Campbell turns bet into Olympic berth

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Kelsey Campbell couldn't find the words. She just stood there, tears streaming down her cheeks, a stunned look stamped on her face. She ran her fingers through her sweaty hair, held her arms up above her head, but nothing felt comfortable.

She had never pictured this moment. She had never dreamed of what it would be like if she qualified for the Olympics. But she had done just that Saturday, beating top-seeded Helen Maroulis for the first time in her life. As she waited for her post-match television interview to begin, tears falling down her face, she glanced to her right. Standing a few feet away and offering a smile of approval was none other than wrestling legend Dan Gable. Campbell looked away and shook her head. The tears fell even faster.

"I'm just waiting to wake up right now," she said. "I can't believe this is real."

It all started as a bet. During her senior year of high school in Milwaukie, Ore., a group of guy friends insisted Campbell wouldn't last two weeks on the wrestling team. She had earned letters in basketball, soccer, cross country and track. She had danced. But they didn't think she could stomach life as a wrestler.

"It was a big joke," she said. "I didn't even know girls wrestled."

Campbell later moved to Phoenix in 2006 to help open a new church and joined the Arizona State wrestling team in 2007. She was the Sun Devils' first and only female wrestler and won two NCAA women's titles. Now, she's an Olympian and a role model for other girls looking to get into the sport.

"I guess I won that bet," she said.

The latest chapter came Saturday, when she beat Maroulis, the top seed at 55 kilograms and a three-time U.S. Open champion. Campbell defeated Maroulis in the first two matches of their best-of-three championship series, 2-0, 0-1, 1-0 and 0-2, 1-0, 2-1.

"She was rock solid, really," said U.S. women's freestyle coach Terry Steiner. "Her positioning, she was opportunistic. Very solid, hard to score on. And I think that's a pattern of her whole life. She's a rock-solid individual, on and off the mat. You do that long enough and make enough of the right decisions and good things are going to happen."

Steiner and Campbell both agreed on Saturday that last September's World Championships in Turkey were the turning point. Steiner thought Campbell entered that tournament as one of the favorites, but she was upset in the first round. That's when the 26-year-old made a decision: either she would get better or retire.

"I started working on things I wasn't willing to work on before," she said. "I had to humble out and hear what the people around me were saying. I needed to focus on my mental game a lot."

It meant listening to everything Steiner asked of her. It meant being more aggressive on the mat. And it meant focusing more on her wrestling and less on her cardio in training. Gradually, Campbell saw the results. She finished third at the U.S. Open Championships in December, losing to Leigh Jaynes in the semifinals before beating Katherine Fulp-Allen in the consolation match. And then, she went unscored upon in each of her three matches during the challenge tournament Saturday before beating Maroulis, who she had lost to in both of their previous meetings.

"In the back of my mind, I knew I was going to meet up with her," Campbell said. "I did my homework. It isn't like you go out there and it's like, 'Wow. I've never done this before.' It's hours and hours. It's watching film and going through those practices with my coaches. And then you go out there."

But never had she prepared for what she would do or how she would handle the emotions if she won. Even before the clock had reached zero, Campbell fell to her knees, cupped her face in her hands and sobbed.

"It's kind of embarrassing to say, but no, I had never envisioned this," she said. "I told myself every day I could do it, but I guess I actually had to go out and do it for me to truly believe. It couldn't just be an idea."

It's far from an idea anymore. And sometime around 9 p.m. CT on Sunday night, when the Olympic trials come to an end, Campbell's name will be one of the 18 called to represent the United States in London this summer. But the celebration will begin on Saturday night, even if it isn't what you might expect.

"Outback Steakhouse," she said. "I love Outback. And then, win or lose, I usually go back to my room and watch Netflix. That's probably exactly what I'll do tonight, watch some Netflix."