The Olympic gold medalist walks in from the rain. What’s left of his hair is flecked with gray. He trudges up the stairs of a ratty building, ducks to get into the low-ceilinged gym, sits on a mat and laces up his Asics wrestling shoes.
Kurt Angle, on his gold medal-winning performance at the 1996 Olympics: "I feel I missed the whole ride."
At age 43 — six years older than the oldest American wrestler to have medaled in the Olympics — this is not what you would expect Kurt Angle to do.
What’s he got to prove? Nearly a year of intense Olympic training for the impossibly slim chance at making the U.S. freestyle wrestling team. And if he makes the team for the 2012 Summer Olympics, what’s the chance this old man can actually medal in London? It’s been nearly 16 years since Angle walked off the wrestling mat in Atlanta a gold medalist, having tied an Iranian heavyweight then won by judges’ decision. He hasn’t competed in an amateur wrestling match since.
Instead, life’s taken him elsewhere: to a short-lived career as a Pittsburgh sportscaster. To Hollywood, where he’s acted in a handful of feature films. To business ventures, from a company that sold ostrich meat to his current health food and supplement company. To a pro wrestling career that made him millions and made him famous, but that also exploited his painful divorce for part of its carnival act, transforming Kurt Angle the wrestler into Kurt Angle the entertainer.
Listen to that final part: Kurt Angle isn’t who he once was. And listen close, because that’s the point here. Deep down, Angle has lost the hard-won wrestling identity that first brought him to the world’s biggest stage. That’s it, right there. That’s what’s driving him to build his body back up, to find college wrestling teams to spar with him when he’s traveling on the pro-wrestling circuit, to aim for the impossible.
What Kurt Angle is doing in this empty gym in this old coal-mining town is nothing short of reclaiming the man he once was.
Angle shows off his 1996 gold medal to former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole.
“It’s this crisis in his mind, thinking, ‘I’m not Kurt Angle anymore; I’m Kurt Angle, this character on TV,’” says David Hawk, Angle’s manager and close friend. “But Kurt Angle was real once ...
“He needs to prove it not to the world but to himself,” Hawk continued. “He wants to regain his youth, prove he’s still there and still has it.”
And so on this dreary afternoon, in between pro wrestling shows for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling and business engagements with his Pittsburgh-based company, Angle Foods, the gold medalist stretches out his beat-up body. Pro wrestling is not an activity for someone looking for eternal youth. There have been the dramatic jumps from the top rope, the crowd-pleasing broken chairs, the body slams and headlocks that have worn this body down. There have also been the two neck surgeries and the five times Angle has broken his neck — the first one during the 1996 Olympic trials, when he fractured two of his cervical vertebrae and herniated two of his discs yet still won gold five months later.
All this, plus his advanced age, make Angle’s Olympic comeback the most improbable of storylines for London.
Yet in the Olympics, the most improbable stories are the ones that most capture our hearts. The 1980 Miracle on Ice. The amazing feats of the ageless Dara Torres. The stunning eight gold medals of Michael Phelps in Beijing. The Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner, beating the unbeatable Russian back in Sydney.
And if Angle makes the U.S. team at the Olympic wrestling trials in April, his improbable comeback will be the next Olympic story that speaks to us: to focusing on a dream despite being enveloped by tragedy; to getting a second chance at repairing a blemished reputation; and, ultimately, to understanding what’s important in life.
And then chasing after it. Before time runs out.
“Do I still have a shot? Yeah, but it’s a long shot,” Angle says in his gravelly voice. “These guys are younger, quicker, but I might be smarter ... When I show up at the trials, people will say, ‘Holy (crap), he showed up.’ If I do well, it’ll be, ‘Holy (crap), he did well.’ They’re going to respect me.”
Then Kurt Angle shrugs his massive shoulders.
“A lot of people,” he admits, “think it is a gimmick.”
This, Kurt Angle says, is not a gimmick. This, he insists, is no PR stunt.
In the wrestling community, though, he’s having a tough time winning over doubters. USA Wrestling is insisting he come to their Colorado headquarters before the Olympic trials; the coach wants to see if Angle is for real. Others already count him out.
“Kurt Angle doesn’t have the ability to wrestle at the peak that he would need to wrestle at to make a team, let alone compete with the champions of the world,” says Scott Casber, an announcer for USA Wrestling and owner of Takedown Wrestling Radio. “He just doesn’t have it. I don’t think it’s because he’s 43 years old. I think it’s because his body is worn out from pro wrestling. You don’t take chair shots, you don’t take jumps off the top rope in a steel ring and expect your body to hold up very long.”
Why would he do this, then, if he doesn’t have a chance? Casber believes it’s to generate publicity for the Kurt Angle brand, pure and simple. And there’s little Angle can do, short of a stunning performance at April’s trials, that would convince anyone otherwise.
Kurt Angle wrestles Wilfredo Morales Suarez of Cuba in their 100kg Olympic preliminary match in Atlanta in July 1996.
Yet this is a man who has never been fazed by doubters. And he’s been able to overlook, or at least compartmentalize, the worst that life can bring.
Like in high school, when Angle’s father died in a construction accident two days before the biggest football game of Angle’s career. Or in college, when Angle was the No. 1 ranked wrestler in the country, and his grandmother died three days before the NCAA tournament. Or a few months before the 1996 Olympic trials, when Angle’s coach, Dave Schultz, was murdered. Or the day before Angle’s heavily promoted 60-minute “Iron Man” show against WWE superstar Brock Lesnar, when Angle’s sister died of a heroin overdose.
He did what he had to do after those tragedies. He played in the football game; he won the Olympic trials. So someone doubting his motivations? Someone believing Angle has no more a chance of making the 2012 Olympics than the Armenian basketball team has of beating the Americans? Those doubters, they’re small potatoes for Angle.
“God has really shown me how to stay focused in these really horrible times of turmoil,” Angle says. “I think that I’ve used that as motivation. You can either step out of it, go beyond your expectations, or curl up into a shell and say, you know what? This happened, and this is my excuse. I’m not that kind of guy.”
But there’s something else he’s after, too, in these Olympics. His legacy has been tarnished. Two DUI arrests last year, for one. Then the report that he failed his medicals before attempting to fight his first mixed martial arts fight in the UFC, which many interpreted as failing a drug test. (Angle says he never heard why he failed his medicals, but it couldn’t have been from a drug test; however, Angle never fought in the UFC.) And then the repeated accusations of performance-enhancing drug use — something Angle admits to, but says it was done with a doctor’s prescription, and says he hasn’t taken PEDs in six years. And the WWE drug test he failed in 2005? That was only because his legal prescription had expired, Angle says.
“As far as being clean, I would not go to the Olympic trials and put myself in jeopardy to get tested positive," Angle says. “All I have to do is show up, take the drug test, it’ll show there’s nothing in my system.”
Angle’s training partner walks into the gym. The two begin to grapple. They grab at each other’s legs, necks, chests. Angle practices takedowns. He practices defense. He practices staying in control in the standing position and the down position. Soon, sweat is dripping off his bald head.
Angle admits he’s not as quick as he used to be. Not as strong, either. In 1996, Angle was using a repertoire of more than 100 attacks. But he never went in with a game plan. Now he’s focusing on just a handful of solid attacks. He’ll play good defense. He’ll set the tone, keep matches at his own pace. He doesn’t think his opponents are taking him seriously, but Angle knows how he’s been feeling in recent weeks of training: As good as he’s felt since the Atlanta Games.
It may not be a pretty style, being more defensive, but he thinks he might just be able to win at the trials and make this team.
And if he makes it to London, there’s one other thing he’ll be shooting for other than a second gold medal: He wants to soak in it. Which is one part of Angle’s Olympic youth that he’s still trying to regain.
“In ’96, I didn’t really enjoy it — I was relieved when it was over. I feel I missed the whole ride. Because I don’t remember anything. I want to experience it, to enjoy it. Back then it was more a job to me. I put pressure on myself. I didn’t enjoy any aspect of it. I was so focused, I don’t remember anything about it. Nothing. I don’t even remember the podium.”
This time, it’ll be different.
“I’m doing this,” Kurt Angle says, “for me.”