, a pen­ni­less “squeegee boy”, stop­ping drivers in Ja­maica for un­so­licited washes of their wind­screens. He begged for money, sold news­pa­pers, some­times even stole. At 48, he was the toast of Com­mon­wealth Games wrestling, en­joy­ing the dis­tinc­tion of be­ing both the head of his sport’s na­tional fed­er­a­tion and an age-de­fy­ing ath­lete in his own right. “Kevin’s 10 years older than I am,” the arena an­nouncer told an en­rap­tured Gold Coast crowd. “And he’s in much bet­ter shape.”

Wrestling has been Wallen’s pass­port out of penury. When he ar­rived in Canada in his mid-teens to re­join his mother, who had her­self for­saken Ja­maica in search of a bet­ter life, he was not just im­pov­er­ished but il­lit­er­ate.

“I just didn’t know how to adapt,” he says. “I went into a class­room where the teacher would say, ‘Ev­ery­one’s go­ing to read a para­graph. Peo­ple would laugh. In­stead of al­low­ing my­self to be em­bar­rassed all the time, I was a bad kid. I sank into a lot of prob­lems just so they kicked me out of class, and I didn’t have to go through the shame.”

Hav­ing tried out for al­most ev­ery sport and been cut from ev­ery ros­ter, Wallen felt con­sumed by bleak­ness. “I was

20 and de­pressed – there seemed no way out,” he re­calls. “My school grades weren’t im­pres­sive, and the only jobs I could get were in a ware­house or wash­ing dishes. I de­cided I didn’t want to do that any longer.”

It took a wrestling coach, Jonathan Gra­ham, to en­able the change. Be­fore long, Wallen’s tal­ents in the es­sen­tial wrestling arts of hold­ing, grap­pling, throw­ing and pin­ning se­cured him a four-year schol­ar­ship at On­tario’s Lake­head Uni­ver­sity, and his restora­tion of self-worth be­gan. Now, he is not just a hero of these Games but the fa­ther of Ja­maican wrestling, help­ing in­mates in the is­land’s max­i­mum­se­cu­rity pris­ons try to em­u­late him. He is also an es­tab­lished mo­ti­va­tional speaker and was a close friend of Ru­bin “Hur­ri­cane” Carter – the ex-mid­dleweight cham­pion wrongly con­victed of mur­der and even­tu­ally re­leased af­ter a pe­ti­tion of habeas cor­pus

– un­til the boxer’s death in 2014. The pair gave talks to­gether to pris­on­ers, for whom Wallen later set up an in-house IT lab­o­ra­tory to give them some tech­no­log­i­cal knowl­edge on re­lease.

It mat­tered not to Wallen that he lost his quar­ter-fi­nal yes­ter­day, to Canada’s Alexan­der Moore, an op­po­nent 28 years his ju­nior and ad­judged a 10-0 win­ner “by tech­ni­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity”. He al­ready had a tena­cious 11-10 win over the Ba­hamas’ Rashji Mackey and found, six months shy of his 49th birth­day, that he lacked the stamina for an en­core.

In­stead, in­tense sat­is­fac­tion could be de­rived from be­ing here at all, given that he had sold “Cool Pin­nings” T-shirts – in hon­our of the Ja­maican bob­sled­ders, whose ex­ploits at the 1988 Cal­gary Win­ter Olympics were cel­e­brated in the hit film Cool Run­nings – to fund his trip to Aus­tralia.

“It’s very emo­tional be­ing here, to ac­com­plish this dream,” Wallen says. “Wrestling is a sport where, even if you don’t be­come a world su­per­star or a cham­pion, you can be put on a bet­ter path. By its na­ture, it puts you in a lot of tight spots, where you feel you can’t get out. Yet the more you fight, the more you feel you can es­cape.”

This is the credo that Wallen now de­votes his ev­ery wak­ing hour to im­part­ing. He warms so pas­sion­ately to his theme that one of the Gold Coast vol­un­teers lis­ten­ing asks if he might speak at her school. “Any time,” he smiles. “Once you find some­thing pur­pose­ful in your life, it leads you some­where dif­fer­ent. That’s what wrestling did for me – it showed me life beyond my cir­cum­stances.”

Wallen was asked to lead the pro­mo­tion of the sport in Ja­maica by Josip Mrkoci, pres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Wrestling Fed­er­a­tion, and needed lit­tle per­suad­ing. “We’re built for it in the Caribbean,” he says, flaunt­ing his rip­pling physique. “Look at Cuba, they have al­ways been a force.” He was also con­vinced to come out of re­tire­ment so that he could spread the gospel on a global plat­form. “What wrestling does, which I feel a lot of sports don’t do, is that com­peti­tors give back. They be­come coaches, men­tors. It’s not just about throw­ing money at it, but de­scrib­ing what you learnt, what turned you around. That’s why I love this sport. As long as I’m alive, I’ll be in­volved at some level. Some sports don’t trickle down. In track and field, if you’re not fast enough, you can’t do it. In soc­cer, if you’re not skilled enough, you have to find some­thing else. But in wrestling, you can keep go­ing and end up in col­lege be­cause of it. The sport will be ab­sorbed into the Ja­maican com­mu­nity in a way that will shift the men­tal­ity of young peo­ple.”

Vis­i­bly moved by the re­cep­tion af­forded him by his Gold Coast au­di­ence, Wallen re­flects: “I went through a pe­riod when I didn’t have any hope. I never thought the day would come when I could be in a place like this, with peo­ple cheer­ing for me. Wrestling saved my life.”

Get­ting a grip: Kevin Wallen in con­trol dur­ing his vic­tory over Rashji Mackey

By Oliver Brown CHIEF SPORTS FEA­TURE WRITER on the Gold Coast

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