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
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