"Chris is kind of a mysterious person," John Akers, sports editor of the Ames (Iowa) Daily Tribune, has said. "He believes that Hercules was a real man, for example. And that with enough work a human being can become as strong as a full-grown lion." Forewarned, a visitor comes to an old farmhouse in western Ames seeking out 1981 world wrestling champion Chris Campbell, who answers the door. Campbell is fully bearded, with an intimidating stare and an imposing physique—5'8" and 196 pounds of steel set in concrete. He wears faded gray sweats with lettering across the front of the shirt reading IOWA STATE WRESTLING. "My monk's robe," Campbell says, smiling. "Come in."
It's an April morning, and Campbell is fresh from two important victories. Competing in the 180.5-pound class, he won the prestigious World Cup in Toledo, Ohio in late March and the U.S.A. Wrestling Freestyle Championships in Madison, Wis. just days earlier. He's taking a few weeks off, he says. The day before, he ran six miles. Today he will both run and lift weights. "I don't feel like I did anything yesterday," he explains. "Besides, I'm getting to be an old man. I'm 28 now, and I've been getting lazy. I have to start pushing myself harder."
A two-time NCAA 177-pound champion for Iowa in the mid-1970s, Campbell soured on life in Iowa City and moved west to Ames four years ago, becoming an assistant coach at Iowa State. What he brought with him, from the looks of his living room, was nothing. "Chairs aren't very good for the body," he says. There is one chair, for guests, and cushions and pillows on the floor. "Upstairs, all our mattresses are on the floor," he continues. "And they're hard mattresses. For support." As Campbell speaks, the "our" arrives. Christopher Campbell II, almost two, wanders in from the kitchen, followed by his mother, Laura, who has just sent the family's other child, Rachel, off to third grade. Laura tries to explain the sparse furnishings. "It's creative space," she says.
By that she means it leaves room for her husband and herself to stretch, practice yoga and exercise. Laura is a 5'6", 135-pound body builder, racquetball hustler and all-around health junkie; her hours spent in the living room are a labor of love. For her husband the stretching and exercising are beyond that; they are medically necessary. Campbell, who has scoliosis (curvature of the spine), did not compete in 1979 because of an ailing upper back, a condition that recurred in 1981 and '82 and nearly forced him to retire. Between September 1981, when he won the world 180.5-pound championship in Skoplje, Yugoslavia, and last November, when he triumphed in the 190-pound class at the Great Plains tournament in Lincoln, Neb., Campbell didn't compete at all. Were it not for a sports medicine clinic in Seattle, where doctors devised a regimen of therapeutic exercises and weight workouts for him last spring, Campbell would not be—as he now is—the favorite for a 1984 Olympic gold medal. He would be neither Hercules nor a lion.
"Did Chris tell you about the brick wall phenomenon?" asks Laura, who's sitting on the carpet stretching her hamstrings. Chris, who typically trains seven hours a day, responds by describing the state of ultimate mental and physical preparedness that he has attained on occasion, as in 1980, when he upset both Mark Lieberman, a highly regarded wrestler from Lehigh, and John Peterson, gold medalist at the 1976 Games, to make the U.S. Olympic team. "I reach a point where I feel that I can actually walk through a brick wall, that I'm invincible," Campbell says. "In 1980, really, I was beyond walking through a wall. I was that ready." Then the Moscow boycott stopped him cold. "After that, you felt like you maybe could have climbed over the brick wall," says Laura jokingly.
"I would have needed a ladder," says Chris.
Actually, Campbell is a wrestler more likely to take apart a wall brick by brick. In 1981 he became the first American ever to be named Most Technically Prepared at the world championships, and he's so proficient at his moves, especially headlocks and high crotch lifts, that some think he isn't as aggressive as he should be. "When you execute as well as Chris does, you really don't expend that much effort," says Iowa Assistant Coach J. Robinson. "Sometimes he seems to ease up too much and look at his wrestling like a work of art."
Campbell's tendency to sit on leads of 3-2 or 6-5 as a collegian not only earned him a reputation for stalling but turned some action-hungry Iowa fans against him. Critics found his matches about as exciting to watch as the sculpting of granite. "He's so quick, so explosive, that people expected him to be spectacular all the time," says Robinson. "But I'll say this: We never had to worry about whether he'd win or not."
On the mat that has always been the case. Campbell, who won all 42 of his matches at Westfield (N.J.) High, came to Iowa as a walk-on in 1973 and went 122-7-2 over four seasons. He defeated Mark Johnson of Michigan 4-3 in the 1976 NCAA finals—"I was [Iowa Coach] Dan Gable's first national champion and I'm proud of that," says Campbell—and then beat Johnson again, 9-5, for the '77 NCAA title. Had it not been for a knee injury his sophomore year, Campbell might have been a three-time collegiate champion. Life outside wrestling, however, was never so easy.
Campbell has described his childhood as a "classic ghetto situation—no father, a mother who works for white people, the whole bit." His mother, Marjorie Lee, still works cleaning houses in Westfield. His father, Howard Thomas, is a junior high school principal in the Bronx in New York City, but Campbell, an only child, didn't see him until eight years ago. "All the fathers I saw were under severe economic pressures," recalls Campbell. "A lot of them turned to alcohol and quite a few beat their kids. I was kind of glad that I didn't have one." Campbell, however, did inherit athletic ability from the 6'3" Thomas, a former All-America halfback for Howard University who could run the 100 in 9.4. "There was a lot of folklore about my grandfather, too," says Campbell. "He used to wrestle around on street corners and they say he never got thrown."