At 11, Kevin Wallen was a wastrel, a penniless “squeegee boy” who stopped motorists on Jamaican streets for unsolicited washes of their windscreens. He begged for money, he sold newspapers, sometimes even he stole.
At 48, he became the toast of Commonwealth Games wrestling, a man enjoying the singular distinction of being both the head of his sport’s national federation and an age-defying athlete in his own right. “Kevin’s 10 years older than I am,” the arena announcer told an enraptured Gold Coast crowd. “And he’s in much better shape.”
Wrestling has been Wallen’s passport out of penury. When he arrived in Canada in his mid-teens to rejoin his mother, who had herself forsaken Jamaica in search of a better life, he was not just impoverished but illiterate.
Having tried out for almost every sport and been cut from every roster, Wallen felt consumed by bleakness. “I was 20 and depressed – there seemed to be no way out,” he recalls. “My school grades weren’t impressive and the only jobs I could get were in a warehouse or washing dishes. I decided I didn’t want to do that any longer.”
It took a wrestling coach, Jonathan Graham, to enable the change he wanted to see in himself. Before long, his talents in the essential wrestling arts of holding, grappling, throwing and pinning had secured him a four-year scholarship at Ontario’s Lakehead University, and his restoration of self-worth began.
He has also established himself as a motivational speaker, for years of close friend of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter – the former middleweight champion wrongly convicted of murder and eventually released following a petition of habeas corpus – until the boxer’s death in 2014. The pair would give talks together to prisoners, for whom Wallen later set up an in-house IT laboratory so that they would have some technological knowledge upon their release.
It mattered not to Wallen that he lost heavily in his quarter-final to Canada’s Alexander Moore, an opponent 28 years his junior and adjudged a 10-0 winner “by technical superiority”. He had already scored a tenacious 11-10 triumph over Rashji Mackey of the Bahamas and found, six months shy of his 49th birthday, that he lacked the stamina for an encore.
Instead, intense satisfaction could be derived from the fact that he was here at all, given he had sold ‘Cool Pinnings’ T-shirts – in honour of the Jamaican bobsledders, whose exploits at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics were later celebrated in hit film *Cool Runnings* – just to fund his trip to Australia.
Wallen was asked to lead the promotion of the sport in Jamaica by Jossip Mrkoci, president of the Commonwealth Wrestling Federation, and needed little persuading. “We’re built for it in the Caribbean,” he says, flaunting his rippling physique. “Look at Cuba, they have always been a force.”
He was also convinced to come out of retirement so that he could spread the gospel on a global platform. “What wrestling does, which I feel a lot of sports don’t do, is that competitors give back. They become coaches, mentors. It’s not just about throwing money at it, but describing what you learned, what turned you around.
“That’s why I love this sport. As long as I’m alive I’ll be involved at some level. Some sports don’t trickle down. In track and field, if you’re not fast enough, you can’t do it. In soccer, if you’re not skilled enough, you have to find something else. But in wrestling, it doesn’t matter. You can keep going and end up in college for four years because of it. The sport will be absorbed into the Jamaican community in a way that will shift the mentality of young people.”
Visibly moved by the reception afforded him by his Gold Coast audience, Wallen reflects: “I went through a period when I didn’t have any hope. I never thought the day would come when I could be in a place like this, with people standing and cheering for me. Wrestling saved my life.”