George M. Thomas
A dream delayed can still be as satisfying as one attained when planned.
Just ask former Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy state champion wrestler Justin (formerly Harry) Lester.
Lester, 28, won four state titles in high school and set his sights on one goal — winning gold in the Olympics.
After last weekend’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Iowa, Lester, an Akron native who is going by his given name (Justin) instead of his nickname (Harry), is one step closer.
He defeated C.P. Schlatter to win the 66 kilogram/145.5 pound division. The accomplishment wasn’t lost on him, he said in a phone interview.
“You realize that you made the Olympic team, that’s the highest thing you can get as a team in our sport,” he said of his initial reaction to the win. “At the moment, you look at the crowd and you see your family, your friends and people cheering for you and things like that. That makes it exciting.”
Lester, who is ranked as Team USA’s top Greco-Roman wrestler in his weight class, possesses a resume spanning more than a decade, including two U.S. World Team Trials championships, a U.S. National championship, and is the owner of two World bronze medals won in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Yet, he doesn’t have an Olympic gold medal. And at one point, it seemed as if he wouldn’t get the opportunity.
Lester walked away from wrestling after his last defeat in the 2008 Olympic Trials and did so again in 2010, taking a total of 18 months off.
“I stepped away for a little while,” he said. “I was kind of burned out at the time and I needed to move on with life.”
He has no regrets about the decision: “It gave me time to refresh my mind and get some life experiences. It was just a great time in my life.”
He enlisted in the Army in 2010, and carries the rank of specialist, and began the road back as a member of its World Class Athletic Program.
“I was just enjoying life at the time,” he said. “At the same time, I stayed around teammates and talked to teammates all the time and [was] involved with youth wrestling.
“I guess it was my love of the sport [that brought him back]. If you ask any wrestler, there’s always going to be an itch to wrestle and jump back at it.”
But ultimately, needing to prove something to himself brought him back to the sport.
“I don’t have a gold medal. That’s the ultimate goal in the sport. I’m at the professional level of my sport and a gold medal is the ultimate goal and I don’t have that,” he said. “I have two bronze medals, but that’s like hardly doing anything. It’s like making it to the NBA Finals and losing.”
His position in the Army’s athletic program affords him a unique opportunity after his daily duties are done.
“Anything I need, I have at the Army. Just like they support soldiers overseas, they support us with our wrestling. It’s our [two other members of the program won spots on the Olympic team as well] full-time job for them right now,” he said. “Right now, our job is to win that gold medal in London and they give us all the resources we need to do that, so I don’t have to worry about anything but training our hardest.”
And he won’t allow himself to think beyond London this summer.
When asked about a possible future, he only mentions that he wants to be an officers training candidate. One of his other thoughts after last weekend’s victory was of the hard work ahead.
“Making that team is really a very, very small percentage of what needs to be done,” he said. “Getting on that medal stand is the ultimate goal.”
That is when the dream will be reality.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at https://ohio.com/zips.