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Russian Olympic Committee responded to critics about their athletes not being “clean.” Simone Biles continues to struggle with the “twisties.”
Sandy Hooper, USA TODAY
Lee Miracle didn’t push his daughter into wrestling, but he didn’t dissuade her either when, on the way home from a fishing trip, she asked why she couldn’t wrestle like her older brother, Shawn.
This was the same girl who at 3 climbed from the floor to the ceiling on a gym rope without permission. “It scared the crap out of me,” her father says.
“I didn’t really know how to raise a daughter. I just kind of raised her what I thought was normal. We just did outdoor stuff and treated her like she could do anything she wanted to, and I think she believed us.”
From winning a peewee state title (40 pounds) at age 4 through to becoming the first (and still only) female to reach the Indiana high school state finals while at Culver Academies, to winning four Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association titles and to making the U.S. Olympic team, Kayla Miracle hasn’t wavered in the belief that nothing was beyond her reach, and work ethic would topple anything even her father could put in front of her.
Because Lee, who coached the All-Navy team for Armed Forces and Military World competitions before becoming Campbellsville University (Kentucky) women’s coach in 2013, wasn’t going to make it easy on her as a youth wrestler or in college once she opted for Campbellsville.
“I wanted to make sure she was in it for the right reasons,” Lee says. “I just want my (four) kids to give their all in anything they do, but there is no choice in the excellence level. She did not back down at all. I could teach her anything, and she was a machine. She’s just a naturally athletic person.”
Miracle became just the fourth woman to sweep through her entire college career (2015-18) as WCWA champion while continuing to build her USA Wrestling resume (two-time Junior World bronze medalist, 2019 U23 World silver).
So what was it like being coached by your father?
“Depends on what day you ask me,” Kayla says. “Some days I absolutely hated it. I hated being near him, hated listening to his instruction. But I know the struggle of any parent/coach-athlete/child relationship. It’s hard to find a balance, and we really struggled to find that balance.
“But there is also nobody in the world that knew what I wanted to do more than he did. He was the coach that was going to be hard on me because he knew how high of standards I had for myself. Maybe if I went to a different college, the coach would have been OK, you won four national titles, that’s great. Lee Miracle is like that’s great, but these are the things we can get better at because you want to be an Olympic gold medalist and this (college) Kayla can’t win the Olympic gold. You have to keep improving.”
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After college, in August 2018, Miracle joined the Hawkeye Wrestling Club in Iowa City, Iowa, with Mark Perry, a two-time NCAA champion, taking on her coaching. She won the 2019 Final X title at 62 kg/136 pounds, not only qualifying for her first senior World Championships but earning a bye into the championship bracket of the U.S. Olympic Trials, originally scheduled for April 2020.
But the global pandemic intervened — postponing the trials and the Olympics — and Perry left Iowa in the summer of 2020 to become Sunkist Kids Regional Training Center coach in Tempe. Miracle and several other elite women wrestlers followed him to Arizona (she, Perry and some of his family contracted COVID during the transition).
“There was no hesitation,” Miracle says. “He called me and said don’t tell anyone but I might be making a move to Arizona. I was all right, let’s go. It was not a question. He’s the guy I want in my corner at trials, at the Olympics. This guy is the real deal, the way he can break down film. He’s the smartest guy, it’s crazy his knowledge about wrestling. Not a single doubt in him.”
At the Olympic Trials in April, though, Perry was smart enough to include Lee Miracle in strategy conversation after Kayla split with Macey Kilty, 8-4 win/4-3 loss, in their best-of-three series for a long awaited berth in Tokyo.
Lee was “trying to be father” in the stands in Fort Worth, Texas, even though he wasn’t thrilled with her pace in the first match, let alone what happened in the second. “She did not look like herself at all. She wasn’t doing the things I thought she needed to technically or tactically to control the match. But I wasn’t going to say anything.”
Then came a text from Perry: You got anything? Given an opening, Lee said he “unloaded. When asked, I gave advice.”
Meanwhile Kayla was “passed out,” as she describes it, in the locker room with a washcloth over her head. “I was so emotionally fatigued. I don’t know how long I was asleep but next thing I hear was ‘Where’s Kayla?’ and I was being called to the mat.
“I’m rushing from the locker room to the staging area, and Perry is saying calm down, it’s fine, they can’t start the match without you. I was on a mission. I channeled my inner snowflake. I got a shot (takedown attempt) I’m not usually in on and transitioned right into the turn.”
Just 30 seconds in, the drama was over. Kilty suffered a dislocated shoulder and could not continue, losing to Miracle by injury default. That quickly, she was finally an Olympian in the fifth Games to include women’s freestyle wrestling with aspirations of joining Sara McMann (2004) and Randi Miller (2008) as a 62 kg medalist.
Miracle, who turned 25 after the trials, is already using her new platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and is believed to be the first Olympic women’s wrestler to be openly gay.
“A lot of people are loving that I am out and I am an Olympian,” says Miracle of knocking down yet another barrier. “People in the community who are struggling can see me, I’m happy and successful. I love who I love and I’m in a happy, healthy relationship so what else can I ask for. Happiness breeds success and no matter who I’m dating, that makes me happy and makes me a better person and a better wrestler.”
Her girlfriend is Chafin Payne, also from Indiana, who along with Kayla’s parents and siblings will watch from afar Aug. 3-4 at a spectator-less Olympics.
At least Payne was part of the celebration when Miracle returned to Campbellsville to be grand marshal of a July 4 parade, a brief reprieve from training for the greatest challenge of her athletic career.
Miracle is not among the top four seeds in her weight class, an oversight, her father believes. “If I was going to seed that bracket, I guarantee you she’d be in the top four, and that’s me being unbiased,” Lee says. “But she didn’t wrestle in certain tournament to do that and didn’t have a good World Championships before COVID.
“If Kayla is on and she’s healthy, it’s not a coin toss” against the seeds. “But you’ve got to be healthy and ‘on’ that day.”
Miracle has Japanese relatives on her mother Jeannette Ishibashi’s side, and one of her two middle names is Kiyoko. That might turn out to mean nothing, or perhaps it will become social media buzzworthy if things go well for her in Tokyo.
“It’s not just about showing up,” Miracle says. “It’s putting on a show and being a different animal because I have to take it. Everybody wants to win an Olympic gold medal, but there’s only one in my weight class. Only one of us can get it, and it’s going to be me.”
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