Akronite wrestler vies for Olympic gold

Aug 6, 2012

Akron wrestler Harry Lester failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in China. But he's hoping to win a gold medal in the London games on Tuesday morning. For Ohio Public Radio, WCPN's Rick Jackson report.

He started wrestling at eight years old following the steps of his big brother. 
But he was seemingly born to grapple - and people around him noticed, including an assistant coach at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy. Dave Bergen first heard of then 10-year-old Harry from one of his team’s own wrestlers`Damien’ Lester.

DL: And he kept telling me ‘coach my little brother is awesome”, and I heard how good he was from folks that were in the wrestling community and started to get to know him. He’d start tagging along at some of our events and he’d roll around with some of our varsity guys on the mat, and I thought then ‘OK, I sure hope he comes to CVCA with his brother, cause he’s good - didn’t know how good at the time.

Harry did enroll, and his potential was realized at CVCA. When he graduated in 2001, it was as a four-time Ohio High School wrestling state champion.

But his dreams were bigger, and once gravitating to the Greco-Roman style of wrestling, with its focus on technique, and the limitations to using only the upper part of the body, he soared. And began to focus on Olympic Wrestling Gold.

HL: that’s the highest you can get in our sport, is to go to the Olympics and to win a gold medal.... for most people who are serious about the sport, most wrestlers, you have to have those aspirations.

Being the top seed and a projected gold-medal favorite for the games four years ago, the tight knit Greco-Roman wrestling community was stunned when Harry was defeated in the semi-final round at the 2008 U.S. Wrestling Team Trials.

His Beijing dreams shattered, Harry Lester invoked the wrestler retirement rite .... by leaving his empty shoes on the mat.

The 24 year old Lester left gym that evening for the first time since his childhood in Akron.... with wrestling no longer his life’s focus.

HL: the previous 15 years of my life was all wrestling, wrestling, wrestling, wrestling… wrestling from January to January, that’s what I was doing and I wanted to try something different, to go out and work a real job.

For nearly a year he went to an office job every day and hated it.

HL: Once I did that, I realized that I wanted to wrestle again, so now here I am.

BERGEN: It was difficult. When he stepped away from the sport that was sad, but at the end of the day that was his decision, and I think the right decision for him at the time… to have a break and to enjoy life not as Harry Lester the wrestler, but Harry Lester the human being.

Lester eventually joined the US Army and its elite Greco-Roman squad, which placed three members on the 2012 US Olympic Wrestling team. 

Even more focused, he won the 2009 U.S. Nationals Championship, the World Team Trials championship in 2009 AND 2011, and was the 2011 U.S. Open Champion.

With skills honed in the military - Justin Lester (as he now bills himself) - regards his sport differently.

Soft spoken, but with an inner fire, Lester believes he gains strength from representing America, and being part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.

HL: Anytime you put on anything with W-CAP or Army, you know you gotta represent your team, you gotta represent your family, but more importantly you gotta represent those guys who are over there sacrificing, to make sure that we have this opportunity. So—wrestling for a lot more than just yourself and the immediate people around you - you got a lot of people over there ducking bullets and eating sand, and every time you win, you thank them, and you thank them for giving you that opportunity.

He’s tremendously proud to be from Akron, Ohio - and returns as often as possible to see his family, and his coaches’ family - his mainstays…

Last month, when Akron honored him with a Justin Lester Day the champion was overwhelmed..

HL: It’s awesome that you get a little appreciation from the place you come from, and the people around you, so I am very excited for it and very thankful. I thank God all the time I ran into people like coach, had the opportunity to go to CVCA, and meet the wrestling families that helped me out through North Akron and all that - because without those people there is no way I’d be here. No possible way.

And that effort to thank them - includes coming home from London as their Champion.

HL: It was great making the team, and I love it - not a lot of people do it… and it took me forever to make the team; but you gotta bring back the hardware. That’s the second part. It was great - that moment - but then right away I realized I’m on the team. Now I gotta bust my butt and get this gold medal.