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Holding Their Own

Still struggling with the murder of Dave Schultz, members of the U.S. team won three golds

by Rick Reilly

Two men dominated Olympic wrestling in Atlanta, one from a grave, the other from a prison cell. They drove some athletes to triumph but encumbered others. They caused a rift in the U.S. team while binding tight an international fraternity. They made a lot of burly men cry and one thin woman strong. The week belonged to a ghost and a prisoner—the murdered American wrestler Dave Schultz and his accused killer, eccentric millionaire John du Pont, who police say gunned the wrestler down in his own driveway, with Schultz's wife, Nancy, watching in horror as Du Pont fired the last shot.

Angle

Angle (right), a Schultz protégé, came from behind in two matches, then held off Jadidi in the final.

photograph by
Jed Jacobsohn/Allsport


Nobody knew if Nancy would come to the Olympics, where her husband had hoped to duplicate his gold medal performance of 1984. She did, and the Olympics turned out to be a very good place to cry, big shoulders and bear hugs everywhere you looked. And though each day she would hear Dave in the back of her mind saying what he always said to her when things got rough—"Tough as nails, Schultzy. Tough as nails"—there were times when she just couldn't be. She might be fine, remembering with others the lovable Schultz, the man who knew six languages, who was so popular he could travel the world for months without ever checking into a hotel room. But then some giant Russian or hulking Ukrainian would come up and hold her so tight that it would break through all that resolve, and they would both end up crying.

"See, Mom," said Alex, her 10-year-old son, who was in Atlanta too, along with his seven-year-old sister, Danielle. "I drew this of you." It was a woman with big black circles around her eyes. "That's because you never sleep."

It was true. Ever since her husband's death in January, nighttime has never been quite the same for Nancy. Last week the days were no picnic, either, but she stayed in Atlanta anyway. "I want my kids to be around the people who loved Dave," she said. And they were everywhere. Most of the time Alex and Danielle could be seen on wrestlers' shoulders or in wrestlers' half nelsons or on massive wrestlers' laps.

Nancy, with Alex and Danielle

Nancy, with Alex and Danielle, will be the star witness when Du Pont goes on trial next month.

photograph by
Lynn Johnson


Wasn't it wrestlers who had slept on Nancy's floor the first two months after the murder, just to get her through those nights?

Wasn't it wrestlers who had always been part of their lives?

In fact Nancy was at these Olympics because even in her grief she had made herself indispensable to those athletes. When Dave was murdered and Du Pont arrested, most of the wrestlers under Du Pont's umbrella left immediately. Kurt Angle was one of them. With money raised from a variety of sources, Nancy put together the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club, and Angle was able to keep training right up to Atlanta, where he won gold. "Dave was my coach," Angle said. "I'm like a puppy. I do what he did. I know Dave is with me. I can feel him. And it gives me strength."

Angle's grit gave a lot of people strength. Twice in these Games, the 220-pound Pittsburgh boy came from behind in a match. After his gold medal bout with Iranian Abbas Jadidi ended in a 1-1 tie, Angle's years of training came down to an official's decision. The referee walked off the mat to get the verdict, returned to the center of the ring with the two wrestlers and took hold of each of their wrists. At first it appeared that the referee was raising Jadidi's arm, but it was only Jadidi trying to force it up. "That scared the heck out of me," said Angle. Then suddenly the referee raised Angle's arm, and the American fell to his knees in jubilation, tears flowing down his perfectly square jaw and chiseled body. Angle gave the gold to his mother, who raised him alone after her husband died in a construction accident 11 years ago. Then Angle said, "If I died right now, I'd still be happy."

Du Pont

Du Pont.

photograph by
Chris Gardner/AP


The Iranian, though, could not accept the decision. At the medal ceremony, he stood off to the side glaring at the international wrestling officials, gesturing and cursing until he was pushed to the podium by his coach. When the presenter attempted to slip the silver-medal ribbon over Jadidi's head, the Iranian stared at it as if it were a noose. He refused to grasp the bouquet of flowers given to the medal winners—it had to be pressed into his right hand. Other than that, Jadidi seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. "The gold medal hanging around his neck belongs to me," he said.

Although Angle had bolted from Du Pont's facilities after the murder, a few U.S. wrestlers continued to accept Du Pont's money up to three weeks before the Olympics. One of them was 136-pound Tom Brands, who also won a gold, brawling his way through the Olympic field like a bouncer tossing drunks into the street. Brands gave up one point all week, was the finest wrestler in a U.S. singlet and was typically unapologetic. "I didn't need the [Du Pont] money to win the gold," he said. "I probably could've won the gold living in a gutter. I just never saw it as money coming from Du Pont."

Though all the Americans wore a small black patch in Schultz's memory—a few of them even wore T-shirts bearing Schultz's picture and the words the legend lives on—the team was far from unified. Brands, as usual, kept his distance from the other American wrestlers, and despite his insistence that the Du Pont money was of no consequence, accepting it clearly did not endear him to most members of the wrestling community. "That money is blood money, paid for with my brother's life," Mark Schultz said last week from Provo, Utah. "It's wrong. The guy is a murderer, and these guys were accepting money from a murderer. They're trying to justify it in their own minds. Who knows what their reasons are?"

Brands

Brands, who whipped Jae-Sung Jang of Korea for the gold, was blasted for taking "blood money."

photograph by
Bob Martin


The American who seemed most hurt by the absence of the charismatic Schultz was 163-pounder Kenny Monday, who wrestled in Schultz's weight class but could not take his place. Monday was Brands in reverse. He was trying to make a comeback after three years of running a coffee shop and a Subway store in Tulsa, and he looked like a man who was wrestling with a load of hoagies in him. Indeed, he weighed 185, 22 pounds over his limit, the day after his final match. Monday won his first two matches but was creamed in his third, and then just flat ran out of steam after leading the Japanese wrestler Takuya Ota 2-0 in a last chance for a bronze.

Such a collapse was not expected from a man whose chief rival throughout his career had been Schultz. Schultz had beaten Monday for years, then Monday began to dominate and had beaten Schultz in their last seven matches. Yet when Monday won the gold in Seoul in 1988 after beating Schultz in the U.S. trials, it was Schultz who lifted Monday on his shoulders and paraded him around the mat. When Monday lost the gold medal match in 1992 in Barcelona, it was Schultz who hugged him and picked up his bag and carried it back to the Olympic Village. It was Monday who begged USA Wrestling to sever all ties with Du Pont months before Schultz's murder, after Du Pont threw three black wrestlers out of his Team Foxcatcher camp because he associated the color black with death. "This guy is crazy," Monday said at the time, "and it's going to blow up in our faces."

Whether Schultz would have fared better in these Olympics is debatable, but he most certainly would have been in shape. Schultz had been wrestling all three of the years Monday had taken off, and he was widely expected to beat Monday in the trials.

That match never happened, thanks to the scraggly-haired, shaggy-bearded man sitting in solitary in Delaware County Prison in Thornton, Pa., who is not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or read magazines and newspapers, and who takes little more than tea and crackers in his 69-square-foot cell, a place that must seem a long way from his 800-acre estate in Newtown Square, Pa. It was unclear whether Du Pont knew how the U.S. team he had bankrolled for the last eight years had fared in Atlanta. The three American gold medals—won by Angle, Brands and 125-pounder Kendall Cross—equaled the biggest American haul in a nonboycotted Olympics since 1924. Not only that, but heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner's bronze gave him more world championship and Olympic medals (13) than any other wrestler in history. It seems likely that Du Pont knew. He has had more than 150 visits from his employees during his six months in jail and another 400 from his lawyers, who say he is mentally unfit to stand trial. "The law of Moses requires death," Mark Schultz says, "but we don't live under that law. It's too bad."

Du Pont's trial should begin next month, and Nancy is the star witness. She has already appeared in court six times, and now that she has moved her family from Philadelphia to Palo Alto, Calif., to be closer to Dave's parents, the proceeding is going to be that much more difficult. Angle may leave the Dave Schultz Club to join his coaches at the Sunkist Club in Phoenix, but Nancy will continue to try to raise money for her wrestlers. They need her. She needs them.

They will miss each other. When Bulgarian 114-pounder Valentin Dimitrov Jordanov won the gold medal last Friday afternoon, he came sprinting off the mat, around the barriers, and scooped Alex Schultz out of the crowd. He headed for the locker room, where the guards panicked for a moment until Jordanov smiled hugely and yelped, "This is my boy here! This is my son!"

It was a lovely moment, but it couldn't last. Jordanov got on a plane for home after the Olympics ended, as did Angle and Monday and everybody else. Now the hard part begins.

Tough as nails, Schultzy.


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