CHIBA, Japan — Either way on Tuesday night, Tamyra Mensah-Stock knew there would be a first.
Since women’s wrestling was added to the Summer Olympics in 2004, a Black woman had never won the top prize. But in the light heavyweight gold medal match at Makuhari Messe Hall, Mensah-Stock, a Texas native whose father came to the United States from Ghana at 30, was going up against Blessing Oborududu of Nigeria.
“Oooooh, it was awesome,” Mensah-Stock said afterward with her usual zeal and earnestness.
“Oh my gosh, look at us representing,” she added later. “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, 28, certainly did, dominating her opponents throughout the Tokyo Games and beating Oborududu, 32, by a score of 4-1 to become the second American woman to win a wrestling gold medal after Helen Maroulis in 2016.
Asked about the feat after the match, she said: “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.’”
Then Mensah-Stock signaled toward her head, saying: “Look at this natural hair. Come on, man! I made sure I brought my puffballs out so they could know that you can do it, too.”
Serving as a symbol to others has long been on Mensah-Stock’s mind. Back home in Katy, Texas, she started wrestling in 10th grade after she was bullied in track and field, her sport of choice. She reluctantly switched to wrestling at the behest of her twin sister, a wrestler, but soon found that the sport not only unlocked her athletic ability but also helped her develop confidence.
Mensah-Stock said she wanted other young women, perhaps those who felt as she once did, to see that “you can be silly, you can have fun, and you can be strong, you can be tough and you can be a wrestler.”
In her first year wrestling, Mensah-Stock finished second in the state championships but knew more was to come. She told a friend that they would be Olympians one day. In 2016, she made it to the Rio Games, but only as a practice partner for her teammates when she failed to secure a spot in the competition.
“From the very beginning, I knew I could get here,” she said.
Although a Black woman hadn’t won an Olympic gold in wrestling before, Mensah-Stock rattled off the names of Black wrestlers who had achieved so much before her. Among them: Toccara Montgomery, who finished seventh in the 2004 Games, and Randi Miller, who won a bronze medal in the 63-kilogram weight class in 2008.
“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.
Before the gold medal match, Mensah-Stock struggled to sleep because of nerves. She said her coach, Izzy Izboinikov, made sure she ate something. Watching other wrestlers from the United States compete earlier on Tuesday made her anxiety worse.
“It wasn’t pretty,” she said.
But after the clock ran out and Mensah-Stock was the winner, she formed a heart sign with her hands and showed it to both sides of the arena. The television broadcast showed her family, watching from the United States, making the same gesture in response. From the stands, her training partner Maya Nelson clapped and shouted with so much glee that her mask couldn’t stay on.
The heart sign, she later said, was a tribute to her loved ones: her father who died in a car crash after leaving one of her high school tournaments, a tragedy that nearly led her to quit wrestling; her uncle, a former professional boxer, who died of cancer; her grandfather who also died of cancer; a late friend who was also a wrestler; her husband, her mother, her aunt, her sister and the entire country.
“I’m trying to send love to everyone,” she said.