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Madalene is an obstetrics nurse, and Lee Roy retired in December as director of data processing for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. His children call him Big Lee—to distinguish him from his eldest son, Lee Roy—or World-Lee because he seems to know a little something about everything.
The Smiths are Roman Catholic, a fact made evident by the pictures of Pope John Paul II and Mary and Jesus decorating nearly every wall of their four-bedroom house. Madalene provides the religious focus, and John teases her about being excessively devout.
"I get to Korea or wherever and start unpacking my bag, and here's all these medals and prayer cards and little messages Mom slips in," he says.
"I'm not a religious fanatic," she retorts. "I can't be. I cuss."
Far more numerous than the religious objects though are the trophies won by the Smith male offspring. They are on loving display in a room that sister Jo Ann, 26, calls the Smith-sonian. Wrestling is a big deal in Oklahoma, and it gave John and brother Lee Roy, both small and wiry, an outlet for their considerable athletic ability. Now brother Pat, 17, is carrying on the tradition as an undefeated (28-0) 148-pounder at Del City High School, and youngest brother Mark, 13, is 18-0 wrestling at 102 pounds for Del City Elementary School.
When the two older boys began competing against nonfamily opponents in grade school, it wasn't long before the entire family gave itself over to the sport. The Smiths spent holidays traveling to meets all over the Midwest, and at least one relative has shown up at every national match in which the Smiths have wrestled.
In 1984 Lee Roy was involved in a dispute that would hone his younger brother's competitive edge. Lee Roy, then 25 and an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, was an accomplished international freestyler at 136.5 pounds and faced former Iowa star Randy Lewis at the Olympic trials. In a complicated series of events, Smith lost to Lewis, filed a protest that was upheld, won a rematch and then defeated No. 1 seed Rick Dellagatta to apparently win a slot on the Olympic team. But Lewis lodged a grievance with USA Wrestling, the sport's American governing body, challenging the ruling regarding his first match with Smith. The issue went to an arbitrator, who ordered that a portion of the disputed bout be wrestled again. Lewis won the renewed match, the berth in the Olympics and a gold medal in Los Angeles.
The Smiths were shocked by the decision, and they remain resentful toward Gable, who had been Lewis's coach at Iowa and was also the 1984 U.S. Olympic coach. Gable was later censured by USA Wrestling for attending the arbitration hearing, and the Smiths assume—though Gable has denied it—that he was present on Lewis's behalf. John, then a sophomore at Oklahoma State, was angered and disheartened. "I thought, hell, what are you working for if something like this can take away your chance at a gold medal," he says.
Loss and disappointment, first Lee Roy's and then his own, galvanized John into the competitive fury that persists to this day. Since then his only big loss was in the 1985 NCAA finals when he was beaten by Jim Jordan of Wisconsin. Before that match Smith, who was nursing a dislocated right shoulder, had barely been able to practice for three weeks, yet he wrestled one-armed and won four tournament bouts before losing 7-4 to Jordan.