Q&A with U.S. Greco-Roman Team Leader Christina “Kiki” Kelley
By Pat Smith, MTC Storm
Q: Kiki, you’re the team leader for the U.S. Greco team this cycle. However, you don’t really come from a wrestling background. How did you become so involved in the sport?
A: Short answer is, I don’t come from a wrestling background because I am 44-years-old and women did not start wrestling at that time. At the time, I could have started wrestling, I was wrestling my brother, who was quite good and beating him! However, my sister beat me so I guess she was the true wrestler in the family. We didn’t even really think about asking to be in wrestling, but it was always in the back of my head as one of my favorite sports, and I always loved sports, Olympic sports especially.
Dave Surofchek, who worked with me at Google, gave me a USA Wrestling t-shirt. I happened to be in Denver with my family in Denver, he picked us up in Denver, took us to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (He) introduced us to Adam Wheeler, who happened to have his bronze medal on hand and he gave us a tour of the dormitories and introduced us to some of the on-site wrestlers. Then after that it was so real, I was like “Oh my gosh!” How can someone support? This is such an important sport and I don’t get to see it when you watch the Olympics, you have to go to like ESPN 3. Coach (Steve) Fraser told me that it wasn’t that hard, and there was actually a Cup losing its funding at the time. I thought it was going to be an incredible huge amount, because I had heard of celebrities like Stephen Colbert supporting speed skating. But this was actually within reason and I had actually set up a foundation after I had a baby and left Google because I wanted to do charitable work. Right away my head started spinning and I was like of course I can do it!
But I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I was going to totally do it in the background. They had been calling the Cup the Kit Carson Cup but they were like we’re not going to call it the Kit Carson Cup, and they asked me what I wanted them to call it, and I said call it whatever you want! So in the absence of a name they started jokingly calling it the Kiki Cup. Through that cup and getting to know wrestlers I fell in love with the sport. That was in January of 2011.
Q: So it sounds like you caught the wrestling bug while supporting the newly named “Kiki” Cup. Why did you decide to continue to be involved after that experience?
A: I never planned to be in any leadership role or make any decisions, or like I said be in the spotlight. I just wanted the wrestlers to have the resources that they needed. People don’t hear about that. People don’t know what the situations are. They don’t know that Andy Bisek, who is probably going to win a medal in this Olympic cycle, works part time at a liquor store! And he’s got two kids! So someone like me, a mom, and a former teacher, and someone who loves the Olympics, why wouldn’t you support people you feel that are the carriers of so many people’s dreams. I can make a difference, for people who have the same dreams. To me, wrestling is a very symbolic sport, of overcoming difficulties and obstacles. For me, it’s a personalized, intense, highly intellectual sport, where so much of it is strategy. I just can find nothing wrong with the sport. You know, except for the rules change and I like some of them better than others. I think the more people that get exposed, the greater the fan base will be.
Q: So how did that go from being just the name sake of a dual meet tournament (Kiki Cup), to now, with the Olympic cycle rolling being the team leader for Greco-Roman?
A: It’s crazy. My first answer is, it was meant to be. It was meant to be. Steve Fraser, I could see his vision. I knew he was building from the ground up. I went to Cuba with him, and the respect that he was given around the world made a huge impact. He was an embodiment of sports diplomacy.
Steve called me while I was on vacation in Arizona with my family. He was like, “Hey would you like to be our team leader?” He told me I know you won’t have a huge ego have what it takes to get our guys where they need to go. I was reluctant and didn’t think I was worthy, because I have a family, was going to school, and have a job, so I told him I had to think about it. But I thought if Steve Fraser thought I could do it, maybe I could live up to it.
In Budapest, Hungary, I thought I was going to be the first woman hired and the first woman fired. I was terrified. I was scared to ask Adeline Gray for an autograph. Now that I’ve met all of them, I know they are all so down to earth.
Q: As Team Leader you’ve had a lot of amazing travel opportunities. You’ve been to multiple different countries with the team, one of them being the politically controversial country Iran. Last spring you made history, as the first woman to be allowed in the venue to watch the wrestling match. Can you walk us through that experience?
A: Again, none of this would have happened without the great people at the USA Wrestling. This time, it was Jim Ravannack. Before going over there, I had asked Coach Fraser if I was even going to be allowed in the venue, and he said well, you never know.
Q: So you didn’t know you were going to be able to attend the World Cup?
A: I had no idea. I don’t think they [the Iranians] even knew I was going to be allowed in. When we arrived we had a meeting at the House of Wrestling and I decided to error on the side of super conservative. Because I’m from a modest mid-western background and I’m fairly conservative anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me to show respect, and wear the full black hijab. To my surprise, someone showed me to a chair at the table. As a woman, I was totally aware of the respect, of having a seat at the table. I got really into the meeting and the details. I’m a detail-oriented person and that’s what I did at Google, focus on the details. It was just business as usual. Didn’t realize there was a student news group there. After the meeting, they came up to me and asked, “Why are you wearing that?” I told them, I was a modest woman from Minnesota and I wanted to show respect for their culture. There are a lot of Muslims I knew personally, and growing up around the Mayo Clinic, I worked for an Iranian doctor. So it wasn’t that strange for me. That made it into the official news. The next day, there was a picture of me in the paper and it said, “Modest American Woman.” That really opened the doors for the rest of the trip. That was the same day that the World Cup was starting and they let me into the venue because of the news article. Then, Jim Ravannack told me I was going to be in the opening ceremonies. I borrowed a Team USA jacket and they handed me a sign and I was out there with a group of Islamic boys. I got out there, and my knees started shaking. I realized, I’m in Iran. I could be having things thrown at me, I could have people yelling at me, but they weren’t, they were clapping. There were these boys doing a tumbling routine, and I could see their heads popping up, and looking at me like “are you really here?” Because to them it was like, if she’s here, my mother could be here. My sister could be here.
From there they asked me to stay an extra six days and I felt very safe, and it worked with my schedule, so I agreed to stay. Over those six days, there was a news crew following us around everywhere.
Q: So that trip made you not only a celebrity in Iran, but also an ambassador for women’s wrestling in Iran, and around the world. USA Wrestling has declared this week to be Women’s Wrestling Week. Where do you see the future for women’s wrestling in Iran and around the world?
A: I love that question, because I see women’s wrestling as the future of the sport. I see it as the next area for development. We need a lot more women spectators. If you pay attention to MMA, or any of the martial arts, there are women interested in the martial arts. We got to see Kayla Harrison win her gold medal in London in judo, which was amazing. This is the future. I even have Islamic women asking me on Facebook messenger if I ever did any martial arts.
I see us making policies against sexual harassment. I see us being very proactive. I see the wrestlers I know personally as being very family-oriented people and very respectful of all ethnicities, nationalities, genders and I want that for us.
I see our Greco Team as very natural sports diplomats. I see them as people that are able to make friends with other countries that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to be friends with. I see that in our women’s team as well.
If you look at our women, and see how much respect they have across the world. I just think why is Adeline [Gray] not on the cover of a Wheaties box? Why does Helen Maroulis not have a shampoo commercial? Everyone single one of them is articulate, smart, sweet, kind, wonderful. These are the characteristics we normally ascribe to the women’s gymnastics team, or to the figure skaters and we’ve got that. Not only do we have that, but also we have super smart, and super strong. And that is really attractive to the millennial generation. So I see it as a future.
Q: So your vision for women’s wrestling is that it can be up there in popularity with the ranks of women’s gymnastics and figure skating and make it more main stream?
A: There is no reason why it can’t be mainstream and why it can’t be one of the primary sports that people tune into see, once they know the personalities. It’s got to be a personality-based sport, because it’s not a team sport like basketball or hockey. You don’t have that hometown feeling for the sport in general, but you can get to know the personalities. Like in swimming, you follow individuals more than you follow the team. I want to know more about Ryan Lochte vs. Michael Phelps and that’s the same thing. I want to know who is going to make the U.S. World and Olympic teams.
Q: The last time you were in Iran, in February, it was announced that Iran is going to start a women’s belt wrestling team. What are your thoughts on that? Is this a step in the right direction?
A: I actually have a lot of back-story on that. President Rasoul Khadem, of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, took me aside at the World Championships in Tashkent and told me he wanted to start women’s wrestling in Iran. He said it was going to be controversial but he was going to make it happen. And when it happens, he said, “I want the American women. I’ve been watching them, I’m impressed by not only their wrestling capabilities but how they carry themselves internationally.”
So when we went to the Takhti Cup in February, before the press release came out, we had a meeting, with Rasoul Khadem. He said, “We have started women’s wrestling team. It is an intermediary step; they are going to wear judo outfits and white hijabs. We want you to be a part of this demonstration.” So we knew about it before the press release even came out.
So I don’t know all the details, but I do expect we will go there some time this summer, and we will help them do a demo to the public, with our American wrestlers participating in Belt Wrestling.
Q: So by demonstration, do you mean exhibition?
A: Yes an exhibition. Think about how big of a deal it was to have me in a wrestling arena last spring. Now think of how big of a deal it is to have a public demonstration of women’s wrestling, with the public allowed between America and Iran.
Let us know! (We may send you cool things.)