Skip to main content
Original Issue

Never Too Old to Go for Gold

At 37, Chris Campbell has earned a long-delayed trip to the Olympics

Among the 20 men assembled for the Olympic Wrestle-off in the A.J. Palumbo Center at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University last Saturday, there was only one bald 37-year-old yoga-practicing vegetarian corporate lawyer with a wife for a coach. "He's a role model for the younger guys," says Chris Campbell's wife, Laura, who worked her husband's corner in both of his matches. "They figure, If this old coot can do it, I can too."

"A role model is one thing," said Chris after beating Dan Chaid twice to earn the 90-kilogram (198-pound) berth on the U.S. Olympic team. "But I'm having fun."

Saturday's meet, in which the nation's two best wrestlers in each of 10 weight classes faced off in a best-of-three series, was the final step in the Olympic qualification process. The format produced some classic confrontations. The best came, surprisingly, in the 62-kilo (136.5-pound) class, in which five-time world champion and 1988 Olympic gold medalist John Smith—who two days before had become the first American ever to be named Wrestler of the Year by FILA, the international governing body for the sport—came shockingly close to not making the team. Facing unheralded John Fisher, a 26-year-old former All-America at Michigan, Smith appeared wobbly and hesitant while being taken the distance.

Smith, 26, qualified for the Wrestle-off with a resounding victory over Fisher in the world team trials a year ago. Then Smith, the world's best wrestler, found himself not wrestling. Last fall he was pressed into service as coach at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, after Cowboy coach Joe Seay left amid a recruiting scandal. "It's been the worst year I've ever had in wrestling," said Smith last Friday. "I will never, ever coach and wrestle at the same time again. I felt like I was cheating both the team and myself. My preparation suffered, and that hurt."

For his part, Fisher arrived in Pittsburgh in the best shape of his career. He won the U.S. nationals in April, and last month in Philadelphia he won the Olympic trials with a pair of shutout victories over NCAA champion Troy Steiner of Iowa. Wrestling with strength and precision, Fisher won a 4-2 victory over Smith in their opening match before a stunned crowd of 4,542 knowledgeable fans. It was Smith's first loss to an American in four years and his first loss to any wrestler since 1990. Six hours later Smith and Fisher faced off again. Smith appeared stronger and more controlled, but Fisher showed no signs of fading. In a fast-paced bout full of intricate moves and counters (after one whistle the referee had to unknot the wrestlers before they could rise), Smith prevailed 3-1.

After an hour's rest the two were back for the rubber match. Fisher scored a takedown 22 seconds into the bout, but Smith responded with a point of his own. Seesawing back and forth, the match was halted several times as the officials consulted on scoring. "In a match like this, where both wrestlers are trying to turn defensive moves into their own offensive moves, it's hard to sort out the scoring," said Olympic coach Bobby Douglas. "Sometimes it can go either way."

In the end it went Smith's way, 6-5. He used every trick he knew, finishing the match plastered to the mat, with Fisher trying in vain to turn him. The crowd, which had booed several of the scoring calls during the bout, stood and cheered as Fisher accepted his runner-up medal. Later, in the warmup room, Fisher lay on his back and stared into the ceiling lights. "So close," he said, pounding the mat in frustration. "So close."

On the other side of the auditorium, Smith said, "This was the worst I've wrestled in five years. Now I know where I've got to be in a month and a half, and the only solution is to work my rear end off."

Mr. Smith goes to Barcelona at the head of a strong U.S. team that will include '88 Olympic champion Kenny Monday at 74 kilos (163 pounds) and '84 super heavyweight gold medalist Bruce Baumgartner.

Then there is Campbell. A two-time NCAA champion as a walk-on at Iowa in the mid-'70s, Campbell qualified for the 1980 Olympic team but didn't get to compete because of the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games. A superb technician with exceptional strength and speed, he won the '81 world championship and three World Cup titles before a knee injury forced him to retire one week before the '84 Olympic trials. Campbell, whose bald pate and trim beard give him the look of a professor, had spent four years as an assistant coach at Iowa State. However, he had become frustrated by what he saw as the lack of opportunities for black coaches in collegiate wrestling.

"I realized I could end up out in the cold, sweeping floors," says Campbell, who by that time was married and had two children (he now has four). "I needed something else."

So Campbell entered Cornell Law School, graduated in 1987 and later went to work in the legal department of the Carrier Corporation in Syracuse. "I considered myself an attorney, and that was it," he says. But in 1988 he began coaching and working out with the Syracuse team twice a week. He discovered that his old injury had disappeared. With that discovery came the idea of the comeback.

"I take care of my body," says Campbell. "I don't eat meat, and I do yoga every day. It makes a difference."

With the financial support of Carrier, Campbell began to travel and compete again. He got a silver medal at the world championships in 1990, and at last year's world team trials he beat Chaid twice to earn a berth in the Wrestle-off. "When I first came back Chaid kicked my ass four times," Campbell said before last Saturday's meet. "But I learned. I can't get out of position with him."

At the Palumbo Center, Campbell's positioning was flawless as he won the first match 3-0. Despite a stomachache brought on by a late-afternoon bowl of fried rice ("You'd think he would know better," said Laura), Campbell controlled the tempo again in the second bout, turning the 29-year-old Chaid, moving him around the mat and carefully setting him up. With 1:30 to go, Campbell snapped Chaid's head down and shot for his legs, scoring a one-point takedown. That was all he needed. He won 1-0.

Campbell must now be considered among the favorites in the 90-kilo class at Barcelona, along with Makharbek Khadartsev of the Commonwealth of Independent States—whom Campbell beat at the 1991 world championships—and Cuba's Roberto Limonta. "I'd made a commitment," Campbell said after Saturday's meet. "If I didn't win here tonight, I wasn't going to wrestle anymore." A wide smile spread across his face. "And I want to wrestle some more."



Painful experiences with Chaid (left) taught Campbell how to handle him in Pittsburgh...



...but Smith (right), rusty after months of inactivity, needed to rally to defeat Fisher.