wrestling

Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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‘We’re not in control’: U.S. wrestlers finish Olympic qualifier amid uncertainty

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In one of the rare sporting events not canceled this past weekend, U.S. wrestlers competed Friday through Sunday at a Pan American Olympic qualifier in Ottawa, without spectators and with an uncertain future.

Canada’s wrestling federation, after consulting with local health authorities, said Friday that the tournament would go on with essential personnel and limited family members.

“It’s been a hard week for everyone, I think, in the wrestling world and the whole world,” U.S. women’s national team coach Terry Steiner said after all four American women qualified a quota spot for the nation on Saturday. “To be able to just keep your eye on and stay focused on the task at hand was very important. They had to be really mentally resilient.”

The roster included Helen Maroulis, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. Maroulis is coming back this year after a concussion and traumatic brain injuries sidelined her for all of 2019. And David Taylor, a 2018 World champion coming back from a May 5 ACL tear.

Maroulis, Taylor and nine others clinched Olympic quota spots that would under normal circumstances be filled at the U.S. Olympic Trials. On Friday, it was announced that the April 4-5 trials were postponed indefinitely.

“Organizers are working closely with local officials and health experts in hopes of rescheduling the event at [Penn State’s] Bryce Jordan Center,” according to USA Wrestling on Friday.

By Sunday night, after the Ottawa event finished, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended not holding gatherings of 50 or more people in the U.S. over the next eight weeks.

Steiner said after Saturday’s competition that he didn’t know “from minute to minute” whether the Pan Am event would happen.

“Just try to keep their minds on the things they could control instead of getting into everything else was very important, and they did a great job with that,” Steiner said of the American women. “So now we’re waiting and seeing when the next step is.”

U.S. Greco-Roman coach Matt Lindland is waiting, too. His wrestlers competed Friday in Ottawa.

“Even now, we’ve got to take a little time, decompress,” Lindland said Friday. “We need a little bit of time just to let go, step away for a second, live life, keep our bodies healthy, spend some time probably with family, things like that, just get our priorities right. Once we find out more information, we start building a plan. We can speculate all we want, but we’re really not in control of what’s happening right now in the world.”

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MORE: Olympic sports events affected by the coronavirus

U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials postponed

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The U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials, originally scheduled for April 4-5 at Penn State, have been postponed due to the coronavirus.

USA Wrestling said in a press release that the decision was made “due to the ever-changing impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19), and out of concern for the health and wellbeing of athletes, fans, staff and the community.” The decision was made by USA Wrestling, Penn State, the venue (Bryce Jordan Center) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

“Organizers are working closely with local officials and health experts in hopes of rescheduling the event at the Bryce Jordan Center,” according to USA Wrestling.

At wrestling trials, the winner in each weight division qualifies for the Olympics, assuming the U.S. qualified (or will qualify) a quota spot in that division. Americans are currently competing through Sunday at a Pan American qualifier for quota spots in Ottawa.

The U.S. has three active Olympic champions — Jordan BurroughsKyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis — and five reigning world champions — J’den Cox, Kyle Dake, Adeline Gray, Tamyra Mensah-Stock and Jacarra Winchester — all in freestyle.

Cox and Snyder are both expected to enter the 97kg division at trials. Burroughs and Dake are both expected in the 74kg division. Cox and Dake won non-Olympic weight classes at the 2019 World Championships, which had more divisions than the Olympics.

Later U.S. Olympic Trials in diving, gymnastics, swimming in track and field are still on as scheduled for June.

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