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Akron wrestler headed to Olympics
Justin Lester almost left the sport before coming back big in 2012

Kabir Bhatia
Missing the 2008 Olympics sent Justin Lester on a long quest for more discipline and a little less weight
Courtesy of K. Bhatia
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In The Region:
Akron’s Justin Lester is preparing to leave for London as part of the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team – the lesser-known cousin in the U.S. to freestyle wrestling. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on his evolution, championships and challenges.
Akron wrestler headed to Olympics

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Justin Lester graduated from Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy in 2001 after a freestyle wrestling career that wowed everyone, including his coach, Dave Bergen. Bergen still refers to his star wrestler by his nickname.

“Harry was great for being able to almost literally hop behind a kid in mid-air. Very cat-like reflexes, and just instinctive stuff.
“He would do stuff that I’d never seen, and I’d been around the sport since I was 13. He’d do stuff that was just crazy and I’d just get a kick out of it. And it worked!”

From high school to college to college
It worked well enough to get Lester a wrestling scholarship to Iowa State, where he studied history and education. But, burnt out on freestyle, which allows attacks on the entire body, he turned to Greco-Roman wrestling, which is limited to the upper body.

“I’ve always liked Greco. It was fun, but I had never had a chance to do it full-time. One of the coaches kind of pointed me towards the program up at Northern Michigan. I said, ‘Well I’ll give it a try. If I don’t like it, I’ll just finish up school.’ I went up there... the training was awesome, the coach was awesome, all the guys were awesome, and I decided to stick with it.”

That fateful switch -- to Greco Roman and to Northern Michigan University -- set Lester on a path to the U.S. Olympic Education Center. He did not make the team in 2004 or 2008, and actually retired four years ago. But after joining the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, and going on a strict diet and training regimen to lose a little weight, he came back this year. 

“I wrestled a little smarter. Definitely kept my head on my shoulders this time. Didn’t look past anyone, like I did before. I just went out and wrestled and I had fun and told myself this is my time; it’s gonna happen. And it did.”

Youngest of six
That humbleness may come from being the youngest of six children. Older brother, Damion, also wrestled at Cuyahoga Valley and thinks Justin’s success is divine.

“I think a lot of it is just God-given ability. He’s taking what God gave him, and he’s expanding it. It’s kind of like God said, ‘Give me my 10 percent, and I'll give you 100 back.’ And that’s what he's doing.”

The younger Lester wrestles these days in the 66 kg class – roughly the equivalent of 145 pounds, up from the 132 he wrestled in college. His compact build – he’s 5'7" -- hides ballet-like precision and lightning-fast reflexes.

He credits Damion, God, and the North Akron wrestling program for his success.

“Just being in the environment with great wrestlers, growing up from second grade, everyone was good. So it was easy to get good and learn a lot of moves and it pretty much just carried on. And then, obviously, having an older brother who’s a very good technician definitely helped.”

Setting an example
Whether he realizes it or not, Lester is setting an example for current Cuyahoga Valley wrestlers like senior Nick Havener, one of about four dozen fans who showed up at a wrestling clinic over the weekend both honoring and showcasing the Olympian.

“It definitely gives me something to look forward to. It kind of puts things in perspective where you can actually go in this sport. It just doesn’t end, you can move on and do better things.” 

Today, Army Specialist Lester is stationed at Ft. Carson in Colorado. During trips home to Akron, he has a single destination on his mind.

“First things first, you gotta go to Swenson’s. If it wasn’t before the Olympics, I’d probably double up on it.”

Lester will be competing in London on August 7th, where wrestlers from Eastern Europe dominate the sport. He’s the only Ohioan on the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team.
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