As hot as the nightclub had grown, as late as the hour had drawn, Mike Herbert wasn't ready to begin the long drive back from Tulsa to his home in Rogers, Ark. Not just yet, anyway. Not so long as there remained a chance he would be invited into the ring with this creature that had hitherto whupped all comers of the Homo sapiens persuasion.
Victor the Wrestling Bear, Herbert remembers, "smelled pretty strong. And he was pretty strong." Herbert isn't given to uttering many more words than that about any subject, least of all himself, so let us interject a few of our own about him. At 5'11" and 188 pounds—roughly two feet shorter and 500 pounds lighter than Victor—Herbert is nonetheless pretty strong in his own right. Few people are as good at moving a kayak over flat water as Herbert, who at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul missed a medal in the 500 meters by inches. As it happens, one of those few people, Norman Bellingham, a gold medalist in the 1,000-meter two-man event in Seoul, is Herbert's countryman, and Olympic rules allow a nation to enter only one paddler in each event. Thus Herbert's bid for a medal in Barcelona figures to come in cither the 500-meter two-man or the 1,000-meter four-man. Herbert, now 31, took firsts at the 1987 Pan American Games in the two-man 500 and the four-man 1,000 and at the '91 Pan Ams in the one-man 1,000. The latter was such an achievement that it moved Fidel Castro to salute the American flag.
Yet none of these feats can compare to the victory of which Herbert is proudest. It was seven years ago that he heard the come-ons over the radio: "Pin Victor the Wrestling Bear and win a Camaro Z-28!" He turned to his wife, Christel, and said, "I can do that." Once he had assayed the supposed requirements—get all four of Victor's paws in the air and hold him down for a full second—he told Christel, "Damn sure I can do that."
There were more than a thousand names in a barrel at The Great Escape nightclub that evening. But at about 1 a.m. someone drew Christel's, and she sent her husband into the ring. In an instant Victor was on his back. When the bear's owner began pulling him away, Herbert assumed it was to halt the match and hand him the keys to the car. But the rules were in flux. Herbert was told that he would have to pin Victor square to the mat, shoulders included, a virtual impossibility given the pronounced curvature of a bear's back.
The challenge of pinning Victor one more time intrigued Herbert enough that he stifled the urge to protest. Soon he lay atop Victor for what Herbert remembers to be about four seconds. Yet the bear's owner pulled him away once more. This angried up those patrons who remained. They drafted petitions of protest on soggy cocktail napkins. A couple of high school wrestling coaches in the audience offered to sign affidavits on Herbert's behalf. But on this evening there would be no victory, much less a car, much less anyone to appeal to. Herbert got himself an attorney, who reached what Herbert refers to as a "satisfactory settlement," from the owner of The Great Escape, a portion of which constituted a chance to wrestle Victor again.
"I was wanting to wrestle him again," says Herbert. "Whether it was for free or anyways. That just sweetened the kitty."
Before he became an Ozark mountain daredevil, Mike Herbert had been a junior high cross-country prodigy who for kicks would do things like run laps around the gym. On his hands. All that ended soon after his family moved from downstate Illinois to Rogers, a chicken-producing town near Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas. Rounding a bend on a motorcycle, Herbert was struck head-on by an uninsured driver who had strayed into the wrong lane. The accident left him in a body cast for six months, short-circuiting his growth and leaving his left leg an inch and a half shorter than the right. "I laid there for pretty near a year," Herbert says. "I had to learn to walk all over again."
Now Herbert had to channel his sporting energy up through his arms rather than down through his legs. He and his father, Bob, began canoeing together and were soon winning regional doubles titles. In 1981 Mike won the first of several state and national championships in marathon canoeing. By 1985 he had moved over to kayaking, a sport that would allow him to paddle without kneeling, thus lessening the burden on his legs.
The reigning American 1,000-meter flat-water kayaker, Greg Barton, has a similar lower-body disability. Barton, who won two gold medals at the 1988 Olympics, was born with club feet. Herbert idolizes Barton, whom he saw on TV during the 1984 Games, a sighting that Herbert credits with touching off his own Olympic kayaking ambitions. A favorite Herbert training garment is a raggedy yellow Ozark Canoe and Kayak Club tank top that Barton signed for him after winning his two golds. In 1989 Herbert won the U.S. 1,000-meter trials for the worlds—the first time in five years that an American had beaten Barton at that distance—and he did it while wearing that tattered, Barton-autographed singlet. "We're both an inch and a half short in the left leg," says Herbert, who paddles a kayak customized for his disability. "We could get into the same boat."
Indeed, their handicaps would seem to put them in the same figurative boat. Yet few kayakers propel their vessels more dissimilarly. Barton's technique is so studied and precise that paddlers watching him swear they can see the four discrete phases of each stroke—the catch, the "power," the exit, the recovery—as he races. "Greg's a real precise person," says Bob, who supervises Mike's workouts on Beaver Lake. "He's a mechanical engineer. Mike, he doesn't have Greg's style. He never could."