By Tim Hipps
IMCOM Public Affairs
U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program Greco-Roman wrestler SPC Justin Lester secures his first Olympic berth with a victory over Minnesota Storm's C.P. Schlatter in the 66-kilogram/145.5-pound division of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials on April 21 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs
IOWA CITY, Iowa – U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program Greco-Roman wrestler SPC Justin Lester has just one goal remaining on the mat.
“One goal and one goal only,” Lester said. “An Olympic medal. Not even an Olympic medal, I need gold.”
Lester, a five-time U.S. national champion and five-time U.S. world team member, will make his Olympic debut Aug. 7 in London. He will accept nothing less than getting his hand raised and hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” played at the end of the day.
Lester, 28, a native of Akron, Ohio, who is stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., heads to England as USA Wrestling’s reigning Greco-Roman Wrestler of the Year. That honor was bestowed upon Lester on the eve of his victory in the 66-kilogram/145.5-pound finals of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on the University of Iowa campus.
A two-time bronze medalist at the World Championships, Lester has more than ample motivation to succeed at the Olympics.
“I’ve had two bronze medals, and they’re alright, but I need an Olympic gold medal,” he said. “That’s eating at me more than anything, that I don’t have that gold medal.”
Lester dedicated this mission to family members lost along his long journey.
In January of 2007, Lester lost his grandmother, Savannah, and niece, ShawRica, within a 24-hour span. ShawRica, 18, was leaving a nightclub in Akron when she got caught in the crossfire of rival gangs.
“She was basically like my sister because all of my siblings are much older,” said Lester, the youngest of six children. “She was closer to being my sister than my actual sisters, so that was real hard. I was always close with [ShawRica and Savannah] growing up. We grew up in the same household. So I would like to accomplish this for both of them.”
Lester still has plenty of Family support.
“My dad and my sister are at every tournament,” he said. “They jump in the car and drive to wherever. If I have a tournament in California and they can’t get a flight in time, they’ll jump in the car. I can tell them two days before, and they’ll drive straight out.”
As if that is not incentive enough, Lester has still another reason to triumph in London.
“The only thing I can think about, honestly, since I’ve had my daughter, is taking a picture with my gold medal around her neck,” Lester said of Zuriana, his 2-year-old daughter. “When it comes down to it, I know my daughter is everything to me. So just putting that medal around her neck and letting her know …
“I think of giving everybody handshakes and hugs, and I’m sure there’s going to be tons of crying, but the only thing I can picture out of everything is putting it around her and holding her up and walking her around. That’s it.”
Lester came close to competing in the 2008 Beijing Games, but he lost at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials to 18-year-old Jake Deitchler, the first high school wrestler to make the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in 32 years.
Deitchler has since retired from wrestling.
Lester, on the other hand, has been wrestling for 21 years. He realizes that winning at the World Championships is considered more difficult than winning at the Olympics, where the fields are smaller but the pressure is immense.
“I’ve never been to an Olympics,” Lester said. “I’ve heard the World Championships, competition-wise, is a harder tournament, but at the Olympics you’ve got way more pressure on you. Obviously, the Olympics are more important to me. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t still be going. That’s how I look at it.”
Lester took a break after the 2009 World Championships to see what life offered beyond the mat.
“At the time, I wanted to try actually working and getting the rest of my life started,” he said. “The plan definitely was to come back and wrestle after I got everything settled in my life.”
At the 2010 U.S. Open in Cleveland, Lester watched from the stands and began seriously considering joining the Army’s World Class Athlete Program squad. Shortly thereafter, he became a Soldier and donned the black and gold for his return to the mat.
Lester said the only other time he seriously considered joining the military was after he left Iowa State in 2003. At that time, he opted for training at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University, where he remained until 2009.
“I was young then, and the only thing I could think about was, ‘Oh, man, I might have to go to war and never ever get to wrestle again,’” Lester recalled. “But after being around the [Army] guys and maturing a little bit more and making that decision when I was 26, it’s a possibility that I might have to go fight, but at the same time I have the opportunity to achieve my dreams of being an Olympic gold medalist. For me, both options were great at that time. It was just a comfortable situation.”
Naturally, a sense of added responsibility goes with the territory.
“It puts a little more weight on you because you are doing something you love, but we have guys that are collecting that same paycheck who are wrestling with their lives,” Lester said. “They’re out there fighting for me, and when I get on that mat I need to represent to my fullest to make sure they know that I really appreciate that they’re doing that for me and giving me the opportunity to do it.”
After nearly two years of Soldiering, Lester is certain he made the right move.
“I love the military,” he said. “I love everything about it. Obviously, I love WCAP and all the guys. I’ve never had any problems. It’s just a good situation.”
When he broke onto the international wrestling scene, Lester said he never envisioned joining the Army for a shot at the 2012 Olympics.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I figured I would have finished out with one of the club teams, had an Olympic medal, and been working for some big medical company. That was my plan. Or going on some type of tour. Maybe even acting or something. But definitely things changed over the years, and commitment to the Army was the best thing at the time.
“You never know where life’s going to take you.”
This summer, life is taking Lester to London, and his mission remains the same.
“I’ve got one goal, and one goal only, and that’s a gold medal,” he said. “I want to say I’m going to keep going until I get it. I hope it’s this year. As long as my body holds up – I’m 28, going on 97.”