PIERCE EGAN, the 19th-century boxing journalist who coined the term sweet science, wrote that "drummers and boxers, to acquire excellence, must begin young." Deontay Wilder, the 6'7" U.S. heavyweight, was made to contradict Egan.
Wilder, 22, began boxing just three years ago. He loved sports, but he had to leave Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he played basketball, when his daughter Naieya was born with spina bifida. Wilder started working at a Red Lobster to support her, and he picked up boxing in his spare time. No other member of the U.S. team took up the sport later than age 12, yet it was Wilder's bronze that kept alive the U.S.'s streak of winning a boxing medal in every Olympics in which it has competed.
Perhaps it was Wilder's dilettante status that served him so well. USA Boxing established a residence program that required Olympic boxers to live in Colorado Springs beginning last September. Unlike some teammates, Wilder relished the chance to "play catch-up," he says, with intensive training.
Catch up he has. Wilder could use more amateur bouts to hone his skills, but his punishing power—his jab measured stronger than all but one other U.S. boxer's power punch—may ensure that this is his last Olympics, because it makes him an attractive pro prospect. "We don't get paid to stay," says U.S. lightweight Sadam Ali, who lost his opening bout. "So we go for it once, and turn pro."