An Interview with Kellen Russell
by Sam Shames
Growing up in New Jersey, Kellen Russell started wrestling when he was six years old. His dad was a wrestler and a high school coach, and Kellen used to follow him from tournament to tournament. As he grew up, Kellen discovered his own love for wrestling and focused that energy into a decorated high school and college career, graduating from Blair Academy as a three-time National Prep champion, a two-time Fargo Freestyle national companion, and a Senior National High School champion before attending the University of Michigan where he has a two-time NCAA champion and a four-time Big Ten champion. Since finishing his college career, Russell has been active on the freestyle circuit, training out of the Cliff Keen wrestling club.
We caught up with Kellen to discuss his start to wrestling, his time at Blair Academy, his college career, his transition to coaching, and some of the lessons he learned through the sport.
Wrestling Stories: Thank you for speaking with us today Kellen. Let’s right in and talk about how you got started wrestling.
Kellen Russell: Thank you for having me. I started wrestling when I six years old and was coached by my dad, who was a wrestler and high school coach. Those first few years, I competed in one tournament a year, because it was mostly just about learning the sport and putting in the hard work.
WS: Do you remember your first match?
KR: I remember my first loss. It was the first time I lost in a one-on-one situation. I was pretty upset and was crying, but I learned to overcome it. It was tough, but it helped me get better.
WS: When did you start to get serious about wrestling?
KR: I played a ton of sports growing up — football, lacrosse, soccer, and baseball. As I got older, I really started loving wrestling and the one-one-one nature of the sport because you don’t have anyone to blame and that you can take all the credit. I started competing more as I got closer to middle school. I began going to the Red Hawk Wrestling Club in New Jersey and trained with the guys at that club. The guys at the club had a lot more success than I had, so I always had people to look up to and whose goals I could work towards. Training with those guys everyday made me dream bigger.
WS: How did the opportunity to go to Blair come up?
KR: Jeff Buxton’s [the head coach of Blair] son went to the Red Hawk wrestling club and I wrestled him one day and got my butt kicked. I didn’t know who he was, but when my dad told me I was blown away. I started working out with Coach Buxton’s son and then ended up going to Blair practices in eighth grade.
WS: What was it like at Blair?
KR: The first year was kind of scary; you’re wrestling in the room everyday with ranked guys, and you are living away from your family for the first time. I didn’t really know anyone except one kid in my class. You also have a lot of responsibility to wake yourself up and go to class and do your homework. That responsibility was challenging, but wrestling definitely helped me there.
WS: What was your favorite memory from Blair?
KR: After my sophomore year I won Fargo. It had been a tough year since I wasn’t in the starting line up at Blair. That year, at 15 or 16 years old, I had to make some tough decision about whether I wanted to wrestle. Coach Buxton sat me down and told me I have the talent to be the best but that I needed to step up my training that Spring. I choose to do so and after winning Fargo really realized that wrestling is what I love and want to do.
WS: After Blair, you went to the University of Michigan for college. What was the recruiting process like and how did you decide on Michigan.
KR: The recruiting process was fun. My parents were really supportive and let me make the decision myself. I took my visits, and when I came to Michigan with one of my buddies, I met amazing people. Walking around the campus I could really see myself at this place. Coach McFarland and the assistant seemed like great guys, and when I told my parents they supported me.
WS: What were your goals coming into college?
KR: I wanted to be a multiple time All-American and NCAA champion. Those goals were tough to see when you are in the room for the first three months and getting your butt kicked, but I was lucky that in high school at Blair I got beat a lot in the room. I knew to focus on the positive, like all the times I did get a takedown in practice and not all the times I didn’t. I also knew that getting my butt kicked in the room makes me a better wrestler.
WS: Was there a turning point that freshman year?
KR: At the Cliff Keen Vegas tournament, I beat Jaggers from Ohio State in the finals as an unranked freshman. That helped boost my confidence a lot and convince me that I was there.
WS: What did you do after your freshman year after not placing at Nationals despite winning the Big Ten Tournament?
KR: I wasn’t pleased after nationals because I didn’t think I was wrestled well. I was worn out by the end of the season, and after winning the Big Tens I expected people to give me matches. Not placing was disappointing, but it also got me fired up for the next year. I worked to be more offensive and focused on wrestling the whole match and not holding onto a lead.
I competed in the Fila Juniors and lost to Jordan Burroughs. He hit me with about 20 double legs. He just kept shooting those doubles, and I knew after wrestling him that he was going to be special.
WS: All that hard work obviously paid off as you came back and were an All-American your sophomore year and then had an undefeated junior season, What was your mindset coming into your senior year?
KR: I wanted to score more points and get two-three takedowns in a match. Once again I tried to get more offensive.
WS: You lost to Hunter Stieber your senior year. What did you change after the loss?
KR: I was student teaching in the fall and wasn’t training as hard as I can. I was half-assing it in the room and that loss was a wakeup call not just to be in the room going through the motions but to get better. Getting that revenge later in the season was probably my favorite match that year. I took him down and road him.
WS: You finished your college career by winning your second national title. Did you stop and reflect after finishing your career?
KR: Not really since I didn’t have too much time before the trials. I just started wrestling with the senior level guys and started training more and more. As the weeks went on though, I took the opportunity to look back and was most proud of how I overcame the adversity of disappointing finishes at nationals by freshman and sophomore years to come back and win two national titles. That’s great for the team since it inspires the young guys.
WS: You recently finished your first year as a volunteer coach. What was that like this past season?
KR: It’s way more stressful coaching than competing. As a coach, you have to get up for every match. When anyone losses a match, it hits you; those ups and downs are tough. You also need to figure out to motivate each guy.
WS: What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned through wrestling?
KR: Overcoming challenges definitely. This is an easy lesson to learn in wrestling because you see everyday how you can turn things around, even in a single practice. You also learn to be able to control your thought process and not just to recognize what is wrong, but also to fix it. You also learn to go above and beyond and to do extra workouts or conditioning.
You also learn to keep competing in situations where you are tired and to continue to push through and still practice when you don’t want to. I learned to always have a plan going into a practice, like to try to get six takedowns in a live go. I learned to control my thoughts before a match and to be confident and focus on my offense and controlling ties. I repeat my mantra, relentless attacks in my head.
These lessons easily translate off the matt where you are always going to be challenged just like in wrestling. You can either complain or you can prepare and work harder. Wrestling teaches you to embrace that attitude.
WS: What advice would you give to a younger wrestler?
KR: I recommend going out and competing and wrestling in as many tournaments as you can. Don’t ever shy away from wrestling the best guys in the country. Go find the best competition and don’t worry about your record. You need to go find the best guys and learn from them.
WS: Fantastic advice, and thank you again for your time.
KR: Thank you for having me. It has been a pleasure.
Originally published at wrestlingstories.org.