His mind isn't the only thing that has kept him on top—so has his deceiving, teddy-bearish body. "For what he does, he may be the strongest man in the world," says Tim Flynn, Baumgartner's top assistant at Edinboro. "I'm not talking about weightlifting strength, but, rather, moving what you have to move, grabbing, pulling, sucking in an opponent's leg. Combat strength. Functional strength."
Baumgartner is quick, too. "The guy moves like a lightweight." says Angle, "which is scary when you're his size."
Over the years Baumgartner has constantly readjusted his training schedule to keep his mind fresh and his body sound for the long haul. Approaching middle age, he still goes hard in practice sessions—he simply does it less frequently.
But the most important aspect of Baumgartner's success and longevity is that he finds pure joy in the sweat-reeking, fluorescent-lit, low-ceilinged claustrophobia of the wrestling room. "For me, this is not fun," says Angle, toweling down after a workout with Baumgartner. "It's exciting but not fun. But Bruce? He enjoys every minute." Says Baumgartner, "When it stops being fun is when I get out."
One reason it's still fun is that Baumgartner came to it relatively late. Even though he and older brother Rob used to rough-house "until nothing in the house was left standing," according to Bruce, he didn't take up competitive wrestling until he was a 190-pound freshman at Manchester High. Organized sport was something new and challenging for him; he had no interest in Little League baseball, and he had been too big for pee-wee football, which has weight limits. But there was nothing to keep him from trying out for the wrestling team, and there was his brother to inspire him to give it a try.
Wrestling helped the introspective Baumgartner build self-confidence. After a slow start he improved steadily, finishing third in the state as a senior. By the time he arrived at Indiana State in the fall of 1978, he had two goals: "I wanted to be an NCAA champion and an Olympic champion.
"That sounded a little cocky since I didn't fit the profile of somebody who would achieve that kind of success," says Baumgartner, "but deep inside me I knew I could do it." His college career followed the same course as his high school career—undramatic but steady improvement. He was pinned in the NCAA heavyweight final in both his sophomore and junior years but finally broke through as a senior with a 44-0 season and an NCAA title.
Indiana State, in Terre Haute, was the perfect place for a small-town guy like Baumgartner to come of age. He found satisfaction not only on the mat but also in a wide variety of classes in industrial arts education, his major. Rare is the college graduate who will wax nostalgic about course work that covered drill bits, glues and wood fibers, but that was the slice of academia that fascinated Baumgartner.
It was at Indiana State that Baumgartner met Linda Hochman, a student trainer who one day in 1980 drew the assignment of taping his ankles. "The third time I did it he finally got the nerve to actually look up," says Linda. "He was the shyest man I ever met." And thus began a courtship that suggests Scott and Zelda at their wildest. Let's see, there was their first date, on Jan. 24, 1980, at the Terre Haute Waffle House, where Linda ordered oatmeal and Bruce had ice cream. There were the visits to Cattle Rustler in Oklahoma City, near where they lived while Bruce was getting his master's at Oklahoma State, and where Bruce once downed 17 steaks on all-you-can-eat night. There were the college parties they attended together—a grand total of two parties, if you're counting.
"Bruce was one of those guys you knew in high school who carried a briefcase and wore a pocket protector," says Linda. "But still, I know this sounds sickening and unbelievable, but I knew the first time we went out I would marry this man." She did, on June 6, 1982, less than a month after their graduation.