Lee Kemp, 64: Gratitude and Freedom

Extraordinary athlete Lee Kemp embraces life with gratitude even in the face of deep disappointment. He talks about overcoming adversity, the importance of acceptance, and the link between self-realization and freedom.

Life happens and not always according to our plans. Of the human realities is that we all feel disappointed at some points in life. The measure of our resilience is how we deal with these inevitable bumps. For Lee Kemp, disappointment was epic. It meant training his entire life, attaining unimaginable heights, and then before he was able to reach his pinnacle, the opportunity being snatched away, at a global level. The heavy favorite to win a gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, crushingly, he was never able to try for the goal he had in his sights his entire life. The USA boycotted those games, and neither Lee Kemp nor any of the Olympic team was permitted to compete. 

Here was an adopted kid, charming, did well in school, and willed himself to be an extraordinary athlete; one of the best wrestlers the world had ever seen, someone who, while still a teenager, had beaten the best of them. He was destined to be the face on the Wheaties box, the TV interviewee, the global champion. But it never happened. Imagine how totally disorientingly disappointing that would be. 

The path forward for Lee was rough, there were some pretty low lows in there, and then he made it out the other side, just as he had always done. Steady, humble, and with great patience, Lee made the Olympics, this time as a coach. His mission is now mentoring and guiding those around him, sharing his wisdom that no matter what happens to you, good or bad, you are still the same person you were before.

What is your age?
64. I will be 65 on December 24th, 2021.

Where do you live?
Sacramento, CA. 

“Self-realization is the fulfillment of one’s own potential and this is the ultimate freedom for me”

Photo by: Jim Newberry

How would you define freedom?
Freedom is equivalent to self-realization and is the ability to accept oneself with all your virtues and flaws. Self-realization is the greatest truth one can know. I like to say it this way: self-realization has two purposes — to expose ability and potential. Success comes when self-realization succeeds. Self-realization is the fulfillment of one’s own potential and this is the ultimate freedom for me.

Self-realized people have their own identities. Their own brand, charisma, and a light capable of inspiring others. They have created themselves through a process in which they’ve learned to accept themselves, with their virtues and defects. They’re clear on their priorities and how to achieve their goals in life. Self-realization is to know oneself.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison but claims his mind was free the entire time and came through this extremely difficult ordeal mentally sane and healthy because he was clear on exactly who he was and was a completely self-realized individual.

How do you process regrets and personal disappointments?
One of the first, and perhaps one the hardest things I do, is to come to a place of “acceptance.” To accept the calamity and not blame and judge, but simply accept. 

I explain it like this: if someone did something horrible to you and then later came to apologize for their wrongdoing, and you will not accept their apology, this means you are not ready to forgive them and you want to stay mad at them. In reality, they have offered you a gift, but you won’t accept it. Think about it this way: if someone offers you a gift and you don’t accept it, then whose gift is it? 

So, in essence, I couldn’t, or had a very hard time forgiving myself for what had happened to me and couldn’t accept what had happened to me. It was like I was the offending person that I couldn’t forgive, so for many years I was stuck in denial, not accepting what had happened to me. There is a strong element of not accepting truth in this.

“I couldn’t look to the outside world to find purpose in my life”

Photo by: Jim Newberry

Once I was able to fully accept what had happened, which then allowed me to let it go, then, and only then was I able to move on towards a different future. My new future came from something that was already inside me, something that I had to find again. In the case of my calamities, all that I knew, relied on, and what outwardly defined me, was gone. I couldn’t look to any of that to “fix” me. In essence, I couldn’t look to the outside world to find purpose in my life. I had to look inward, into my heart and soul to see if there was anything in there that could motivate me and give me purpose for my life. I realized I was still the same person before and after my calamities. It was still me. I saw I was the same person that had that previous success in my life. I saw a champion in there. I asked myself: “If you’re a champion, then what do champions do?” Champions fight. They get back up after getting beat down and they fight, and that’s what I did. 

How do you inspire people to overcome circumstance and live a life with confidence, freedom, and happiness? You could have thought yourself a victim, but you seem filled with gratitude. What was the shift you had to go through to do that?
First recognizing and accepting that bad things happen to all of us, just like the rain falls the same on the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the sick and the healthy. One of the most important things in life is what we do with the circumstances that we are faced with. We all have choices to make in our lives and we all have exactly the same number of hours in the day to make those choices. You can’t find a person on Earth that hasn’t gone through some challenges; the problem is we spend too much time looking in someone else’s yard rather than working on our own yard, because we think the grass is always greener somewhere else when we really need to focus on ourselves. That is the hardest thing for any of us to grasp and to actually do. Once we start to work on ourselves, things get better. Things always get better when we take life seriously and we work on improving ourselves. Therein lies our feelings of gratefulness, if we can grasp it. Being happy and content with what we have or don’t have and who we really are… this is genuine gratefulness. I’ve used the “why not me?” question when striving for greatness and when dealing with great tragedy, and this has made all the difference in dealing with both success and failure in my life.

“Things always get better when we take life seriously and we work on improving ourselves”

When you mentor people, what do you teach them about mental resilience?
The biggest lesson I teach is that life comes with an infinite number of battles and we must accept that and always be in a state of readiness for the next battle. This quote sums it up: “The reward for winning one battle is another battle.” – Bishop TD Jakes 

Wrestled Away: The Lee Kemp Story Documentary

How has your sense of purpose changed from when you were younger?
When I was younger, my sense of purpose was more focused on individualized things, i.e. athletic goals, degrees, career, etc., focusing primarily on myself and what I could accomplish. But as I’ve aged and have gained more perspective in the true meaning of life, my attention and purpose has shifted to what and how I can give back to society and others utilizing my talents, abilities and resources. 

What is it that you would like your legacy to be?
The biggest thing I want to be remembered about me is that I was someone that overcame adversity and obstacles throughout their life. Someone that was resilient and someone that didn’t always win but always came to fight. And most importantly, someone that was extremely grateful for their life.

How do you keep your spirit so young and vibrant?
I believe it comes from having a spirit of kindness, gratefulness and humility. I didn’t choose this, but the circumstances of my life caused me to be kind, grateful, and humble. I don’t think I would have survived otherwise. The circumstances of my life have caused me to be in a continual state of struggle and uncertainty, causing me to trust in something much bigger than myself, understanding that my challenges and obstacles only served to help me work on improving myself. The result for me was I experienced deeper levels of kindness, gratefulness and humility. This, I’ve learned, is what keeps my spirit young. Also, because of my wrestling success and my fitness level, I still get the opportunity to coach and mentor young athletes, and this keeps me young in spirit.

“I didn’t choose this, but the circumstances of my life caused me to be kind, grateful, and humble”

How do you keep yourself emotionally level?
I recognize I live in an emotionally charged world that will keep me continually stressed out if I don’t recognize it for the circus that it is. I know that seeking the treasures and offerings of the world is a dead end that steals my happiness. I choose to be happy over anything else.

Photo by: Mike Miller

What is your relationship with your children today?
Because of the complexity of my divorce, I was estranged from my 3 children for almost 5 years, starting when my youngest was 5 and the next two were 11 and 12. I didn’t fully come back in their lives until they were 10, 16 and 17, respectively. The oldest I missed parenting almost totally as he never lived with me after the break up of our family happened in 2005 when he was 12. I suffer this as a great tragedy in my life. But I call this turn of events a miracle when, in 2010, my younger two children, a daughter and son, wanted to come live with me in Chicago. My daughter was 16 and my youngest was 10, so I got to parent those two as a single parent. My youngest was at an age that allowed me to fully be a parent to him in every sense of the word while my daughter only had two years left of high school and she was off to college. Luckily, I convinced her to stay close to home and she went to Columbia College of Chicago, earning a BA of Arts Degree in Theater. So I had another four years with her. My daughter was at an age where I did miss an important part of her life when she was young, but we have since redeemed those years and talk almost every day. Today, she is 27 and my sons are 28 and 21. 

Where do you find beauty?
I find the greatest beauty in the simplest things of life and in the most authentic, honest, humble, and unassuming people. These, in my opinion, are the people you can trust and are the people that have the most to offer society and humanity.

What is your fitness routine?
I’m fortunate enough to still be in demand as a wrestling coach so I frequently get on the mat and teach wrestling, which is very physical and demanding, so this allows me to stay in great physical shape.

What do you eat?
Since high school, I have been focused on health, wellness, and fitness and have been on a plant-based diet since I was 20 years old.

“I have been on a plant-based diet since I was 20 years old”

What is your greatest challenge today?
Recognizing we live in a matrix and setting myself apart from it. Detaching from the world and all of its conflicts, complexities, and deception to seek the truth. It’s a challenge and a joy seeking truth.

What is your relationship with the people you coach?
My relationship with the people that I coach and have coached is very good. I frequently get messages from wrestlers that I’ve coached acknowledging the importance of that relationship in their life which brings me great joy.

Not all of us have your level of accomplishment. How would you advise us on becoming leaders in our communities?
First, focus on what you’re good at and then focus on passing that knowledge on, remembering that just helping and changing one life is important. Usually people become good at things they like doing, so start there.

What are the 3 non-negotiables in your life today?
1. I won’t ever compromise my health by what I put into my body, and [will] always maintain a fitness level that is commensurate with being a world champion.
2. I will remain in a state of gratefulness for my life, trusting in God the creator for all that is and is to come.
3. To have and maintain unconditional love for my three children. 

Connect with Lee:

Lead image photo creds: Kyle Flubaker


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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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