With seven seconds remaining in his third-round match, Bruce Baumgartner stared across the mat at a familiar figure. The finest U.S. super-heavyweight wrestler ever—the Olympic champion in 1984, silver medalist in '88, world champion in '86—knew that somewhere in the Barcelona competition he would collide with David Gobedjishvili, the Georgian wrestling for the Unified Team who had beaten him for the gold in Seoul. The third round was just as good as the final.
The referee waved together the 286-pounders—and Baumgartner exploded. He drove into Gobedjishvili, lifted him and slammed him to the mat for three points and the victory. In an instant Baumgartner was on his feet, bounding across the mat, fists in the air. Gobedjishvili wandered off shaking his head. Later Baumgartner would say that Gobedjishvili was not the wrestler he had faced in Seoul. "It seemed like he had lost his fire," he said.
Baumgartner, 31, has learned about the fire in himself and about what it takes to keep it burning. He has not lost to an American in more than a decade, but after Seoul he struggled in international competition, placing second at the '89 and '90 world championships and seventh last year. "I knew I had to get more aggressive," he said.
Baumgartner, who lives in Cambridge Springs, Pa., and has been the wrestling coach at nearby Edinboro University for two years, won the U.S. Open Grand Prix in April and the Olympic trials in June. But, settled at Edinboro and with a family, he fretted that his competitive fires were burning low. Having won an Olympic gold and silver, he knew that his motivation would have to come from a different source than it had in past Games.
On the day before the opening ceremonies he found it. Baumgartner and his wife, Linda, have a son, Bryan, who turned two on July 24. "We called him on his birthday," said Baumgartner. "Linda had coached him to say, 'Bring home the gold.' You know, he doesn't even know what gold is. But someday he will."
Baumgartner followed his win over Gobedjishvili with an 11-second pin of Wang Chunguang of China and a 7-0 shutout of world champion Andreas Schröder of Germany. In the gold medal match he slammed Jeff Thue of Canada to the canvas again and again en route to an 8-0 win. Drenched with sweat, Baumgartner found Linda and scooped her up in his arms.
He was part of the best U.S. team ever, one that included six former world champions and three Olympic gold medalists and would leave Barcelona with six medals. The first went to Zeke Jones, who took the silver in the final at 114.5 pounds after a loss to Li Hak Son of North Korea. The next night 163-pound Kenny Monday, the '88 gold medalist, lost the title match to Korea's Park Jang Soon, 1-0. It was the only point that Monday gave up during the Games.
On the final evening John Smith, a five-time world champion, defeated Iran's Asgari Mohammadian 6-0 at 136.5 pounds for his second straight Olympic gold, and Kevin Jackson won a controversial 1-0 sudden-death decision over Elmadi Jabraijlov of the Unified Team at 180.5 pounds. Jackson received his gold medal amid a storm of jeering fans, while Jabraijlov, below him on the podium, doubled over in tears. In the penultimate match of the Games, 37-year-old Chris Campbell defeated Puntsag Sukhbat of Mongolia for the bronze at 198 pounds.
For Campbell, Barcelona was probably his last Olympics. But Smith, the coach at Oklahoma State who turned 27 on Sunday, indicated that he might take a crack at Atlanta. And Baumgartner? "I have no plans to wrestle beyond tomorrow," he said, standing beside Linda in the soft evening light. "If I enjoy it the next time I step on the mat, which may be tomorrow, then I'll keep doing it. By '96, well...."
By then perhaps Bryan can make the trip.