Sunday, December 5, 2021
Dec. 5, 2021

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Gold medalist mints sport’s next generation

Micah Rice: Commentary

By , Columbian Sports Editor

The Heritage High School wrestling room felt like a blacksmith’s workshop. And it wasn’t just the stuffy hot air.

Bruce Baumgartner was helping forge the sport’s next generation.

His salt-and-pepper hair drenched with sweat, the four-time Olympic medalist was on the mat teaching the tools of the trade. He was molding aspiring wrestlers ranging from fourth grade to high school.

Baumgartner then galvanized the session with a speech about setting goals, staying focused and getting the most out of your ability.

Work, fun and life lessons all in one.

To survive, each sport’s sages must inspire the next generation.

That’s easy in football or basketball, in which kids grow up wanting to be the next Peyton Manning or LeBron James.

Wrestling doesn’t enjoy the same mainstream attention, so it must find its future stars in a more grass-roots manner.

That’s why Baumgartner, 56, travels to wrestling camps and clinics across the country when he’s not running the athletic department at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.

This weekend saw Baumgartner visit Heritage for a camp organized by new wrestling coach Erik Gonzalez. Baumgartner also visited camps that Gonzalez ran during the 13 years he coached at Port Angeles High School.

Sports have the power to shape young people into strong, confident adults. When the person doing the teaching has gold medals from the 1984 and 1992 Olympics, the lessons take on extra weight.

Baumgartner told the young wrestlers how he was an average high school student and a “baby-fat 17-year-old” who wasn’t anything special on the mat.

But at Indiana State University, wrestling coach Fran McCann taught Baumgartner lessons that still shape him today. Whether in wrestling or the classroom, those who excelled weren’t really spending more time than others. The difference was in their focus — instead of daydreaming or goofing off, they were getting the most out of the time they spent.

By the time he graduated, Baumgartner was a heavyweight national champion with a 3.78 grade-point average. In addition to his two gold medals, he won silver in 1988 and bronze in the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he was the flag-bearer for the United States during the Opening Ceremony.

“We’re going to help you develop physically, but also give you confidence,” Gonzalez said. “It takes a special breed to step alone onto that mat. At the end of the day, we’re going to make you a better human being.”

Wrestling has been a sport in flux. Despite robust high school participation, many colleges have cut their programs over the past three decades. Some blame Title IX for that trend; others cite wrestling’s stature as a low-revenue sport that made it susceptible to budget cuts.

Baumgartner said a big wakeup call came when wrestling was dropped from the Olympics in 2013.

“Our international governing body was not doing its job,” he said. “It was not promoting the sport like it should. It was not making us be modern.”

The sport’s appeal was hurt by scoring rules that rewarded inaction and stifled risk-taking.

“It was boring,” Baumgartner said. “It was horrible to watch. I don’t know that I would have gone to the world championships if it was under the old rules.”

In response, wrestling revamped its scoring, lengthened rounds, added more weight classes and brought in new leadership. The sport has since been reinstated for the 2020 Olympics.

World and collegiate championship events are being held in larger venues with more fanfare. Televised on ESPN, the 2015 NCAA championship finals were the most-watched in that event’s history. Its average of 694,000 viewers was up 10 percent over the previous year, which had also set a record.

“The modern students, the younger generation, are more likely to watch it and want to be part of it,” Baumgartner said. “Wrestling is actually better now because of the threat (of being dropped).”

But any athlete who succeeds at the international or collegiate level had to start somewhere. That brings us back to the Heritage wrestling room, where America’s most successful wrestler spent a summer weekend investing in the sport’s future.