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The Long Haul
Jack McCallum
July 22, 1996
BRUCE BAUMGARTNER IS OUT TO BE THE FIRST FREESTYLER TO WIN A MEDAL IN FOUR OLYMPICS, AND HE MAY NOT STOP THERE
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July 22, 1996

The Long Haul

BRUCE BAUMGARTNER IS OUT TO BE THE FIRST FREESTYLER TO WIN A MEDAL IN FOUR OLYMPICS, AND HE MAY NOT STOP THERE

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In 1984 Baumgartner accepted a job as an assistant coach at Edinboro, a small-town school in the northwestern tip of Pennsylvania. There, Bruce, Linda, sons Bryan (age 5) and Zachary, and cat Lutte have carved out a lifestyle that former Edinboro head coach Mike DeAnna (who left Baumgartner the head job when he retired in '90) classifies as "something out of Disney." Baumgartner finds simple joy in the fact that he doesn't lock his car doors when he lunches at the local Perkins on Route 6N, where the waitresses know him by his first name and the grilled chicken is reliable.

The Baumgartners live on a country road in a house filled with Bruce's collectibles (stamps, matreshka dolls from Russia) and his woodworking projects (a cypress wall clock, an outdoor jungle gym). "But he can't seem to fix the legs on the kitchen chairs," says Linda. This gentle complaint has resonance: Big Bob built the Baumgartner house in Haledon in 1953, and his wife, Lois, complains that he hasn't finished it yet. "I'll figure those legs out eventually," says Bruce. "It's a matter of finding the right glue."

A favorite Baumgartner family story recalls a visit by a group of Haledon firefighters to Bruce's second-grade class during Fire Prevention Week. Big Bob was volunteer chief at the time, but he gave his son strict orders not to tell his classmates, so that neither Baumgartner would get special attention. At the end of the program, though, Bruce's teacher blew it and said, "Now, Bruce, we understand you know one of these firemen very well. Could you point out which one?" And as Bob primped and prepared to be singled out, Bruce walked right by him. "This is Howard Suffern," said young Bruce, standing by the side of a volunteer in the back. "Our family knows him."

That was Baumgartner, that is Baumgartner. Stay in the shadows and let someone who isn't named Baumgartner get the applause. And so, except in Edinboro, Pa., and Haledon, N.J., his sweaty crossing into Olympic history will not be front-page news. But it should be. If Baumgartner wins his weight class in Atlanta, he will become only the second freestyle wrestler (the other is Aleksandr Medved of the Soviet Union, in 1964, '68 and '72) to earn three freestyle golds.

If Baumgartner wins any medal, he will join a select quartet of Americans who have won medals in four Olympics: Francis Conn Findlay (rowing and yachting); Al Oerter (discus); Mike Plumb (equestrian); and Norbert Schemansky (weightlifting). None, save Oerter, is exactly a household name. Baumgartner doesn't expect he ever will be, either.

It doesn't bother him. All he ever wanted, after all, was to make a living getting his hands dirty. "I picked my own destiny, and I couldn't be happier," he says, settling back on his couch. "And as long as I'm happy, I'm going to keep competing."

Does that mean another Olympics—beyond Atlanta—is possible for America's greatest superheavyweight? Baumgartner sighs and ponders it. "Well, the year 2000 is a long way off," he says. "I'd be almost 40 years old, and a lot of stuff could happen. But I've been going this long, and I'd never say never."

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