Interviews

The Growth & Persistent Brilliance of Kamal Bey

kamal bey, 2022 world championships
Kamal Bey -- Photo: Tony Rotundo

All of the traits responsible for endearing Kamal Bey (77 kg, Army/WCAP) to those in his eco-system are not only still present, these days they are, if anything, amplified. 

The laughs remain constant and sustain comfortably past the ends of sentences. Bey enjoys making others laugh. In addition, he is a big fan of making himself laugh. He finds the minutiae of everyday life equally astonishing and hilarious. A new discovery is seemingly around every corner and he cherishes the reactions of others, as well as his own, to each fresh surprise.

not all roads lead to gold, jim gruenwald

The candor, the kindness… The empathy and warmth… The preference for deploying descriptive language, and the fast-acting brain that does his intellectual bidding… All of it, still there. Most on the outside care about what Bey can do with his body on padded surfaces. It severely limits who he actually is — even though the associations are understandable. Cascading bodylocks, thunderous reverse lifts, and gravity-defying scrambles are what tantalize their thoughts. They needn’t worry. His considerable abilities are likewise still available. But the layers which help comprise his character usurp athletics in terms of importance. Said layers thankfully remain in place.

Because it is easy to slingshot the word “change” towards Bey. The general wrestling public in the United States first became accustomed to the Illinois native in the midst of his run as a teenage sensation, back when he was just starting to wow onlookers with his bombing throws and wide smiles. They couldn’t get enough. Bey had not quite yet finished high school but was generating enough buzz to shepherd more eyes in the direction of a wrestling style that occupies third place in his own country. It is this version of Bey who pops in their minds, and that guy has not gone anywhere.

But there have been changes, though the word “changes” appearing in a vacuum is perhaps misleading. Change can be positive or negative. Usually, it’s negative, unless an isolated occurrence has for some reason completely transformed an individual. This is when we take it as a good thing, the whole “changed man” trope to which western society has long clung. To say that Bey has changed is a redundancy. He has, of course, because all humans “change” in myriad ways throughout their lives. The better word with which to peg Bey, the one that is much more on the nose, is growth.

He is no longer a kid for kid’s sake. ’17 Junior World champ Bey is now 24-years-old, married for nearly a year, and a representative of the US Army’s World Class Athletes Program. He will also soon close on his first house, and each day offers a different degree of accountability. That last part has thus far served as his most critical lesson. He quickly emphasizes it. When Bey reaches cognizance early in the morning, his mind fixates on the needs of his wife. Then he gets moving, gets out the door, and goes to work, which for him means bounding into the wrestling room on base at Fort Carson. A great situation it is to do what you love as a job. And he certainly doesn’t take it for granted.

Bey did not require a forced-hiatus in this regard, but received one nevertheless prior to joining WCAP. He was plugging along just fine as one of the faces of the American program when, in 2020, USADA hit him with a “whereabouts failure”. USADA — an organization that functions beholden to a broken, cumbersome system and rejoices whenever they can pinch athletes for infractions big and small — basically nabbed Bey for neglecting to report his locations during the pandemic’s chaotic early stages. A lot of that is on him. He’s not hiding from it. The idea that his intentions were ever nefarious is in and of itself high comedy, and the subsequent penalty last year that saw Bey miss both the Olympic and World Team Trials delivered to USADA their hotly-desired pound of flesh.

Was the time away “the best thing” for Bey? Is missing out on a chance to make the Olympic Team ever the best thing for any athlete? There is no correct answer. Not yet, anyway. However, Bey made the best of the circumstances. He says that during this gap he concentrated on uncovering different avenues in life where he “could win”. An extended pity party would not prove beneficial to the cause. Formalizing his entry into the Army lit up the victory column and, after that, he gained momentum. A more demanding structure helped, and in turn his focus became clearer. Having unconditional support at home and during practice sessions proved empowering. When the opportunity to compete finally returned in April, Bey eased back into the fold seamlessly, in the process reminding everyone of what it is they had been missing.

Except who it is they had been missing is decidedly more pressing at the moment.

So sure, there have been some changes. But those can be measured. The low-hanging fruit clause stipulates that one must mention “maturity”, which is acceptable if only due to the fact that Bey himself qualifies its usage. Whatever. Too boring. Also, a common mistake of conflating maturity with, again, growth. No one is getting a buttoned-up Kamal Bey or anything remotely resembling such an iteration. Yikes-city. The attributes and quirks for which Bey is known have not disappeared, they are simply more. Bigger. Enhanced. The way it should be.

Who would dare want anything different?

Kamal Bey competes at the 2022 World Championships on September 10 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Kamal Bey — 77 kg, Army/WCAP

5PM: What have you learned about yourself thus far as a freshly married young man?

Kamal Bey: I would say that I’ve learned that I’m a lot more patient than I thought I could ever be. My wife, she is a realistic person. Yet sometimes, she has the craziest thoughts and I’m just like, That’s great and everything, but in order to do that, you first have t do this, this, and this to get there. It just doesn’t happen like that (laughs).

I would say that I’m a lot more responsible now, because it’s not just me anymore who I’m taking care of. It is also another human being. You want your partner to be as healthy and in as good of a condition as possible. Those are the two major things. I’ve also found myself to be a lot softer than I ever thought I could be (laughs). She brings out the emotional Kamal. That guy is usually tucked away (laughs). She showed me that Disney movie Encanto, or whatever it is. I was breaking down in tears, man. I think I was sleeping on the other side near the wall (laughs). He had a little plate, like this little drawn-on plate. He didn’t even have a real plate. That was the part that really broke me.

Everyday with her is like a new adventure. Instead of going out on Saturday nights, there we are putting together IKEA drawers (laughs). It’s great. It’s fun. She is seriously my best friend. If you pick wisely, it is never work. Everyday is a fun day. And I can’t stay mad for long, anyway. Whenever we have an argument, it’s like 20 minutes later I’m saying, I’m sorry. I can’t sit here and argue with you because then who else am I going to talk to? It’s great. I love it, I love it. I love her. I love the direction my life is going. We’re supposed to be closing on a house next month, too, so there’s that.

5PM: Did getting married instantly make you feel older?

KB: Oh, 100%. One minute you’re playing video games all night with your best friends, and the next minute you’re planning your wedding. Then it is, We don’t want this type of flowers, we want these types of flowers; we don’t want this type of seating arrangement, we want that type of seating arrangement; you can’t have these family members around these family members; this venue, not that venue. It was a lot. Honestly, planning the wedding was probably the most stressful our marriage has ever been. That, and buying a house. Those are two of the most stressful things you can go through, and we were doing them at the same time. It was like, Wow.

Then I am trying to be the mediator between her mom and her while they were fighting. Inside, it was, Well, I’m kind of agreeing with your mom right now, but you can’t say that (laughs). Instead, you have to lead her into a direction where she thinks it was all her idea from the start (laughs). It makes you smart because you have to be quick on your feet to be a husband. Otherwise, it will be downhill fast (laughs). So what you say is, This is kind of like what you said earlier, you wanted it to look like this… Then she looks at me and says ‘you’re right’, and I’m relieved.

5PM: What is it like sharing your career with her?

KB: Luckily for me, she had been a wrestler herself and was a two-time Virginia state champ. She had her own success in the wrestling world, so she understands everything that I’m going through. She motivates me a lot for this sport. Like I said, I’m not just taking care of myself. Me doing well is not only great for me, it helps her life, as well. Having that gives me a little more willpower, a little more fight.

I’m a pretty good cook myself. I’m a culinary specialist in the Army, but she is an amazing cook. She puts together meal plans for me before competitions, which eases the amount of stress on me. If I’m tired when packing my bag — I mean, I’ll just pass out sometimes and my stuff is all over the place — and I will wake up to find that my whole bag is packed. She is my shoulder to lean on when things get stressful. She is really my best friend. She knows everything.

5PM: It isn’t as though Tracy (G’Angelo Hancock) has been gone too long just yet but he is now pursuing another endeavor and won’t be around. You guys are not only close, but it was you two who helped open the door for young full-timers at the Olympic Training Center, and your successes have basically arrived in tandem ever since. How has it been for you insofar as recognizing that your old partner in crime won’t be part of this process any longer?

KB: It is hard to feel negative about any of it. It’s just all love. That guy is my big brother. He was one of the groomsmen at my wedding. That should tell you everything. When we used to go overseas, Tracy would take care of me, look out for me. He would give me advice, we’d hang out on the weekends… It’s sad to see him go, but whichever direction he goes I am going to give him the best support possible because that’s what brothers do.

5PM: Your first tournament back was in early-April, the Bill Farrell Memorial. It had been a couple of years since you had last stepped on a competitive mat. Was it the same familiar feeling? Or was it different? Like, ‘Wow, I haven’t done this while’?

Kamal Bey: I think at that moment everything felt normal. But the weird thing about the Bill Farrell Memorial was that right before we left to head out there, I broke two of my ribs and displaced them (laughs). I was pretty much just wrestling straight up and down. I really couldn’t do any crazy stuff that I wanted to do. I still wrestled really well, and that made me feel good. I was like, Okay, I’m here. This is nothing to me.

The atmosphere felt great, especially with getting to see a lot of old friends at the tournament. It pumps you up. I was like, This is what I was missing. During those two years when I wasn’t touching the mat, I was just trying to find other areas in life where I could win. I think did a great job of that, too. Joining (Army) WCAP was a great choice for me. The Army is a great place. It teaches you a lot about responsibility and makes you feel good about who you are. The coaches for WCAP are more than just coaches. More than anything else, they are mentors. They are like fathers and brothers. You can tell them anything. If you are worried about winning, they will make you feel like you can win.

5PM: Nice segue because in the Army report, I asked Spenser (Mango) how you have adjusted to the room, to the environment, and so forth. You did know everyone beforehand but now it’s a day-to-day familial situation. Did you in fact fit in right away and feel at home?

KB: Yeah, I have never had a problem making friends since I was born (laughs). I’m a real talkative guy and whatnot, but WCAP treats you like a family. When they know that you’re coming in, they look out for you and help you however they can. It’s just a great room and full of talent.

I like everyone. Even when we have gotten into arguments, we figure that stuff out very quickly and focus on the task at-hand. It is great being in a room full of winners who want to achieve great things. The success speaks for itself. This year, we have I think 10 to 12 wrestlers on various World Teams and it is only going to improve. We keep growing. It’s a beautiful thing to see. But yeah, from the rip, I think I was a WCAP person even before I actually joined the team (laughs).

5PM: Who from WCAP do you lean on the most when it comes to mentorship, leadership, advice, and all that?

KB: I would say everyone, really, but my main go-to’s would be (Dremiel) Byers and Spenser. It’s crazy, because I’ll ask Byers a question but most people might stumble past his advice since he’s an older cat. I think that maybe I understand his lingo a little bit better than some others (laughs). But he drops jewels and gems out there. Someone else might not get what he’s saying but I’m in-tune with him. We make up some new stuff every time we’re in the room. He will just come over during practice and go, Kamal, next time you’re in that position I want you to try something. I will try it and the next thing I know, it is, Wow, something incredible just happened. We’ll just look at each other after that and be like, Okay, we have to write another one down.

Now Spenser, Spenser knows how to motivate me because I’m a vocal guy. I’m the type of person to say out loud what I’m thinking, especially when I know it sucks. We will have ten more of an exercise to do and I’ll scream out loud about it. I’ll look at Spenser and say, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it. And then he will say, ‘But I know you can’. No, Spenser, please don’t make me do it. ‘Kamal you have to get out there and do it’. Next thing you know, I’m out there doing it. He’ll go, ‘Now was that so bad?’ Yes, Spenser, it was, but thank you for making me do it because I feel like I just got better (laughs). Those situations popped up a lot this year.

5PM: The coolness of you going against Britton (Holmes) at Final X, the Trial finals, was largely missed by the general wrestling public even though it was hugely significant. You two were and are super tight, and you share TC (Dantzler) as a close mentor. You’ve wrestled plenty of people you know but I thought this had a different feel. Plus, you both now operate in the same wrestling room. This was special. 

KB: You know, yes, I mean right there in the interview before Final X it was like the crowd wanted me to talk trash to Britton. I was glad that I kept my composure because it really upset me. It was like, No, Britton is my brother. Britton was one of my first friends I ever made here (in Colorado). When TC first brought me out here, Britton and I were on the team, and all of us were kicking butts in Colorado. It was great.

Britton has actually been more than a brother to me. He has helped me move things, he has helped TC and his family, I go over there and hang out with Britton’s family… It is a deep, deep bond between Britton and I. I won’t let anyone mess with Britton. It’s that kind of deal. I have an older brother complex about him. I’m really picky about what people can say about Britton, or what they can do around him. I’m very protective of that guy. He means a lot to me.

Wrestling him, it was nothing but respect. It wouldn’t have mattered who won. He said it best, I’m going to help you, and you’re going to help me. It was a “we’re in this together” type deal.

bey and holmes

Bey (blue) locks to throw Britton Holmes in Match 1 of their best-of-three series at Final X: New York. Bey swept the first two matches to make the US World Team for the second time in his career. Of battling close friend Holmes, Bey says, “Wrestling him, it was nothing but respect. It wouldn’t have mattered who won. He said it best, I’m going to help you, and you’re going to help me. It was a ‘we’re in this together’ type deal.” (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

5PM: More so than any other athlete in our country, except for maybe Tracy, it is your highlights that have been used to promote Greco the most in recent years. It is in your nickname, as well. But I brought up to Spenser how your offense is customized. Your offensive techniques are customized according to your style, even your personality, and what you bring to the table physically. There are probably a whole lot of kids who want to throw just like you do, and that might be why they ever bother trying Greco. What would you say to young wrestlers who want to learn throw? What would you say to kids who might not have the resources and partners around them?

Kamal Bey: My advice right from the start would be to not get frustrated because Greco-Roman wrestling is completely a feel thing. Also, ‘The next throw is always going to be your best throw’, which is a little bit of positive advice that I give out to let people know not to get frustrated. You might get a throw and land on your head, but hey, the next one is going to be better. If you are just starting out and don’t have the resources and partners, just get in those positions and play there. Work with what you do have. When I was first learning Greco coming up, I had my sister and she had an amazing headlock (laughs). So I would copy her headlock out there on the mat and eventually I got a headlock from it. It doesn’t have to be hard. Like I said, it’s a feel thing. Get in the positions where you feel the most powerful, and that’s it.

5PM: What would you say to coaches of young wrestlers who might approach their teaching via textbook mechanics and techniques? This is an artistic wrestling style. Fundamentals certainly that have their place but there is a lot of room for individualism. Let’s even say it was you as the coach: how do you allow young wrestlers to be themselves while still minding the basics?

KB: The first thing I would say to a youth coach is that if you don’t know what you’re doing, go seek professional advice because you don’t want these kids starting out with bad technique. Kids are so absorbent. Whatever you say to them is going to stick. If you have questions, my line is usually open, but there are other Greco-Roman wrestlers out there you can ask, too. Pick a style, pick a coach. We have Greco-Roman seminars out there that we hold, so it’s not a problem if you want to learn. Watch YouTube videos and play around in positions until you get it. I recommend using a crash pad for safety reasons. Always tell your kids to keep their arms tucked and their heads tucked so they don’t post. When you’re getting thrown and go to post, that is when something bad usually happens. That is my advice to coaches.

5PM: This season’s schedule in the US was quite compressed beginning in April. Two tournaments in that month alone, a couple of weeks later was the Trials, and then Final X. How did you manage this quick succession of tournaments without much of a break in between them?

KB: It was something to fight for. I’m part of a new program, I wanted to represent them well, and I wanted to represent myself well. There are also younger athletes who are part of our program and I wanted to show them that, no matter what, you can still win. You just have to go out there and find a way to win. I’m a leader. You don’t need someone to tell you to be a leader, you just have to go out there and be leader. I wanted them to know that anything is possible.

5PM: It has been a different World Team camp than in past years. There is a different method involved, which has been an adjustment for some people. That said, it is still an opportunity to be on a World Team and compete for a World title. How have you approached this summer’s slate of World Team training?

KB: Short and sweet: if I let a World Team camp break me, then I’ve already lost. I want to be the best. Ivan (Ivanov) is in charge right now. Whoever is sailing the ship, that’s where we go. That’s how I approach it. I’m just going to go out there to do my best with what I’ve gathered and wrestle to my heart’s content.

5PM: They say that you never forget your first when it comes to big things in life, and your first Senior Worlds was in ’18. You’re not the same person today you were back then as a 20-year-old. You’re married now, you have experienced a lot more, and you have leveled up in your skill-set and abilities. Does this World Championships come off to you as fresh and exciting as your first one when thinking of it that way?

Kamal Bey: I definitely feel excited as if it is my first one. But yes, the difference would be that I’m older now, more mature, and a lot more experienced. I’m excited to see where all of that comes into play. I have been working on a strategy throughout this entire World Team camp. My coaches have been doing the film sessions. We’re going to go over some things and put it all into action. That’s it, really. I’m just the guy with the action. They’re controlling the robot (laughs).

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