It was one of those magical moments Kelsey Campbell won’t soon forget.
Tears streamed down her cheeks and she cupped her hands over her face while being overcome with emotion as 12,000 enthusiastic fans stood and cheered.
Campbell had won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the second straight time.
And in the same raucous venue in the wrestling mecca of Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.
“It was kind of crazy — and it was really awesome,” she said. “I was going through a lot of things on and off the mat, and I think that was a big part of why so many emotions came out when I won. The fans were amazing. I had a lot of really good support around me, and that helped me focus on the task at hand.”
But there was one big difference this time. The United States still hadn’t qualified Campbell’s weight class of 58 kg. in women’s freestyle wrestling for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
When Campbell knocked off favored Helen Maroulis to win the Olympic trials in 2012, she knew at that moment that she would represent Team USA at the London Games.
Campbell was an underdog in 2016 as well with top young wrestler Alli Ragan in her weight class. But Campbell used her superb defense to knock off Ragan and win the trials.
That meant there was still work to do. Campbell traveled overseas to the final two Olympic qualifiers — in Mongolia and Turkey — but fell short of qualifying her country for the Games.
“It was a very difficult weight class. Those qualifiers are so tough,” she said. “I truly believe I did everything I could to make the team. It hurt so bad. There was just a feeling of disbelief. I couldn’t believe my opportunity for the Olympics was over. It was a really challenging time. It was a new experience because that didn’t happen in 2012. It’s something you can’t prepare for.”
Now 31 years old, Campbell is still excelling as a new four-year Olympic cycle is in full swing. Coming off a U.S. Open win earlier this season, Campbell is one of the top contenders to win the U.S. Senior Women’s Freestyle World Team Trials in Las Vegas.
She has moved back to her 2012 Olympic weight class of 55 kg., where she will likely be seeded second at the World Team Trials behind with 2016 world team member Sarah Hildebrandt.
“There are a lot of tough young girls in this weight class,” Campbell said. “I just have to zero in and stay disciplined and keep my focus.”
Fifth at the 2010 world championships in Moscow, Campbell is still pursuing that elusive medal on the Olympic and world stage. She is back training in Phoenix, where she wrestled collegiately at Arizona State.
Campbell’s 2012 win over Maroulis was one of the biggest of her career. Maroulis was coming off a fifth-place finish at the world championships and was a rising star who appeared to have the inside track on making the Olympic team. But Campbell had other ideas, beating the top-ranked Maroulis in two straight matches in a best-of-three series to make the Olympic team.
“I’m just waiting to wake up right now,” Campbell said after that win in 2012. “I can’t believe this is real.”
Maroulis has gone on to win world gold, silver and bronze medals before becoming the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling in 2016.
Campbell likely won’t see Maroulis (58 kg.) and Ragan (60 kg.) this week, as they are expected to be in the weight classes just above Campbell’s.
U.S. coach Terry Steiner knows the experienced Campbell can still excel on this level.
“Kelsey’s a veteran — she’s an experienced wrestler who has obviously been around and had a lot of success,” Steiner said. “She’s been working hard and she’s been in here for a camp. She’s still competing at a high level.”
Steiner said Campbell continues to be a stingy wrestler who frustrates offensive-minded opponents. Campbell developed her style of being strong defensively in her early years on the mat.
“I started out wrestling boys who were stronger than me when I was in high school,” she said. “I had to learn to stay in good position and develop my defense. I developed my offense more when I came out to Colorado to the Olympic Training Center and started working with Terry Steiner.”
Campbell’s Olympic experience in 2012 didn’t turn out quite as planned. She received the toughest draw you could imagine, falling 1-0, 1-0 to three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan in the first round, and then losing to world champion and eventual Olympic bronze medalist Yuliya Ratkevich of Azerbaijan in the repechage.
“It was tough,” she said. “You just have to learn from it and move forward.”
For now, Campbell said she is focused on this season and hasn’t committed to anything beyond that as an athlete.
“I’ve been wrestling for 16 years — I’ve obviously been doing this for a long time,” she said. “I’m going to wrestle my heart out in Vegas and hopefully wrestle my heart out in Paris at the world championships. Then we will see what happens after that.”
She’s come a long way since a group of male friends at her high school in Oregon bet Campbell she wouldn’t last two weeks on the boys’ wrestling team.
“It all started out as a big joke,” she said. “I never intended to continue with wrestling, but it all worked out.
“I guess I won that bet.”