Saluting Dominic Black, state’s most decorated wrestler

February 14, 2017 FieldsColumn

“It was such an amazing journey. The life lessons I learned from wrestling, I wish everybody could have those experiences. I mean, I filled up two passports traveling the world and having people cheer for me in languages I can’t even speak. That’s a great thing. But that’s sports.” — U.S. Army Major Dominic Black

BY MIKE FIELDS

FORT KNOX — Dominic Black clearly remembers the first wrestling match he won as a new-to-the-mat sophomore at Henry Clay High School more than 30 years ago.

“I was probably just as nervous or scared as my opponent,” he recalled last week. “We go out, get into this tussle, I lock up a cradle and we roll around. I come out on top and pin this guy, and I’m like, ‘That felt great!’ At that point I decided I was going to stay the course and keep wrestling.”

Major Dominic Black

Keep wrestling he did, for another 20 years, and along the way established himself as the most accomplished wrestler in Kentucky history: high school state titlist; college All-American; national freestyle champion; two-time World Cup winner; Pan Am gold medalist; Olympic Trials runner-up; Military World champ.

Black, 47, has been a high-achiever in the U.S. Army, too. Since joining the military in 1997, he has steadily climbed through the ranks. He’s now Major Black, based at Fort Knox, working in Psychological Operations (PSYOP), and also offering career management for officers. A promotion to Lieutenant Colonel could come next.

His Army experiences include a tour in Iraq with the 10th Special Forces, and command of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.

Black has always been goal-oriented, going back to his days at Henry Clay. He also played baseball (catcher) and football (running back/linebacker) for the Blue Devils. Baseball seemed to be his best sport. He was good enough to draw interest (and take recruiting visits) to Cincinnati and Miami of Ohio.

But he eventually found his future on the mat.

Garrett Headley, long-time assistant wrestling coach at Henry Clay, recognized almost immediately that Black had something special.

Dominic Black’s high school yearbook photo.

“Dominic was a great athlete, a hard worker and a great personality,” Headley said recently. “I don’t want to say he was a freak of nature, but all the stars aligned for him in wrestling. He was a natural.”

After finishing third in the state at 167 pounds as a junior, Black blossomed into a beast his senior year. He was undefeated state champ at 185 pounds, and was voted the state tournament’s Most Outstanding Wrestler. In a gesture that showed his generous spirit, Black handed the award over to his head coach at Henry Clay, Norm Powell.

“You couldn’t beat him,” Powell. “A great kid, a great athlete, super attitude, hard worker and exceptionally strong for his size.”

Black kept getting better in college. He won more than 100 matches at West Virginia, twice qualified for the NCAA tournament, and earned All-American honors.

While still in college he got his first taste of international competition, and that whetted his appetite for more.

Wrestling, a sport that demands self-discipline, personal sacrifice and a high tolerance for pain, found a willing participant in Black as he kept setting higher goals.

Dominic Black became commander of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program in 2006.

To explain his mindset, Black quoted Amelia Boone, a star in the punishing sport of obstacle course racing: “I’m not the strongest. I’m not the fastest. But I’m really good at suffering.”

Wrestlers must suffer, Black will attest. “The amount of time you invest in trying to do the right thing, in conditioning, making weight, staying on diet, doing the right things outside the room . . . no one is there to do those things for you. But if you care enough about something, you’ll stay with it and suffer until it happens for you.”

After Black joined the Army, he found that military life and wrestling were a great fit. He was already trying to be all he could be in his chosen sport, and that dovetailed perfectly with the Army’s slogan.

The Army’s World Class Athlete Program allowed him to pursue his dreams. He won a gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg in 1999, establishing him as a favorite to qualify for the 2000 Olympic Games. Alas, he lost in the Olympic Trials finals to Melvin Douglas. Black still made the trip to Sydney, Australia, as an alternate. 

Dominic Black traveled the world representing the U.S. in international competition.

Black continued to have success on the mat for a few more years — he won the Military World Championships in 2003 — but he could sense he was nearing the end of his wrestler career.

“In my mind, I had already started to move away,” he said. “I was getting real focused on wanting to just be in the Army and just be a soldier. My last match was in the 2004 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. Coach Headley was there and saw me coming off the mat. I was in a happy place.”

More than a dozen years later, Black is still in a happy place.

He and his wife, high school sweetheart Rachel Curless, have an 11-year-old son, Cassius, and an 8-year-old daughter Zahara. (Black also has an adult son and daughter — Donovan and Alexandria.)

Fort Knox is only 80 miles from Lexington, so Black and his wife can get back home regularly to visit family and friends.

In fact, Black plans on being in Lexington this weekend for the KHSAA’s state wrestling championships. It will be the first time he’s been to the state tournament since he won his state title.

That was 30 years ago, when he was first embarking on his amazing journey.

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