Three-year-old Zachary Baumgartner often steals into his
parents' bedroom at night and plants himself upon the ample
midsection of his father, thereby becoming the only American
male in the last 15 years to end up on top of Bruce Baumgartner.
No one outside of America has done it much, either. When the
35-year-old superheavyweight steps onto the mat in Atlanta, he
will begin possibly the most inconspicuous epic quest of these
Games: to become the first freestyle wrestler to medal in four
In a sport that is usually abandoned after college, Baumgartner
just keeps on going. He won gold medals in 1984 and '92 and a
silver in '88. He has been around so long that two of his
workout partners, heavyweight Kurt Angle and his closest U.S.
rival, Tom Erikson, refer to him as a father figure.
Baumgartner, who in his other life is head wrestling coach at
Edinboro (Pa.) University, insists that he is not hanging around
to make any Ripkenesque assault on the record books. When asked
why he keeps wrestling, he always gives the same answer, week
after week, year after year. "I just enjoy it," he says.
The same cannot be said of America's other superheavies.
Baumgartner's last loss to a fellow countryman, after all,
occurred at the AAU nationals in 1981, when little-known Dan
Cook beat him.
"No, I never counted them, but I guess you're going to tell me,
right?" says Erikson when asked how many straight times he's
been beaten by Baumgartner since 1985. The answer is 23,
including the loss at the U.S. trials in Spokane last month that
gave Baumgartner the spot on his fourth Olympic team.
It's a remarkable, law-of-averages-defying streak: first,
because Erikson himself is among the top six or seven
superheavies in the world, and second, because superheavy
matches are frequently low-scoring affairs with little or no
margin of error for the winner. But the 6'2", 286-pound
Baumgartner is dominant. He has won 17 national titles. Among
U.S. superheavies he is the king of the hill, cuffing away every
challenge like a big bear.
Americans won't be the challenge in Atlanta, of course, but
Baumgartner's chances there are as good as anyone's, because the
man has gotten better with age. Since the start of 1992 he has
won an Olympic gold, two world championships, five national
titles and one World Cup. In the last eight years he has lost to
only four superheavies: twice to Mahmut Demir of Turkey, David
Gobedjishvili of the former Soviet Union and Ali Reza Soliemani
of Iran; and three times to Andrei Shumilin of Russia. Leri
Khabelov of Russia and Sven Thiele of Germany stand in his way
How has he stayed so good for so long? His boyhood in Haledon,
N.J., supplies a nuts-and-bolts answer. Baumgartner spent his
formative years not playing sports but toying with model
railroads, rebuilding engines, repairing things. He wanted to
enroll in a vo-tech high school because, as he told his father,
"I like to get my hands dirty, just like you." Big Bob--you're
invariably called Big Bob when you're 6'3" and 250 pounds--got
his hands dirty for 40 years as a diesel mechanic for a bus
company before he retired, and Bruce thought a career like that
would be ideal for him. His parents finally did direct him
toward college, but clearly he has taken his fix-what's-broken
mechanic's mind-set onto the mat. It's a key to what has made
"Bruce has an unbelievable knowledge of his own strengths and
weaknesses," says the 6'4", 275-pound Erikson, who should know.
"I'm probably more athletic, but he just refuses to make a
Angle, who will be wrestling heavyweight for the U.S. in
Atlanta, believes that Baumgartner peaked several years ago and
has stayed on top primarily because of his analytical abilities.
Indeed, Baumgartner keeps an extensive videotape library and
spends much time poring over his own and competitors' matches.
For example, after he lost to Shumilin on a referee's decision
in overtime at the 1994 Goodwill Games, Baumgartner watched a
videotape of the bout over and over. He saw that his grip needed
adjusting on the single-leg takedown, so he made a subtle
change. Like any mechanic, Baumgartner enjoys tinkering with the
His mind isn't the only thing that has kept him on top--so has
his deceiving, teddy-bearish body. "For what he does, he may be
the strongest man in the world," says Tim Flynn, Baumgartner's
top assistant at Edinboro. "I'm not talking about weightlifting
strength, but, rather, moving what you have to move, grabbing,
pulling, sucking in an opponent's leg. Combat strength.
Baumgartner is quick, too. "The guy moves like a lightweight,"
says Angle, "which is scary when you're his size."
Over the years Baumgartner has constantly readjusted his
training schedule to keep his mind fresh and his body sound for
the long haul. Approaching middle age, he still goes hard in
practice sessions--he simply does it less frequently.
But the most important aspect of Baumgartner's success and
longevity is that he finds pure joy in the sweat-reeking,
fluorescent-lit, low-ceilinged claustrophobia of the wrestling
room. "For me, this is not fun," says Angle, toweling down after
a workout with Baumgartner. "It's exciting but not fun. But
Bruce? He enjoys every minute." Says Baumgartner, "When it stops
being fun is when I get out."
One reason it's still fun is that Baumgartner came to it
relatively late. Even though he and older brother Rob used to
rough-house "until nothing in the house was left standing,"
according to Bruce, he didn't take up competitive wrestling
until he was a 190-pound freshman at Manchester High. Organized
sport was something new and challenging for him; he had no
interest in Little League baseball, and he had been too big for
pee-wee football, which has weight limits. But there was nothing
to keep him from trying out for the wrestling team, and there
was his brother to inspire him to give it a try.
Wrestling helped the introspective Baumgartner build
self-confidence. After a slow start he improved steadily,
finishing third in the state as a senior. By the time he arrived
at Indiana State in the fall of 1978, he had two goals: "I
wanted to be an NCAA champion and an Olympic champion.
"That sounded a little cocky since I didn't fit the profile of
somebody who would achieve that kind of success," says
Baumgartner, "but deep inside me I knew I could do it." His
college career followed the same course as his high school
career--undramatic but steady improvement. He was pinned in the
NCAA heavyweight final in both his sophomore and junior years
but finally broke through as a senior with a 44-0 season and an
Indiana State, in Terre Haute, was the perfect place for a
small-town guy like Baumgartner to come of age. He found
satisfaction not only on the mat but also in a wide variety of
classes in industrial arts education, his major. Rare is the
college graduate who will wax nostalgic about course work that
covered drill bits, glues and wood fibers, but that was the
slice of academia that fascinated Baumgartner.
It was at Indiana State that Baumgartner met Linda Hochman, a
student trainer who one day in 1980 drew the assignment of
taping his ankles. "The third time I did it he finally got the
nerve to actually look up," says Linda. "He was the shyest man I
ever met." And thus began a courtship that suggests Scott and
Zelda at their wildest. Let's see, there was their first date,
on Jan. 24, 1980, at the Terre Haute Waffle House, where Linda
ordered oatmeal and Bruce had ice cream. There were the visits
to Cattle Rustler in Oklahoma City, near where they lived while
Bruce was getting his master's at Oklahoma State, and where
Bruce once downed 17 steaks on all-you-can-eat night. There were
the college parties they attended together--a grand total of two
parties, if you're counting.
"Bruce was one of those guys you knew in high school who carried
a briefcase and wore a pocket protector," says Linda. "But
still, I know this sounds sickening and unbelievable, but I knew
the first time we went out I would marry this man." She did, on
June 6, 1982, less than a month after their graduation.
In 1984 Baumgartner accepted a job as an assistant coach at
Edinboro, a small-town school in the northwestern tip of
Pennsylvania. There, Bruce, Linda, sons Bryan (age 5) and
Zachary, and cat Lutte have carved out a lifestyle that former
Edinboro head coach Mike DeAnna (who left Baumgartner the head
job when he retired in '90) classifies as "something out of
Disney." Baumgartner finds simple joy in the fact that he
doesn't lock his car doors when he lunches at the local Perkins
on Route 6N, where the waitresses know him by his first name and
the grilled chicken is reliable.
The Baumgartners live on a country road in a house filled with
Bruce's collectibles (stamps, matreshka dolls from Russia) and
his woodworking projects (a cypress wall clock, an outdoor
jungle gym). "But he can't seem to fix the legs on the kitchen
chairs," says Linda. This gentle complaint has resonance: Big
Bob built the Baumgartner house in Haledon in 1953, and his
wife, Lois, complains that he hasn't finished it yet. "I'll
figure those legs out eventually," says Bruce. "It's a matter of
finding the right glue."
A favorite Baumgartner family story recalls a visit by a group
of Haledon firefighters to Bruce's second-grade class during
Fire Prevention Week. Big Bob was volunteer chief at the time,
but he gave his son strict orders not to tell his classmates, so
that neither Baumgartner would get special attention. At the end
of the program, though, Bruce's teacher blew it and said, "Now,
Bruce, we understand you know one of these firemen very well.
Could you point out which one?" And as Bob primped and prepared
to be singled out, Bruce walked right by him. "This is Howard
Suffern," said young Bruce, standing by the side of a volunteer
in the back. "Our family knows him."
That was Baumgartner, that is Baumgartner. Stay in the shadows
and let someone who isn't named Baumgartner get the applause.
And so, except in Edinboro, Pa., and Haledon, N.J., his sweaty
crossing into Olympic history will not be front-page news. But
it should be. If Baumgartner wins his weight class in Atlanta,
he will become only the second freestyle wrestler (the other is
Aleksandr Medved of the Soviet Union, in 1964, '68 and '72) to
earn three freestyle golds.
If Baumgartner wins any medal, he will join a select quartet of
Americans who have won medals in four Olympics: Francis Conn
Findlay (rowing and yachting); Al Oerter (discus); Mike Plumb
(equestrian); and Norbert Schemansky (weightlifting). None, save
Oerter, is exactly a household name. Baumgartner doesn't expect
he ever will be, either.
It doesn't bother him. All he ever wanted, after all, was to
make a living getting his hands dirty. "I picked my own destiny,
and I couldn't be happier," he says, settling back on his couch.
"And as long as I'm happy, I'm going to keep competing."
Does that mean another Olympics--beyond Atlanta--is possible for
America's greatest superheavyweight? Baumgartner sighs and
ponders it. "Well, the year 2000 is a long way off," he says.
"I'd be almost 40 years old, and a lot of stuff could happen.
But I've been going this long, and I'd never say never."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SCOTT GOLDSMITH OVER THE HILL? NOT BAUMGARTNER, 35, WHO HASN'T LOST TO ANOTHER U.S. SUPERHEAVYWEIGHT IN 15 YEARS [Bruce Baumgartner running]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SCOTT GOLDSMITH BAUMGARTNER IS A FATHER FIGURE TO FELLOW OLYMPIAN ANGLE, BUT IN WORKOUTS IT'S HARD TO LOOK UP TO HIM [Bruce Baumgartner holding Kurt Angle's face to mat]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SCOTT GOLDSMITH BRUCE AND LINDA FILL THEIR HOME WITH COLLECTIBLES, FROM STAMPS AND DOLLS TO OLYMPIC MEDALS (AT RIGHT) [Bruce Baumgartner and Linda Hochman with Olympic medals in background]