John Kinsela: the first Aboriginal Olympic wrestler

Have you heard about Australia’s indigenous wrestler, two-time Olympian John Kinsela?

The barrel-chested Kinsela is also the nephew of Reg Saunders, the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army. Indeed, not only did Kinsela represent Australia in the Olympics twice, finishing seventh in 1972, but he also served his country in Vietnam.

Kinsela was one of eight children, born to a Wiraduri father and and Jawoyn mother in the neighbourhood of Surry Hills, New South Wales. His family moved between several Aboriginal communities during his youth.

He left school at 14 and ended up working in a sock factory and delivering papers to help his family.

Kinsela never intended to wrestle, certainly not competitively. He was training as a boxer, but in a twist of fate, his boxing trainer failed to show up at the gym one day. The local wrestling trainer asked if Kinsela would like to train with him for the day, and Kinsela accepted. He won the state title just three months later.

Kinsela tells the story:

“I started off at the Police Boys club boxing, but after a couple of weeks the boxing instructor didn’t show up, I wandered upstairs and saw the wrestling and was really interested and asked when I could start, the coach said to come along next Tuesday as they had a wrestling competition.”

He won the Australian championships and was chosen for the Aussie Olympic squad at the 1968 Olympics. He was just 18.

Image Source: ABC
Image Source: ABC

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He lost both of his matches, one to Italian Vincenzo Grassi and Soviet champion Nazar Albarian.

Kinsela served with the Royal Australian Artillery following the Olympics. With the 106 Battery, 4th Field Regiment, the full horror of war greeted him on his first day in action: Kinsela saw piles of dead Viet Cong, their bodies covered in lime. He served until 1971.

A decidedly different wrestler, and on the heels of appendicitis, tonsillitis and a series of operations, Kinsela again suited up for Australia at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. John Kinsela beat Guatemalan Pedro Pineda in his day one match before being defeated again by Vincenzo Grassi after a valiant battle. He finished seventh in the 52kg weight class.

Kinsela returned to military service for six years before working with the Aboriginal community as a courier. Unfortunately, part of his mind never left jungles of Vietnam, with their thousand lurking dangers. He became anxious and displayed symptoms of PTSD, turning to alcohol for refuge. Too proud to seek treatment, Kinsela had a mental breakdown in 2001 and landed in a veterans hospital.

After rest and treatment, Kinsela was able to put the past behind him and shake free of the long reach of Vietnam. He now works for the board of Wrestling NSW and serves as chairperson of a community sentencing program for indigenous offenders, using his inspirational tale to compel indigenous youth to follow in his footsteps of high achievement.

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