2021 Women's freestyle 68 kg Olympic champion Tamyra Mensah-Stock (Photo/Larry Slater; LBSphoto.smugmug.com)
The best place to start is here, inside Makuhari Messe Hall, where Tamyra Mensah-Stock is holding up the American flag, circling Mat B. The tears are flowing, but it's impossible to miss her smile. She jumps with excitement, then wraps herself in the flag.
This is the best place to start, because this is the moment Tamyra Mensah-Stock has dreamt of, waited for, worked for. On Tuesday, she became an Olympic champion, storming to first in the women's freestyle competition at 68 kilograms (150 pounds).
"I'm feeling very happy," Mensah-Stock said in a TV interview afterward. "I keep trying not to cry but it keeps happening."
This is the best place to start because this moment is historic. Mensah-Stock is just the second American woman to win Olympic wrestling gold, joining Helen Maroulis, who won in 2016. She is the fourth to ever reach an Olympic final, joining Maroulis, Sara McMann (2004) and Adeline Gray, who won silver this week at 76-kg (167).
This is the best place to start because Mensah-Stock took the hardest path to gold, having to wrestle: Japan's Sara Dosho, the 2016 Olympic champ and 2017 world champ; China's Zhou Feng, 2015 world silver-medalist who beat Mensah-Stock in 2020; Ukraine's Alla Cherkasova, 2018 world champion; and Nigeria star Blessing Oborududu, who powered through her side of the bracket by outscoring her foes 23-6.
Mensah-Stock beat them all, by a combined 34-5. She registered back-to-back 10-0 technical falls over Dosho and Feng, then rallied from a 4-2 hole to defeat Cherkasova, 10-4, in the semifinals, then scored two more takedowns to knock off Oborududu, 4-1, in the finals. She scored 12 total takedowns in four matches and allowed just one.
This is the best place to start telling Tamyra Mensah-Stock's unbelievable wrestling story.
But where do you go from there?
You could go to Katy, Texas, where the family moved after she and her twin sister, Tarkyia, were born in Chicago. Go to Morton Ranch High School, on the northwest side of Houston.
That's where she first discovered wrestling.
Mensah-Stock was a track athlete, a sprinter and a jumper. Wrestling was Tarkyia's sport, but she pleaded for Mensah-Stock to try it after she was bullied by some of her track teammates. She hated it, then she grew to love it.
She was also pretty damn good at it.
In her first dual meet, Mensah-Stock wrestled up a weight and pinned a returning state qualifier. She reached the state finals that year, then won state titles as a junior and a senior. She took second at the Junior women's freestyle national championships, then went to Wayland Baptist and won two collegiate national titles.
It did not take long for her to start dreaming big.
"When I first started wrestling, I felt I could be an Olympic champ," Mensah-Stock said, "so I just kept going."
You could go to Louisiana, just over the Texas state line, where her father, Prince, died in a tragic car accident during her first wrestling season.
Prince Mensah lived in Louisiana after the family moved to Texas. After driving in to watch Tamyra and Tarkyia wrestle one weekend, he fell asleep at the wheel on the way home. Tamyra became angry, blaming wrestling for her father's death.
But Prince loved that his daughters wrestled. He grew up in Ghana, and often shared stories with Tamyra about the fights he and his brothers got into. When he was 30, he came to America and met their mother, Shonda. She grew up in Chicago, and Tamyra jokes that she has a little fight in her, too.
Tamyra got married in 2016 to Jacob Stock, a fine wrestler in his own right at Morton Ranch. She made the decision to hyphenate her last name, to Mensah-Stock, to honor her father and keep part of him with her.
"He would've been the loudest one here," Tamyra Mensah-Stock said Tuesday. "He would be so proud. He would be so happy."
You could go to Iowa City, in 2016, when Mensah-Stock first qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team.
By then, she was on the brink of international wrestling stardom. She had barreled through the Olympic Trials: 9-0 over Veronica Carlson, 11-1 over Julia Salata, then a finals sweep over Brittney Roberts, by identical 8-1 scores. She was primed to become a potential breakout star in Rio.
There was just one problem … her Olympic weight, then 69 kilograms, was not qualified for the Olympics.
She tried her damndest to punch her ticket to Rio. She went to Mongolia and Turkey for last-chance qualifying events, but took third in both competitions when she needed at least second. She traveled with the team to the Games that year, but only as a training partner.
Mensah-Stock took in the sights and sounds. She watched Maroulis make history as America's first Olympic gold-medalist in women's wrestling. The experience fueled everything we've seen over the last five years: she's made every U.S. world and Olympic team from 2017-20, won a world bronze in 2018, a world title in 2019.
Then, last April, in her home state and with her family in the stands, she again blew through the field to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team - and this time, she knew she'd get to compete at the Olympics.
"I've been wanting this," Mensah-Stock said that weekend through teary eyes. "It gets frustrating knowing that you're capable of doing something and it's been pushed back again and again and again, but it's finally here. I can finally call myself an Olympian.
"But it feels like - I'm not done yet," she continued. "There are bigger moments to come."
That brings us back to Japan's Makuhari Messe Hall, where Tamyra Mensah-Stock's biggest wrestling moment unfolded better than she could have imagined.
Knowing she would get the full Olympic experience this time around, she decided to make the most of it. She brought an Xbox, a Nintendo Switch, and a karaoke machine (with two microphones, of course). USA Wrestling camped out in Nakatsugawa for a pre-Olympics training camp, and she wanted to help her teammates pass the time.
"I'm here … to enjoy … the journey," she said this week, "and I am."
She sang many songs throughout the week, both by herself and with teammates (she and Alejandro Sancho, the U.S. Greco-Roman rep at 67 kilos, sang Evanescence's "Bring Me To Life" together). When she wasn't singing or playing her Switch, she binged "The Walking Dead" to relax her mind and prepare for the competition.
Put another way: Tamyra Mensah-Stock was unapologetically herself at the Olympics this week, and the wrestling community better get ready to share her. Stories have already been written about her in the Houston Chronicle, Reuters, USA Today, even The Guardian: Is US wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock the most upbeat athlete at Tokyo 2020? (Answer: yes.)
Olympic gold medals change lives, and Mensah-Stock's naturally bubbly personality is going to rocket her to the top of international sporting stardom. We will see the 28-year-old on billboards and in commercials and on the cover of magazines in the year's ahead. More and more people will get to experience her warm hugs.
Those who woke up early to watch her gold-medal match against Oborududu got the full Tamyra Mensah-Stock experience afterward. She cried during her post-match interview, then sang, then smiled as she told stories.
She told the reporter, "Don't say this out loud" - yes, during a nationally-televised moment - "but my dad (from Ghana) was like enemies with Nigeria, so it's kind of poetic that I had to wrestle Nigeria in the finals. That was kind of cool."
She talked about what her accomplishment means to the ongoing girls' and women's wrestling movements around the world: "It means that they see someone like themselves on that podium, someone like Helen on that podium - showing them, just because you're a female doesn't mean you can't accomplish the biggest of goals."
"Being an Olympic champ is one of the hardest things I have ever done in my entire life," she continued, "and I'd say it was totally worth it."
And, of course, she offered up her next karaoke song - "Champion," by Carrie Underwood, featuring Ludacris.
"Maya Nelson showed me that song at the 2019 world championships, and I can't get it out of my head," Mensah-Stock said, then without missing a beat, she started singing.
"Because. I. Am. A. Champion. I was born for this. I was made to win."
"I love it!"