Akron Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic pronounced June 30 as “Justin Lester Day” at the Akron Bible Church on Brown St. during a sendoff celebration for U.S. Olympic wrestler Justin “Harry” Lester on Saturday afternoon.
Lester, a four-time state champion from Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy who currently wrestles for the Army’s World Class Athlete Program and serves as a Specialist in the United States Army, will compete in the 145½-pound weight class in Greco-Roman wrestling in London. Greco-Roman, as opposed to freestyle wrestling, uses strictly the upper body.
“Anytime you have success in the community, whether it’s in sports or academics or art, it’s good to have it highlighted because it gives hope to other people who have athletic or artistic ambitions to be able to know that they can do it because somebody else from Akron did it,” Plusquellic said. “We know we had the best basketball player ever in my opinion, and with this we just add to the reputation of Akron as a real town for athletes.”
Lester spends much of his time training in Colorado Springs, Colo., but says he’s always drawn back to where it all started and couldn’t be happier to enjoy a send-off celebration with friends and family before having to bear down for London.
“[This day] means the world,” Lester said. “It just lets me know I have true supporters and true fans and people that care about me more than my wrestling. Akron is my home, CVCA is my home. I’m really glad and ecstatic to be back.”
The day started at CVCA with a free wrestling clinic, where Lester and Joe Boardwine, former CVCA coach and current coach at Campbell University, offered youngsters from elementary school to high school some pointers and a few words of wisdom.
“Anything can happen if you put your heart to it and pour your soul into it,” Lester said of his message Saturday morning. “Time and time again you’re gonna fail, but in the end it’s usually gonna work out for ya. I can attest to that. I had failures in ’04 and ’08 and I’m finally on the Olympic team.”
This Olympic dream nearly didn’t happen. After going to Iowa State, Lester says he stopped enjoying the sport but decided to look into the Greco-Roman style, something he had done here and there but never poured any real time into. Lester enrolled at Northern Michigan, fell in love with the program and the style and began training. But after two attempts at making the U.S. team came up short, Lester nearly gave it all up for a corporate job. Then the mat came calling again.
“I told myself I’d be done in ’08, but wrestling sucks you back in,” he said. “I thought I’d be working for a company and driving a big, old-school Cadillac or something.”
Lester says it’s a dream to wrestle for the stars and stripes, though no one needs to lecture him on the importance of representing his country. As a Specialist in the U.S. Army, Lester maintains a service-before-athlete mindset.
“In my unit, the World Class Athlete Program, a lot of people view us as just athletes but in the real picture, we’re soldiers first,” Lester said near a stand of his T-shirts and shorts with “Soldiers First” inscribed across the back. “We pour our heart into it. If the Commander in Chief says ‘Hey, everyone’s going to war. All the Olympians, you guys are going to war,’ that’s what we do and we don’t have any gripes about it.”
Win or lose in London, Lester has his priorities straight – though coming home draped with gold wouldn’t hurt.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.