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Bruce Baumgartner: His Gold Hasn’t Brought Many Silver Dollars

June 19, 1996

EDINBORO, Pa. (AP) _ Walk down Main Street in any town except his own, and he goes virtually unrecognized. His face doesn’t stare down from billboards, his voice doesn’t hawk deodorant or diet plans. High schoolers don’t rush out to buy his footwear or his latest rap album.

But on any street in Teheran or Istanbul, he is greeted by crowds of the admiring, the respectful, even the awe-struck. Thousands of miles from his semi-rural Pennsylvania farmhouse, he is as applauded as Michael Jordan or Ken Griffey Jr. are back home.

Funny how Bruce Baumgartner must go so far away to be recognized for what he is, yet many Americans don’t realize what they have right here at home: One of the great Olympic athletes of all time.

A super heavyweight freestyle wrestler whose career began in the 1970s and may last nearly into another century, Baumgartner could win his third Olympic gold medal _ and his fourth medal _ in Atlanta.

He would also become only the fifth American to win a medal in four Olympics, joining a group that includes discus thrower Al Oerter, weight lifter Norbert Schemansky, equestrian competitor Michael Plumb and Francis Conn Findlay, who medaled in rowing and yachting. Baumgartner’s 13 Olympic or world championships would also set a record for any wrestler.

Still, he is not nearly as well known or as well compensated as, for example, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who won but one individual Olympic gold. He must literally pay a price for competing in a sport that may be the world’s oldest but, except during Olympic years, is among the least-watched.

``Of all the sports I know, wrestling probably is the most amateur _ or, in other words, the poorest,″ said Baumgartner, who must double as Edinboro University’s wrestling coach to support his wife, Linda, and their two young sons. ``But I can’t do a whole lot about it, and I don’t worry about it. Me, I don’t really want to be noticed everywhere I can. You get enough recognition from the real sports fans to let you know you’ve been recognized, but yet you’re not a Michael Jordan or a Garth Brooks.″

As he talks, the 6-foot-2, 286-pound Baumgartner tackles a chicken sandwich that, like most of his opponents, offers scant resistance. Four bites, maybe five, and it’s gone, consumed by a man whose huge hands are the size of an outfielder’s glove. His arms would do justice to a Cowboys lineman, and his legs possess the strength of a distance runner.

Sure, the knees ache now after nearly 20 years of pounding on a rubberized mat, and a shoulder required surgery only last year. But in an arena where muscular bulk is more important than sleekness, he is remarkably well-preserved for one who, at 35, is nearly ancient by athletic standards.

Truly, Baumgartner is a super heavyweight by any definition.

``The competition is getting better internationally and nationally, but, training wise, I work out with 23- and 24-year-old guys, and I can train just as hard as they do,″ he said. ``I have to train smarter, now, and I get tired faster. I have to get more rest and eat better. But I’m probably stronger.″

He has maintained such a high performance level so late into his career partially because he was a late bloomer. He placed only third in his final high school tournament, and it wasn’t until his senior season at Indiana State that he burst onto the collegiate scene by winning 44 consecutive matches and an NCAA title.

Today, he is even stronger than when he won his first Olympic gold medal in 1984, the year of the Soviet boycott. He is stronger, too, than he was in Barcelona in 1992, a year after he supposedly had become too old, too heavy and too distracted to compete with the big boys.

Even then, Baumgartner wasn’t inundated with interview requests. Some viewed his 1984 Olympic gold medal as a fortunate collision of the clock and circumstances, one that may not have occurred if the Communist bloc had competed.

There was no such talk in Barcelona after Baumgartner, who had finished only seventh in the 1991 world championships, eliminated a former Olympic and world champion in the morning and another former Olympic and world champion in a memorable afternoon. It was a singular accomplishment that earned him another Olympic gold medal, one that separated him from the merely good and transformed him into one of wrestling’s all-time greats.

Two more world championships followed, and a 15-year unbeaten streak against American wrestlers continues. Now, there is little more to achieve _ except one more gold medal.

``I’m doing it now because I like it now, more than `I’ve got to win the Olympics, I’ve got to win the Olympics,′ ″ he said. ``There’s not that burning pressure. I do want to win the Olympics, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the same pressures or desires as my first.″

The competition in Atlanta will be good, though perhaps not as stacked as it was in Barcelona. Among those wishing to pack Baumgartner off to premature retirement are six-time world champion Leri Khabelov, a Russian who moved up from 220 pounds only last year; former world champion Mahmut Demir, who beat Baumgartner in the 1994 world championships for Turkey; Andrei Shumilin, a Russian who has beaten him three straight times until Baumgartner defeated him in a dual meet in April; and Germany’s Sven Thiele, who unexpectedly placed second to Baumgartner in last year’s world championships.

By competing only an hour’s plane ride from home, Baumgartner won’t have to adjust to a different time zone, the language, the food or unsettling accommodations. But there will be disadvantages to Atlanta: more media, more demands on his time, and, assuredly, more pressure. Still, in a sport where physical capabilities are stretched to the maximum in nearly every match and mental toughness can overcome physical superiority, Baumgartner is a study in stability.

Some wrestlers, such as Olympian Tom Brands, thrive on anger, passion, intensity, even turmoil, but Baumgartner is as calm as a Hawaiian breeze, a man who can never recall getting angry in nearly 20 years of competition.

``A lot of the strategy is letting a guy beat himself,″ Baumgartner said. ``You push hard, you take the advantage and the shots, but let that guy make the mistake. Most of the people know I’m not going to make a mistake. That comes from years of experience.″

Lose in Atlanta, and Baumgartner will sink back into the world of anonymity where wrestlers hide for all but eight days every four years. Win, and the rewards could be great, even if the financial compensation isn’t.

``Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee _ my income and bank accounts are minute compared to them,″ said Baumgartner, whose combined income from wrestling and coaching is less than a major league rookie. ``A shoe contract in wrestling might be $5,000. But, overall, I’ve positioned myself to use wrestling as a vehicle to give myself a pretty good lifestyle, a good way of life. It’s a pretty happy situation.″

End advance for June 22-23 and thereafter

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