John Kinsela to feature on NITV's Awaken

A full life: Former Olympian and Vietnam veteran John Kinsela features on 'Awaken' with Stan Grant this week. Picture: Heath Parkes-Hupton

A full life: Former Olympian and Vietnam veteran John Kinsela features on 'Awaken' with Stan Grant this week. Picture: Heath Parkes-Hupton

John Kinsela is a proud Australian who has represented his nation on Olympic gym mats and the battlefield.

Two Olympic Games and eight months manning an artillery unit in Vietnam, plus years of dedication to indigenous causes in western Sydney, has made for an amazing life story. 

The Blacktown resident will feature on ‘Awaken’ with Stan Grant on NITV on Tuesday night.

Like many great tales, his journey started with an unexpected stroke of fortune.

“I wanted to be a boxer,” he said. “But one day I went down to the police boy’s club at Leichhardt and the instructor didn’t show up.

“I went for a wander around the club and found the wrestling class. I asked if I could join and they told me to come back next week.”

In 1968, just three years later, he became the first indigenous man to wrestle for Australia at an Olympic Games. 

A promising showing in Mexico City had the then 18-year-old looking towards the 1972 games in Munich. But shortly after arriving home he was about to fly out to fight on a new front.

Elder: Mr Kinsela has spent his retirement by setting an example for indigenous people in the community. Picture: Supplied

Elder: Mr Kinsela has spent his retirement by setting an example for indigenous people in the community. Picture: Supplied

Mr Kinsela’s birthday was drawn out of a ballot in 1970 and he was sent to join the Australian effort in the Vietnam War.

The 67-year-old said there was no discrimination within the artillery unit at the camp he called “the horseshoe”, located in the Phuoc Tuy province of south Vietnam.

“You rely on your mate next to you for support,” he said.

“It was the mateship. When you’re getting shot at, you don’t care what colour the guy next to you is.”

He returned home in 1971 and began preparations for Munich. Selectors were stunned with Mr Kinsela’s fitness levels after almost two years out of the sport.

The ‘72 games are remembered for the wrong reasons, however, as a result of the 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer who were kidnapped and executed in a terrorist attack.

Mr Kinsela said he was having lunch in the Olympic Village when shots rang out.

“It was horrific,” he said. “We were having drinks with friends. I heard the bangs, and I thought ‘No, not here’.

“I’d been in Vietnam the year before and knew what live rounds sounded like.

“Some of the young people who were killed were wrestlers. My manager knew one of the coaches really well.”

Mr Kinsela never qualified for a third Olympics, he instead chose to settle down with his wife Yvonne and begin life as a courier.

Today he spends his time visiting fellow veterans at St Marys RSL Club, or dedicates his time to promoting opportunities for the indigenous community around Mount Druitt.

He helped found Breaking Barriers, a fitness program for Aboriginal youth which operates out of Emerton Leisure Centre.

He also acts as an elder for Mount Druitt justice program Circle Sentencing, which looks to improve sentencing outcomes for indigenous offenders.

  • Catch John Kinsela’s interview with Stan Grant on Awaken on Tuesday, February 14 from 9pm. Replays can be found via SBS On Demand.
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