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AIRDATE: Vietnam Veteran and Australia’s first Aboriginal Olympic wrestler, John Kinsela

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John Kinsela

John Kinsela has led an extraordinary life; he grew up in Redfern with a Wiraduri father, Jawoyn mother and eight siblings, before a series of events led him to spending time in a boy’s home and leaving school at 14.

Due to pure determination, John went on to compete on behalf of Australia as the first Aboriginal wrestler at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics, and between events even fought for Australia in the Vietnam War. John speaks about his fascinating life to Stan Grant in a riveting one-on-one interview on this week’s Awaken.

NITV’s Awaken co-host, Stan Grant introduces John as an Olympian, a wrestler, a Vietnam Vet, a Wiraduri man and someone who has led a captivating life with a front row seat to history.

Stan begins the interview with asking;

“You are the accidental Olympian, you really weren’t meant to be there, you weren’t supposed to be a wrestler were you?”
“No 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,” said John.

Stan asks John what caught his attention about wrestling.

“I used to watch the professional wrestling on the TV and back in them days it was in black and white, and they had wrestlers like Killer Kowowski, and Mark Lewand and all those. Anyway I went to the tournament and I had about four wrestles and I won three and I got beaten. I had never wrestled before and I was wrestling against a state champion. He never did beat me after that. Within three years I went on to get selected for the Olympics,” tells John.

Stan goes on to explore John’s path from joining wrestling out of interest to representing Australia at the Olympics.

“In 1967, I came 2nd in the Australia championships, and I thought I wasn’t good enough. By 69’, I was training every Sunday morning in South Sydney’s Police Boys club. I had a Polish wrestling coach who was a Physical Education teacher at one of the colleges; he’s the guy who actually got me to where I was,” says John.

Stan then asks, “What’s incredible is that you went to Mexico, then you were drafted into the army, you served in war and then you started training to make the next Olympic Games. How did you get into shape to make the Munich Olympics in 1972 after having that time out while at war?”

“I was conscripted into the army on a birthday ballot and for the whole two years that I was in the national service, I never put a foot on a wrestling mat, because unfortunately with the army you’re always in different places. When I got back from Vietnam I had to do a Physical Training Instructors course. I did three months of training before I got out of the army so that put me ahead,” John tells Stan.
Stan asks; “Munich in 72’ of course is remembered by the massacre, and you were in the village when the Israel athletes were attacked, did you hear the gun fire?”
“Yes, see I was in Vietnam the year before the Olympics, and I knew the sound of the AK47s, I just shook my head and thought, not here, this is the Olympics. The next day the manager called us all in and said the Olympics is closed for the day because there was a massacre. Some of the Israel athletes who died were wrestlers, my manager was good friends with the Jewish wrestling coach who got killed,” John explains.

John recalls that in the past, Vietnam Vets haven’t always received the same respect or credit as other soldiers and had mentioned on one occasion he’d even been heckled;

“A lot of veterans after the Vietnam War wouldn’t even tell anyone that they were veterans, but now on ANZAC day everybody is so proud of us being soldiers. The thing is, to represent your country is the biggest thing that’ll ever happen to you, there is just so much pride in being an Australian.”

Watch Awaken this Tuesday 14 February at 9.00pm on NITV. The episode will also be available after broadcast via SBS On Demand.