guest writer Shannyn Gillespie
Women’s wrestling at the Olympic Games (2004), in College (1994), & World Championships (1987) is a relatively new phenomenon when compared to men’s wrestling which started about 100 years earlier in Olympic, World, & College competition (1903 & 1904). However, African-American women (and men) have been trailblazers in women’s wrestling from the start of USA fielding teams…
Tamyra Mensah-Stock became the first African-American Olympic Champion at the 2020 Tokyo Games and second African-American women wrestler to be crowned World Champion in 2019. She accomplished this feat at 68kg and also won a World Championships silver medal in 2021 and a bronze medal in 2018. In college, she was a 2X WCWA National Champion and 4X all-American for Wayland Baptist University. Mensah-Stock is from Texas (where high school girls wrestling has been sanctioned since 1999) and won 2 state titles while finishing as runner-up her sophomore year for Morton Ranch H.S.
Leia Kawaii was the first African-American World Championships medalist for Team USA women’s wrestling in 1989 and this article recognizes many of those American black women (and men) who made senior world teams, coached women’s World or Olympic Teams, or coached women’s collegiate teams. (The inaugural women’s world championships was held in 1987 and Team USA first fielded a women’s wrestling team in 1989.)
Kawaii wrestled for Team USA at 2 World Championships winning a silver medal in 1989 at 70kg and placing 6th at the World Championships in 1991 at 75kg. During this time period, there were no national team stipends nor even a women’s national team coach. USA Wrestling hired their first full-time national team women’s coach in 2003. After her experiences at the Worlds, Kawaii took her talents into professional wrestling & bodybuilding to further her career.
Tocarra Montgomery was the first African-American Olympic wrestler at the inaugural Olympic Games for women’s wrestling in 2004 at 72kg. Montgomery also won 2 silver medals at World Championships in 2001 at 68kg & 2003 at 72kg. For her accomplishments as an athlete, Montgomery was named FILA International Female Wrestler of the Year in 2001. She is the first African-American woman wrestler to receive this honor (first American female too) and just the third American to win that honor. Montgomery was also the first African-American female head women’s wrestling coach (third American Women) as she led Lindenwood University from 2010-2016.
Randi Miller became the first African-American female Olympic Medalist by winning a Bronze Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at 63kg. Also in 2008 she was named U.S. Olympic Committee Female Wrestler of the Year & USA Wrestling Female Wrestler of the Year. After coming out of retirement, Miller wrestled for the Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) and was a World Military Champion in 2012 while also representing Team USA at the 2014 World Championships.
Miller was also the first black woman wrestler to become a resident athlete at the former U.S. Olympic Education Center on the campus of Northern Michigan University. At the USOEC, she placed 5th at the 2005 World University Championships at 63kg. For her wrestling accomplishments, Miller was named to the Texas Wrestling Hall of Fame.
In 2021, Miller became the first African-American female head coach to lead Texas Women’s University women’s wrestling team. Iris Smith was the first African-American female wrestler to win a World Championship (2005) gold medal and first black woman to win a world wrestling title for the WCAP — where she was also a Military World Champion (2010). Smith won her gold medals & world championships for Team USA & WCAP at 72kg and was also part of 2 other world championships teams. She was on USA Wrestling National Teams (top 3 per weight class) for 13 years which is a record for African-American women wrestlers. Currently, Smith is a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army and an assistant coach of WCAP.
Tina George became the first African-American multi World Championships medalist in 2002 & 2003 by winning silver medals in back to back years at 55kg. George made 7 World Teams in total and she also won a Pan American Games gold medal plus won 2 silver medals at the Pan American Championships. (The Pan American Games is similar to the Olympic Games and is a multisport championship for countries of North, South, & Central Americas.) George was part of the Army WCAP and later retired due to injuries sustained in combat.
Kelsey Campbell became the third consecutive African-American, in as many Olympic Games, for women’s wrestling in 2012. She was a member of the 2011 World Team and won 5th place at the 2010 World Championships. Campbell was a silver medalist at the 2009 Pan American Championships. She was also the first African-American female wrestler for Arizona State University and won 2 Women’s College National Titles in 2007 & 2008. After graduating from ASU with a degree in Religious Studies, she completed an MBA degree for the Keller Graduate School of Management.
Leigh Jaynes was a 2015 World Championships bronze medalist at age 34 making her the oldest African-American woman to win a world medal. Jaynes has had a very interesting life (she spent time in a group home, rehab center, & psychiatric ward) and credits most of her success to wrestling and the character it helped build in her. She also made 2 other World Teams (2007 & 2012) and was part of the Army WCAP. After 14 years in the Army, Jaynes became the head coach at Delaware Valley University which makes her the third female black head women’s wrestling coach.
Vicki Anthony made 2 World Teams for USA placing 5th in 2013 & 2017. She also was a 2X Jr. World Champion in 2009 & 2010. Anthony has been on the National Teams (top 3 in weight class) since 2012 or for seven years. After her success at Jr. Worlds, Anthony took her talents to Simon Fraser University (Canada) where she was a 4X WCWA Nationals champion (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014) — the first 4X National Champion in the history of women’s college wrestling.
Breonnah Neal became the second African-American female head women’s wrestling college coach when she began at Ferrum College in 2019. Neal currently coaches at Gannon University in PA and is the first African-American female head coach to lead this women’s wrestling team. During her college career, Neal was a 4X WCWA all-American winning a National Title for King University after transferring from Campbellsville University where she was a WCWA runner-up.
Roye Oliver was the first African-American to coach Team USA women’s wrestling at the World Championships and did so from 1993-1997. During that time period, he helped coach 1 World Champion & 8 women’s World Championships medalists. Oliver coached Treeva Cohee & D’Anya Bierria at the 1994 World Championships for Team USA at 50 kg & 65kg respectively. Cohee & Bierria placed 4th at Worlds in 1994 making them the first pair of African-American women wrestlers to place at Worlds in the same year.
Oliver was hired in 2020 as the first African-American head coach to lead the Life Pacific women’s wrestling team. Olympic Silver Medalist Townsend Saunders became the first African-American to coach Team USA at the inaugural Olympic Games for women’s wrestling in 2004 helping Team USA win 2 medals. In 2003, Saunders was part of the women’s coaching staff at the 2003 World Championships where Team USA took second place to Japan with 1 World Champion & 7 total medals.
Shon Lewis & Duane Martin are both the first African-American coaches of the Army World Class Athlete Program women’s team. Lewis was in Iris Smith’s corner coach at the 2005 Worlds where Smith became the first Black American to win a woman’s world wrestling gold medal. Martin was an integral part of leading & coaching WCAP women wrestlers at numerous international & national tournaments.
Brian Jackson became the first (or second — see below) African-American head women’s wrestling college coach in 2005 at Missouri Baptist University. Jackson’s “dual” tenure is the longest in history, to this day, and he was the first African-American of “dual” coaching roles in wrestling. Jackson’s dual role includes coaching both the men & women wrestlers at MBU.
Tyreece Gilder enters his 8th season as an African-American women’s head wrestling coach at Waldorf University. Gilder is also a USA Wrestling Bronze Level certified coach.
Amond Prater is another African-American “dual” coach and entered his second year at Fontbonne University in 2019. Prater is the inaugural coach for both the men’s & women’s programs and is added to the list of 100+ programs that currently have collegiate women’s wrestling programs.
LeRoy Gardner is the third African-American “dual” coach being recognized here. He will lead the University of the Ozarks women’s wrestling team in their inaugural season in 2020-2021. Gardner, who serves as an officer in the United States Navy, also served as a USA senior U23 women’s coach for United World Wrestling in 2018.
Devane Dodgens becomes head women’s wrestling coach at Brewton-Parker College (April 2020) making him the 9th African-American coach featured here. This is Dodgens second season at BPC.
Shannyn J. Gillespie was named head coach for Lakeland University (WI) Women’s Wrestling team in September 2020 and is also the first African-American to lead women’s wrestling in Lakeland’s 4 year history.
Gillespie is also credited as the first (or second — see above & below) African-American head women’s wrestling college coach as he began in 2004 at Northern Michigan University. The NMU women’s wrestling team was also called the U.S. Olympic Education Center resident athlete program or USOEC.
The USOEC women’s wrestling program was a partnership with USA Wrestling, NMU, & the U.S. Olympic Committee and existed from 2004-2012. The USOEC enrolled high school, college, & post-graduate students so Gillespie is either the first African-American women’s wrestling college coach or first African-American women’s wrestling U.S. Olympic Training Center coach (or both).
We recognize the sacrifices that many African-Americans made so that these African-American Pioneers in Women’s Wrestling can exist and will contribute to this sport annually — by archiving history about pioneer female wrestling every February — as women’s wrestling continues to grow plus positively impact more & more diverse people in US colleges, high schools, & national teams.
Gillespie is also an avid promoter of women’s wrestling penning articles for americanwomenswrestling.com, themat.com, theopenmat.com, & coachshannyn.com. He currently is promoting women’s wrestling with freestyle technical videos on social media via instagram.com/lakeland_womens_wrestling/ & www.facebook.com/LUwmnswrestling.