Although advanced diabetes has left her nearly blind, out of
habit Linda Gutches still hides her face in her hands while
"watching" her 26-year-old son Les wrestle. Last Saturday at the
U.S. Freestyle World Team trials in Seattle, Les, a two-time
NCAA champion and the 1997 world champ in the 187.25-pound
division, did everything he could to put his mom at ease by
disposing of challenger Charles Burton of Bloomington, Ind., in
two straight matches. Had she been able to watch, Linda would
have seen Les, the pride of Medford, Ore., reestablish himself
as the premier U.S. wrestler and an early favorite for gold at
the Sydney Games in 2000.
The win meant that Gutches will represent America at the Pan Am
Games in July in Winnipeg and at the World Championships in
October in Ankara, Turkey, where the U.S., with four wrestlers
new to world-class competition, will be a considerable underdog
against the host country and traditional powers Iran and Russia.
Just as important, though, last week's tournament was the first
in which Les had a chance to wrestle in front of Linda since the
In 1996 the citizens of Medford raised enough money to send
Linda to Georgia in a private, medically equipped plane. The
trip made her sick, however, and she spent her stay in Atlanta
in a hospital's intensive care unit. Not coincidently, Les
finished seventh in the 180.5-pound division. "Les keeps me
going," says Linda, whose spirit seems as vibrant as her body is
frail. "I get to the point where I want to give up, and then he
tells me he's wrestling for me, and that brings me back. I don't
have a lot of time left, so everything I do means all the more
Two months ago, her bones weak from her disease, Linda broke her
left foot in 22 places and was ordered by her doctors to stay in
bed indefinitely. On Friday night she made the five-hour trip to
Seattle with her foot in a cast, propped up on the dashboard of
a car, and made it clear from which side of the family Les gets
That quality, along with Gutches's extraordinary mix of power
and speed, was on display inside Mercer Arena. At the trials,
the reigning national champion is given a bye to a best-of-three
final while a minitournament is run to determine his challenger.
Burton, an all-America at Boise State who finished third at the
nationals last month, won the qualifier but was no match for
Gutches, who won 4-2 and 2-1. In the first bout, with Linda
wiggling and twisting in her wheelchair right along with the
action, Les fell behind 2-0 before applying a three-point
bear-hug throw to take control late in the match. In the second
match Gutches moved ahead, with :27 remaining, with a
high-crotch single-leg executed with such a precise explosion
that he could have read the back of Burton's singlet.
"Les has the power to dominate strong opponents and the finesse
to strike quicker guys like a snake," says U.S. coach and
two-time Olympic champion John Smith. "It's like having the best
of both worlds." Adds assistant coach Greg Strobel, "Les has all
the tools to be the man in U.S. wrestling for many years to
come." When it comes to the future of American wrestling, Les is
As usual, however, Gutches wasn't pleased with his performance
in Seattle, and he jokingly hid his face in shame from Smith
after beating Burton. "You're talking to a perfectionist,"
Gutches said. "I don't think I do anything really well."
In fact, Gutches, who earned a degree in physical anthropology
from Oregon State, happens to be not only a stellar wrestler but
also an accomplished fly fisherman. He's a devout Trekkie, too.
He has a Klingon symbol tattooed on his left scapula in honor of
the alien warriors' battle creed. Gutches, who has his own Web
page (www.lesgutches.peak.org), also has a wry wit that belies
how dedicated he is to his sport and his family.
In 1994 Linda's illness and her husband Les's 24-hour shifts as
a firefighter made it necessary for Les Jr. to become the legal
guardian of his younger brother Chad. It's not often you find a
college sophomore volunteering to have his 15-year-old brother
tag along with him on campus. Yet Les Jr. was happy to help. He
attended parent-teacher conferences, kept Chad under a curfew
and got him back on track in school and wrestling. "When it
comes to defining Les, what he did for his little brother shows
it all," says Linda. "Sometimes as parents, it feels as if we
won the lottery."
Gutches went undefeated in his final 69 matches at Oregon State
and finished with a 134-10 career record. No one scored an
offensive point against Gutches during his senior season. He
then rolled into the 1996 nationals, in which he finally knocked
off his nemesis, '92 Olympic champ and two-time world champion
Kevin Jackson. The victory made Gutches the only wrestler to win
national titles in all five of USA Wrestling's age groups. It
also was the turning point of a three-year battle between
Gutches and Jackson, a rivalry that ranked among the most heated
in amateur athletics.
Even now, two years after their last epic clash, there remains a
touch of enmity between the two. "Things are still a little odd
between us," said Jackson, who was in Seattle as a member of the
U.S. coaching staff. "We could be friends, sure, but I'll tell
you what, my wife still hates his guts."
Leading up to the 1996 nationals Gutches, who had lost three
overtime matches in a row to Jackson, was sick with the flu.
Still, with the match tied 2-2 and 10 seconds remaining in
overtime, Gutches hit a three-point throw to win. Later that
summer, at the Olympic trials in Spokane, with his mother, 50
family members and 8,000 partisan fans behind him, Gutches again
beat Jackson to qualify for his first world-class competition:
the Atlanta Olympics. Gutches had already wrestled a full
college season, and at 23 was the youngest member of the
American freestyle team. Before he knew what hit him, he was
bumped out of contention for the gold medal with a 2-1 overtime
loss to Elmadi Jabrailov of Kazakhstan. "If Michael Jordan has a
bad game, his shoes still sell and his scoring average dips by a
10th of a point," says Gutches. "A wrestler has a bad
tournament, and he's miserable every second of every day for a
year while he waits to redeem himself. That was my year from
Gutches's chance at redemption came at the 1997 world team
trials. He and Jackson traded wins and then wrestled to a 0-0
tie in the deciding match before Gutches was awarded the victory
on a referee's decision. In his speech following the awarding of
the championship trophy, Gutches thanked Jackson for making him
the wrestler he had become.
At the 1997 World Championships in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Jackson
says Gutches paid him the ultimate tribute by winning the
tournament and keeping his world title on American soil. "Les
has already put in his bid to be mentioned with the alltime
greats," says Jackson, who has retired. "Of course, I still
think I could beat him. Had they let us determine a winner on
the mat, Les and I might still be wrestling."
They'll be battling again soon enough, this time in the practice
room of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. In
September, Gutches will go there to prepare to regain his world
title (he finished a disappointing seventh in 1998) and to win
at the 2000 Olympics. "I need to take myself out of my comfort
zone a bit," says Gutches. "My greatest fear in life is being
satisfied. When I step onto the mat I need to know that I
deserve to win because I did everything within my power to
prepare to get the gold."
Seconds after taking the first big step toward that goal by
securing a spot on the world-championship team, Gutches jumped
off the mat platform, waved to his fiancee, Jennifer Busen, and
then, while soaked in sweat, headed into the stands, where he
got a hug and a kiss on the cheek from his mom. On Sunday, Les
and Linda planned to return home in time to celebrate Chad's
21st birthday, but it was Linda who already had received the
COLOR PHOTO: COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN
"Les has all the tools to be the man in U.S. wrestling for years
to come," says Strobel.
"Sometimes as parents," says Les's mother, Linda, "it feels
as if we won the lottery."