Three-year-old Zachary Baumgartner often steals into his parents' bedroom at night and plants himself upon the ample midsection of his father, thereby becoming the only American male in the last 15 years to end up on top of Bruce Baumgartner. No one outside of America has done it much, either. When the 35-year-old superheavyweight steps onto the mat in Atlanta, he will begin possibly the most inconspicuous epic quest of these Games: to become the first freestyle wrestler to medal in four Olympics.
In a sport that is usually abandoned after college, Baumgartner just keeps on going. He won gold medals in 1984 and '92 and a silver in '88. He has been around so long that two of his workout partners, heavyweight Kurt Angle and his closest U.S. rival, Tom Erikson, refer to him as a father figure.
Baumgartner, who in his other life is head wrestling coach at Edinboro (Pa.) University, insists that he is not hanging around to make any Ripkenesque assault on the record books. When asked why he keeps wrestling, he always gives the same answer, week after week, year after year, "I just enjoy it," he says.
The same cannot be said of America's other superheavies. Baumgartner's last loss to a fellow countryman, after all, occurred at the AAU nationals in 1981, when little-known Dan Cook beat him.
"No, I never counted them, but I guess you're going to tell me, right?" says Erikson when asked how many straight times he's been beaten by Baumgartner since 1985. The answer is 23, including the loss at the U.S. trials in Spokane last month that gave Baumgartner the spot on his fourth Olympic team.
It's a remarkable, law-of-averages-defying streak: first, because Erikson himself is among the top six or seven superheavies in the world, and second, because superheavy matches are frequently low-scoring affairs with little or no margin of error for the winner. But the 6'2", 286-pound Baumgartner is dominant. He has won 17 national titles. Among U.S. superheavies he is the king of the hill, cuffing away every challenge like a big bear.
Americans won't be the challenge in Atlanta, of course, but Baumgartner's chances there are as good as anyone's, because the man has gotten better with age. Since the start of 1992 he has won an Olympic gold, two world championships, five national titles and one World Cup. In the last eight years he has lost to only four superheavies: twice to Mahmut Demir of Turkey, David Gobedjishvili of the former Soviet Union and Ali Reza Soliemani of Iran; and three times to Andrei Shumilin of Russia. Leri Khabelov of Russia and Sven Thiele of Germany stand in his way in Atlanta.
How has he stayed so good for so long? His boyhood in Haledon, N.J., supplies a nuts-and-bolts answer. Baumgartner spent his formative years not playing sports but toying with model railroads, rebuilding engines, repairing things. He wanted to enroll in a vo-tech high school because, as he told his father, "I like to get my hands dirty, just like you." Big Bob—you're invariably called Big Bob when you're 6'3" and 250 pounds—got his hands dirty for 40 years as a diesel mechanic for a bus company before he retired, and Bruce thought a career like that would be ideal for him. His parents finally did direct him toward college, but clearly he has taken his fix-what's-broken mechanic's mind-set onto the mat. It's a key to what has made him great.
"Bruce has an unbelievable knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses," says the 6'4", 275-pound Erikson, who should know. "I'm probably more athletic, but he just refuses to make a mistake."
Angle, who will be wrestling heavyweight for the U.S. in Atlanta, believes that Baumgartner peaked several years ago and has stayed on top primarily because of his analytical abilities. Indeed, Baumgartner keeps an extensive videotape library and spends much time poring over his own and competitors' matches. For example, after he lost to Shumilin on a referee's decision in overtime at the 1994 Goodwill Games, Baumgartner watched a videotape of the bout over and over. He saw that his grip needed adjusting on the single-leg takedown, so he made a subtle change. Like any mechanic, Baumgartner enjoys tinkering with the machinery.