Olympic wrestler Kelsey Campbell achieves success on her terms

Above: Scottsdale resident Kelsey Campbell was the first female wrestler to compete for Arizona State University in 2007 and was the 12th woman in the U.S. to wrestle for a Division 1 men’s team. (Photo by Mike Mertes, AZ Big Media) Newsmakers | 4 Jan |

It’s challenging, it’s competitive and she’s defying stereotypes each time she steps on the mat. Meet Scottsdale resident Kelsey Campbell, who was the first female wrestler to compete for Arizona State University in 2007 and was the 12th woman in the U.S. to wrestle for a Division I men’s team. She began wrestling as a senior in high school and was the only woman on the team in a previously almost exclusively, male sport. 

The Scottsdale resident has conditioned her body and her mental toughness to outperform peers and that dedication has led to two U.S. Women’s College Wrestling National titles; three U.S. Open championships; fifth place at the 2010 World Championships, two U.S. Olympic Team Trials championships (2012 and 2016); and led her to represent the U.S. at the Olympic games in 2012 in London—and she’s set on going to the Olympics again in 2020.

Campbell trains with the U.S. national team at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She placed 7th for her weight class (57 kg) in the women’s freestyle action for the Senior Nationals-Olympic Team Trials Qualifier that was held in Texas on Dec. 20-22.

“Placing higher would have changed the trajectory and my ranking over the next few months, but in terms of my development, process and focus, I still have a lot to build and improve on. I knew that going into the Open,” Campbell says. 

She will compete in January and March- where she could qualify for the 2020 Olympic Team Trials set for April 4-5, 2020 in Pennsylvania, and could mark her second time representing the U.S. in Tokyo.

She started wrestling when she was a senior in high school on a dare. “That was pretty much it. In my high school days, you couldn’t Google wrestling. I was talking to some guys on the team my junior year of high school and I don’t know how we got to this point, but they were like, ‘We bet you couldn’t last two days on the team,’ and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it–watch.’ 

I ordered a VHS tape of Dan Gable and I watched it over the summer and I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m going to wrestle now that I know what it is.’

“Then I showed up the first day of practice, I was terrified but I had too much pride to not follow through. I couldn’t look in the mirror and know I didn’t do what I said I was going to do. I’m still like that about certain things, so here I am, still doing it.”

Campbell says it was tough starting out, as there were only a handful of women who had competed at the collegiate level before her. “There was no one to call and ask, ‘How do I deal with this?’ There was a handful of women before me that had done it at other schools, but they weren’t people I could call,” Campbell says. 

“It was one of those things where every day your back’s against the wall because it’s so hard and there’s no other option except to just do whatever everyone else around you is doing, so you put your head down and you do the work. I wasn’t in it to prove anything but every day you kind of have to prove something,” Campbell says of being a woman in the sport. 

Since her start in 2007, ASU has had women come through the wrestling program at ASU and has one woman on the 2019-2020 roster, sophomore Marlee Smith.

Since 1994, the number of women who wrestle in high school has grown from 804 to 16,562 as of 2018; 63 colleges sponsor a varsity wrestling program; since 2004, women’s wrestling has been recognized as an Olympic sport. In addition, 18 states have girls wrestling programs with sanctioned state championships. 

The Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association (WCWA), is the governing body for women’s college wrestling including NCAA, NAIA, NWAC and NJCAA institutions and aims to standardize competition rules for women until the NCAA and Junior Colleges sanction it as an emerging sport. Women’s wrestling was added this summer to the NCAA Emerging Sports for Women program and if adopted, could join the program Aug.1, 2020.

There are currently 23 NCAA schools sponsoring women’s wrestling; to become a championship sport, there has to be at least 40.

“I love wrestling because I love the chase, the love the honesty of the sport,” Campbell says. “I want to stand on the podium. The things I gain from this sport are not tangible, but they’re there…I want to win the Olympics and that takes such an extreme focus and every athlete approaches it differently and it requires something different for each of us.”

Outside of training full-time for the Olympics, Campbell obtained her MBA from DeVry University this year. She also volunteers for youth organizations and has partnerships with Women’s Sports Foundation, Girl Up, Strong is the New Pretty, the Arizona Humane Society and Big Brothers, Big Sisters Arizona.

She also has a few ideas of what she’d like to pursue after the Olympics in 2020.

“After wrestling I want to pursue music, I’ve always wanted to pursue music since I was a kid. Then there’s other things that I want to do; I’m really passionate about animal welfare and I think it would be really great to do something involving youth or working with youth, and I’ve always been extremely intrigued with criminal psychology.”

Campbell hopes her experience can inspire the formation of the first Division 1 women’s wrestling team at ASU.

“I think what I’ve done at ASU has opened up an opportunity for women in wrestling. I think before me people didn’t see it as an option and now it is, and that’s exciting,” Campbell says. “I think I’m a normal person, I’m not super gifted and I think I’m the perfect example that every day people can do something great.”

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