Black History Month: First African-American Olympic champ Kenny Monday a true trailblazer

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | Feb. 28, 2017, 7:19 p.m. (ET)

Monday (left) became the first African-American Olympic champ in 1988.

 
 Kenny Monday has been around the sport of wrestling for 50 years, and he remains one of the most accomplished American wrestlers. He can also be easily identified as one of the trailblazers for black athletes in the sport of wrestling.

Born in the early 1960s, Monday grew up in the midst of the racial segregation era and fell victim to discrimination as a kid in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla.

“When I was in the seventh grade, I got bussed to an all-white school, Madison Junior High,” Monday said. “It was on the west side of Tulsa and there were a lot of low-level economic families. The kids there were so racist. It was crazy! They called us all kinds of names and burned crosses at football games. Of course sports is always that great equalizer. It breaks down barriers and those differences. You’re on a team and forced to play together and work together. It taught me a lot, especially through the sport of wrestling.”

Monday found his calling in wrestling years earlier at a local YMCA in Tulsa at just 5 years old. He rapidly developed into a successful athlete with Olympic-sized goals, making huge jumps every year and ignoring the struggles of the world around him.

But even as segregation lessened, tensions were still high in his community. People were still treated unfairly because of their race, and there was no age limit as to who was targeted.

Monday, who cited example of referees stealing matches from him and other teammates, noted that the racial discrimination he went through as a child ignited a fire in him that ultimately created one of the U.S.’s most decorated wrestlers.

“I was afraid for the matches to be close because I thought they were going to cheat me,” he said. “I decided to work my butt off, so from there I approached every match with a new aggression and a different spirit. It put me on a whole different path. It became a motivation for me. It wasn’t close anymore. I’m sure people were thinking ‘what’s gotten into this kid?’”

He went on to win a Junior National title and later became the first Oklahoma wrestler to win four high school state titles and go undefeated. He was the only wrestler to accomplish the feat until this weekend, when Sand Springs senior Daton Fix joined the club.

Continuing his college career at Oklahoma State, Monday was a 1984 NCAA champion and three-time All-American with a 121-12-2 record.

Fast forward to 1988.

Monday defeated 1984 Olympic champion Dave Schultz to make the Olympic Team in one of the greatest showdowns in wrestling history.

At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea, Monday became the first African-American wrestler to win an Olympic gold for the United States. He battled against defending World champion Aldan Varaev of the Soviet Union in the 74 kg/163 lbs. finals, who he defeated with a takedown in overtime, 2-2.

“Going through it is not as significant because you don’t feel the weight of it until you look back on it,” Monday said. “I remember having dinner with Coach (Bobby) Douglas one night before the tournament and we were strategizing, and it kind of came up. He said, ‘you have the opportunity to be the first.’ I didn’t realize it at the time what that meant. To me, it wasn’t a pressure. It was an opportunity. It raised my awareness to the significance of winning a gold medal. When I look back on it, it’s more significant now than it was then.”

Following the 1988 Olympics, Monday earned a World Championship title in 1989 and a World silver medal in 1991.

He made his second Olympic team in 1992 and headed to Barcelona, Spain, with one of the strongest U.S. freestyle teams ever.

Just days before the tournament, Monday injured his elbow in practice and wasn’t sure he would even be able to compete.

Ultimately, he stepped on the mat and up to the challenge. He wrestled his way to the finals in dominant fashion without giving up a single point.

Waiting for him was Park Jang-Soon of South Korea. Monday fought but eventually fell in a 1-0 battle to return to the United States with a silver medal.

“That was a tough loss, but I was proud of that performance,” he said. “That was something I had to work through and I had a great tournament, but no matter what happened, I truly believed I was the best wrestler in the world from 1988 to 1992, even if I didn’t win gold every year.”

Winning Olympic golds in 1992 were John Smith, Bruce Baumgartner and Kevin Jackson, who became the second African-American Olympic wrestling champion.

Monday retired after Barcelona and he and John Smith were named co-head coaches at Oklahoma State, making him one of the few Division I African-American head coaches.

A year prior to the 1996 Olympics, Monday made a comeback and earned a spot on his third-consecutive Olympic team for the Atlanta Games, where he finished sixth.

Eventually turning his focus toward coaching after Atlanta, Monday spent several years with his alma mater, OSU, before taking his coaching talents to the MMA scene.

Last August, he made the move back to a college campus, taking the head coaching role at Tarheel Wrestling Club, the Regional Training Center at the University of North Carolina, where his oldest son wrestles.

With his sons, Kennedy and Quincy, following in his wrestling footsteps and the collegiate and Senior-level athletes that he works with every day, Monday has the opportunity to extend his legacy for generations.

“I’m still in the throes of my wrestling career with being a coach,” Monday said. “It’s an amazing sport that has given me the opportunity to travel places I never would have traveled, and it’s given me a platform to reach, teach and inspire people all over the world. It’s a tough sport, and I’ve heard it said that if you are successful in wrestling, there’s nothing in this world that you can’t accomplish.”