Growing up in the small military town of Atwater, located in the central valley of California, UNC wrestling assistant coach Jamill Kelly didn’t always have wrestling at the front of his mind, but he knew he wanted to compete.
From a young age, Kelly was involved in all types of sports — playing basketball, football and baseball. But it wasn’t until high school that he would take up the sport that would make him a legend.
“Freshman year, I was playing football at four-foot-eleven and 95 pounds,” Kelly said. “The football coach was also the wrestling coach and he told me that wrestling would be good for somebody my size and my athletic ability. Wrestling wasn’t something I had really ever thought about but he kind of sold me that it was going to help my football career, so I decided to give it a try.”
On Oct. 24., Kelly was honored for his long career by being enshrined into the California Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Though wrestling wasn’t his first choice, it didn’t take the California native long to fall in love with the sport.
From there, he never looked back.
'I just wanted to get better'
Wrestling put Kelly to the test, and he didn’t achieve immediate success.
Kelly was not able to reel in a state championship in high school and when he graduated and moved on to Lassen Community College, he had to prove himself in the junior college ranks before he got an opportunity to compete at the next level — Oklahoma State's powerhouse program.
“I started so late that it wasn’t like I had a lot of success in the beginning,” Kelly said. “I just wanted to get better and I knew that I needed to learn more so it was something that was really exciting to me.”
Although he didn’t see a lot of big success in high school and college, a bigger prize was waiting for Kelly down the road.
Kelly finished his collegiate career as a two-time NCAA qualifier for the Cowboys. He was invited to train with former Olympian and current head wrestling coach of the U.S. Naval Academy, Cary Kolat, who was able to teach him some valuable lessons that helped take his craft to the next level.
“When Cary decided to take me to Sydney as his training partner in 2000, that gave me an opportunity to see what it’s like to train like somebody with his credentials – a two-time national champion and Olympian,” Kelly said. “My coach John Smith was also the Olympic coach so it was just a great opportunity for me to see that and be a part of that."
In 2004, four years after his journey with Kolat to Sydney, Kelly made the United States team. During the Olympics in Athens, he took home a silver medal.
After being overshadowed by strong competition in the amateur ranks, Kelly made his way to the podium. The hard work and perseverance he showed paid off and is still reflected in his coaching today.
Kelly's impact at UNC today
Many of the young wrestlers who are mentored by Kelly at UNC are inspired by his story, including graduate student Gino Esposito.
“He didn’t peak until he was done with college and he took second at the Olympics even though he never won a state title,” Esposito said. “It’s really just an amazing story and an amazing journey that he had so I’m always very inspired by that.”
After taking up wrestling at an older age, Kelly never imagined being a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
But believing in his own abilities and working hard on his craft sparked a fire in his career — a fire Kelly hopes to instill in the young wrestlers he coaches today.
After a career full of adversity he has one more goal: to turn UNC into a powerhouse.
To redshirt sophomore Max Shaw, Kelly is already accelerating the Tar Heels toward this goal.
“The veteran position that he’s in, obviously he’s been through it all, and it kind of stirs up belief throughout the program and trust,” Shaw said. “I feel like those are two really key components because whenever you have that belief in your coaching staff and you can go to them and trust them because they’ve already done it before, it kind of stirs up a feeling of the team having a chip on their shoulder and like we’re right there.”
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