The home was a classroom, and the lesson was simple: Sacrifice brings reward. Bruce remembers the time when his father got an emergency call to get to the bus barn. The temperature was 9°. The furnace had failed and water pipes had broken, causing a flood. Big Bob, wearing coveralls wet from dripping water, held a blowtorch on a stuck valve for two hours, until it freed up so the water could be shut off. That night his leg swelled like a balloon. "The leg had frozen," says Bruce. "But he never had asked anyone to take the torch."
To the kids who wrestled against Baumgartner when he was at Manchester Regional High School it must seem inconceivable that he would have bothered to stick with wrestling. Only seven years ago he was not good enough to win his state prep title, finishing third as a senior. Top wrestling colleges like Iowa and Oklahoma State did not want him. Instead, he ended up at Indiana State University. Now still improving, still working out four hours a day, Baumgartner is the finest superheavyweight freestyler in American history.
If a boxer's hands can be considered lethal, then Baumgartner's body should be the subject of a disarmament conference. He stands 6'2", weighs 270 pounds and has 18-inch biceps and a 52-inch chest. But there are a lot of big superheavies. What makes Baumgartner stand out is that he has strength and an unusual quickness. Mike Chapman, a wrestling authority, says, "Nine times out of ten someone with Baumgartner's skills would be in the National Football League"—which might help explain why the U.S. never had been a power in the heaviest weight classes in international wrestling.
Baumgartner has dramatically altered that situation. In fact he has won so many tournaments, and the odd pieces of furniture and appliances that go with them, that he says, "My house is decorated in Early American and European electrical knickknacks. The trouble is, none of the European stuff runs on American current."
In February 1984 at the Tbilisi tournament in the U.S.S.R., Baumgartner was invited to dinner at the home of a Russian friend. "They're talking about you," said the host, pointing at a commentator on his television set. "He says our country is becoming obsessed with beating you."
"The Rooskies are panicking, and that's not like them," says Jeff Blatnick, the Greco-Roman Olympic champ and Baumgartner's occasional training partner. "They keep studying Bruce, but they can't figure him out. It's driving them crazy. Because they know, like we know, that he hasn't seen his best years yet. He's coming into full bloom."
The tight-knit community of freestyle wrestlers in the U.S. hopes Baumgartner will become the sport's Greg LeMond, carrying its message beyond its narrow borders. "A lot of people are counting on Bruce," says Mike DeAnna, the wrestling coach at Edinboro, where Baumgartner is his assistant. "They depend on him to win, and it's a shock to them if he loses. He knows, although he doesn't say much, that he's representing a lot of people, and the United States."
"I'm no Audie Murphy or Sergeant York," says Baumgartner. "If people want me to be a hero, it'll happen."
Baumgartner never was one to rush matters. It was not until he went away to Indiana State, where the onetime mediocre high school student earned a 3.77 grade point average and was named one of the NCAA's top scholar-athletes, that Baumgartner also found his athletic niche. Says Fran McCann, his college coach: "Halfway through his sophomore year, he started to realize his potential. He worked harder than any heavyweight I ever saw." In his last two years at Indiana State, Baumgartner's record was 86-1 and in his senior year, while running off 44 straight victories, he won the NCAA title.
Edinboro is situated in bucolic northern Pennsylvania. Slippery Rock is right down the road, as is Punxsutawney, the groundhog place. The little college town operates at a pace that's perfect for Baumgartner's down-to-earth life-style. Two-dollar movies, a couple of stoplights, and the Hotel Edinboro, a worn-looking place which, after his Olympic victory, hung out a WELCOME HOME BRUCE BAUMGARTNER sign. Laughs Bruce: "On the flip side, the banner said 'Welcome Freshmen.' "