Since 2004 when women’s wrestling was added to the Summer Olympics, a Black woman had never won gold. However, at Makuhari Messe Hall during the light heavyweight gold medal match on Tuesday, Houston native Tamyra Mensah-Stock made history when she became the first Black woman to win a wrestling gold. The 28-year-old American athlete also became only the second American woman to win the top prize, following Helen Maroulis’ gold at the 2016 Rio Games.
Mensah-Stock, whose father came to the United States from Ghana at 30, went up against Blessing Oborududu of Nigeria. Blessing, 32, also made history as the first Nigerian wrestler to take the podium at the Olympics.
“Oh my gosh, look at us representing,” Mensah-Stock said of the historic moment. “And I’m like, if one of us wins, we’re making history. You’re making history, I’m making history, we’re making history. It’s fantastic. It meant a lot. I’m so proud of Blessing. I was looking at her, ‘Dang, she’s killing it.’ But I can kill it, too.”
And Mensah-Stock did kill it, beating Oborududu by a score of 4-1 to win. “Young women are going to see themselves in a number of ways. And they’re going to look up there and go: ‘I can do that. I can see myself,’” Mensah-Stock said after the match.
Growing up in Katy, Texas, Mensah-Stock started wrestling in 10th grade after being bullied in track and field. She began wrestling at the suggestion of her twin sister, a wrestler. Not too long after, she realized that the sport had helped her build confidence.
She finished second in the state championships in her first year of wrestling. But she knew she could do more than that and was optimistic about being an Olympian in the future. When she made it to the Rio Games in 2016, she was only a practice partner for her teammates after failing to secure a spot in the competition, according to The New York Times. Today, she is paying homage to other Black wrestlers like Randi Miller who came before her.
“They paved the way for me, and I was like, ‘I know you guys could have done it, so I’m going out there and I’m going to accomplish this,’” Mensah-Stock said.
She found it hard to sleep ahead of the gold medal match on Tuesday but her coach, Izzy Izboinikov, gave her all the support she needed, she said. And when she was crowned the winner, she formed a heart sign with her hands, which she said was a tribute to her family, country and loved ones including her dad, who died in a car accident after leaving one of her high school tournaments.
Mensah-Stock almost quit wrestling after the tragic incident. But she pressed on, and today, she is one of the most talented female wrestlers in the world.