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Amateur wrestling's Plastic Man, Wade Schalles, stands at the center of the mat, awaiting the start of a match. His eyes are droopy, his face expressionless, his hair moppy, his shoulders slightly hunched, his gangly arms seemingly prepared for nothing more strenuous than a knee-scratching session.
Indeed, once the bout begins, Schalles appears ready for anything but combat. He is quickly taken down and is perilously close to being pinned. Or is he? How did his right arm suddenly get over there? How did he wriggle his legs free to entwine his opponent? Why does his left arm look like it is emerging from beneath the mat? Now on top, Schalles applies the cruncher. Pin! Plastic Man, the United States' best hope for a wrestling gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, has done it again.
Gyroscopic balance, a penchant for improbable pins and a pliable body have made Schalles the most exciting and one of the best wrestlers in the world. After watching Schalles in one bout at the AAU nationals last month, Tournament Director Gene Gibbons said, "I can't believe what I just saw."
What Gibbons had just seen was a match during which Schalles, trailing Mike Bradley 6-3 and on the bottom, reached up, pulled his opponent down to the mat and pinned him with a near leg cradle. That is the wrestling equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run while standing on his head.
Dan Gable, a gold medalist at the 1972 Olympics, says of Schalles, "I've never seen anyone so unorthodox who is so good. You never know what Wade will do next."
Schalles (pronounced SHALL-iss) was 49-1 for Hollidaysburg (Pa.) High School, then amassed the winningest-pinningest record in collegiate history for Clarion (Pa.) State, a small school with a big wrestling reputation. He was 153-5-1 with 106 falls—33 wins and 21 pins more than Gable had at Iowa State. Gable was the master technician; Schalles is the con artist and innovator. Gable methodically wore down opponents, rarely making errors; Schalles is almost strictly a counterwrestler who wants opponents to grab him and try to take him down. Then he works his wonders. Typically, Schalles is behind in points before extricating himself for a pin.
"A guy uses his moves on me and gets 10 takedowns," says Schalles. "So his moves have worked 10 times, but all he has is 10 points. All I have to do is get one of my moves to work once and it's all over."
That is what happened when Schalles, who is 24 years old, competed in an international tournament at Tbilisi, U.S.S.R. three months ago. He trailed world champion and Munich bronze medalist Ruslan Ashuraliev of the Soviet Union 4-0. But Ashuraliev made one mistake, and Schalles flattened him. It was at this tournament, one of the most prestigious in the sport, that Schalles proved he is a contender for an Olympic title. "Three men in each of 10 weights made the round-robin finals," Schalles says. "There were 28 Russians, a Pole and me."
Not only did Plastic Man win the 163-pound class, but he also pinned five opponents, which is believed to be a record for the Tbilisi meet. Moreover, he earned what amounts to the outstanding wrestler award. The only other American so honored at Tbilisi was Gable—several months before he won at Munich.
Because of his frenetic style and the risks it involves, Schalles often is regarded with suspicion by wrestling purists. Still he may turn out to be as vital to the American Olympic effort in '76 as Gable was in '72, since he has proved he can adapt to international freestyle rules. He was the lone American to advance beyond the preliminary rounds at Tbilisi, and his performance has become a source of considerable encouragement to other U.S. wrestlers.