Heart of a Champion
By Greg Bach
When Kofi Kingston – the reigning World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Champion – went out for wrestling as a high school freshman the sport wasn’t anything like he expected.
For starters, there weren’t colorful uniforms, loud music or ring announcers.
But what awaited were countless life lessons that would be learned through four years on the wrestling mat at Winchester High School in Massachusetts that he now dispenses to children every chance he gets.
“I went into wrestling in high school thinking that it was like WWE wrestling because I was a big fan back then, but of course it was not at all the same thing,” says Kingston, who was crowned WWE Champion at WrestleMania 35 in April in front of more than 80,000 fans at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. “But I am very glad that I took part in it. Being a part of organized sports really molds you for life.”
The conditioning, the practicing, the competing – Kingston treasured every sweat-soaked second of it during his high school wrestling days.
“I loved the fact that you had to work so hard,” he says. “My coach would always say that the harder you worked the luckier you got.”
And he worked hard.
He was the school’s first-ever four-year ironman, never missing a practice throughout his high school career.
“I was always there and working so hard,” he says. “It was great. It set the foundation for me that if you worked hard you could achieve success.”
KEEP YOUR BLADE SHARP
Kingston’s climb to the WWE mountaintop was long and filled with struggles and disappointment along the way.
But his youth wrestling days helped forge an inner strength that never cracked when he could have easily given up on his dreams many times.
“I always tell people when they are going through adversity that it’s important to fight through it because you never know when you are going to get your shot,” he says. “So stay ready and keep your blade sharp.”
It took him 11 years to gain a title match – and when his big moment arrived he snatched it.
“As a performer when you are going out and you’re putting on these great performances and doing things that have not been seen before and you’re not getting your due it’s very frustrating,” he says. “But at the same time what I could control was my performance. I couldn’t control how I was booked and I couldn’t control what the story line was going to be, but I could control what I did every time I stepped foot in that ring. By doing that I ended up staying ready and when I got a chance at the WWE title I was able to seize it only because I was ready.”
It’s a message he wants today’s youth to wrap their arms around.
“I just hope that kids are able to understand that anything is possible,” he says. “If you think about what a WWE superstar should be you will not envision me. I am not 6-foot-8 and I am not 300 pounds, yet here I am only because I believed in myself and I worked hard and I kept at it no matter what obstacles were put in front of me.”
Many of those life lessons were cultivated on a Winchester wrestling mat during his teen years, under the watchful eye of his high school coach Larry Tremblay, whose impact has never been forgotten.
Just how powerful was this coach-athlete connection? When Kingston got married he invited Tremblay to his wedding.
UNICEF KID POWER
Kingston, the first WWE superstar born in Africa to hold the championship belt, joined UNICEF USA in his home country of Ghana recently to see education and health programs in action. It marked the first time in more than 25 years that he had been home, and he was joined by his mother, Dr. Elizabeth Sarkodie-Mensah, Deputy Permanent Delegate of Ghana to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“Being able to give back is what it’s all about,” Kingston says. “As awesome as it was to achieve my lifetime goal and childhood dream of becoming a WWE Champion, what is more important is that I use this celebrity and influence that I have to be able to influence other people to do positive things.”
A champion for children, Kingston is proud to be a part of UNICEF’s global efforts.
“UNICEF is out there walking the walk, not just talking the talk, and it’s great to be a part of that,” he says.
Earlier this year UNICEF Kid Power and WWE announced a partnership aimed at giving kids the power to save lives by connecting their everyday activity to real-world impact. WWE superstars were featured in a series of Kid Power Ups – short, interactive videos designed to get kids moving, playing and learning.
UNICEF Kid Power is a program of UNICEF USA which helps students discover how their everyday activities can make a difference in the world. With each Kid Power Up, students worked together and improved their social-emotional skills, and with every 10 Kid Power Ups a classroom unlocked a packet of therapeutic food that UNICEF delivers to severely malnourished children around the world.
Kingston chased, and fulfilled, his dream of earning the WWE championship belt.
Now he’s committed to helping children around the world reach for their dreams.
And he is encouraging them every step of the way.
“I am thrilled to be in the role to be able to influence people to do positive things,” he says. “You can do whatever you want to do as long as you believe in yourself and as long as you are willing to work for it.”
It was a lesson first learned on a high school wrestling mat under the tutelage of a coach who cared.
And it’s now a message being shared worldwide by the WWE Champion with a heart of gold.
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Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance