U.S. heavyweight wrestles with mental preparation


BARCELONA, Spain -- Wrestling is one of the world's most demanding sports, and it had taken its toll on U.S. Olympic heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner.

"When I hit 30, I just couldn't move all the time like I used to," said Baumgartner, who will turn 32 in November. "I mean, I had wrestled a lot of matches. My technique was about the same, I just found out my body needed more rest."

Instead of retiring, Baumgartner invested in a lot of videotaping equipment. He spent less time on the mat, and more time analyzing opponents and himself.

The investment has paid off.

Baumgartner is in the 1992 Summer Games and could become the first U.S. wrestler to win a medal in three different Olympics.

Baumgartner, of Cambridge Springs, Pa., defeated Bulgaria's Kiril Barboutov, 9-1, and Hungary's Zsolt Gombos, 8-0, in his two preliminary matches yesterday.

Baumgartner read Barboutov like a computer printout.

"He wanted me to shoot in on his legs, but I had to pick and choose the right times to do it," said Baumgartner. "I saw that he was weak to his left leg, and he seemed to be off-balance on shrugs. It's stuff I picked up by watching him on tape."

It's an old story now. When the United States practices, Baumgartner is always the last wrestler in the room. A 90-minute workout for the team may become a 60-minute practice for Baumgartner.

"He's a veteran, and a competitor," said Bobby Douglas, the U.S. wrestling coach. "If Bruce isn't here, he's watching tape. I have no problem with that. Look at his results."

A gold in the 1984 Olympic Games. A silver in 1988 Olympic Games. Five-time World Cup champion. Nine-time World Cup medalist.

Baumgartner is the finest heavyweight in U.S. history. He hasn't lost a match to an American since 1982.

"John Smith gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so," said Zeke Jones, the United States' gold-medal hopeful at 114.5 pounds. "But when I was in college and I thought of United States wrestling, the first person I thought of was Bruce Baumgartner."

Baumgartner, the head coach at Edinboro (Pa.) University, said retirement never has crossed his mind.

But it seemed to be on everyone elses after the 1991 world championships. That's when Baumgartner lost to Iran's Ali Reza Sloeimani in the first round. He finished seventh, his worst international showing in the past decade.

"I'll stop when the preparation and the competition is no longer enjoyable," said Baumgartner. "You know, I've wrestled for some of the greatest coaches in the world. Guys like Dan Gable, Joe Seay, Lee Roy Smith and now Bobby Douglas. I have incorporated a little of each into my own style.

"But one thing that they all had in common is that when you teach, you have to break things down into parts. Coaching has really opened my eyes to the overall mental picture. I wasn't ready for Sloeimani, but I guarantee something like that won't happen again."

Baumgartner can't afford any mistakes because he has a tough draw. Today he must face the Unified Team's David Gobedjushvili, the 1988 gold-medal winner and two-time world champion, and Germany's Andreas Schroder, the 1991 world champion.

"I didn't come here to finish second," said Baumgartner. "I'm used to being on top. I'm probably a better wrestler this time around than in the last Olympic Games. I've got more experience and that's important here. After what happened to me last year, I'm motivated. I'm fired up."

Meanwhile, Jones of Bloomsburg, Pa., is one match away from getting a chance at the gold medal in his first Olympic freestyle tournament.

He beat Mitsuru Sato of Japan, 9-5, in a bout between the reigning world and Olympic champions.

The victory sent Jones into a decisive Group A match today against Kim Sun-Hak of South Korea. The winner will advance to the final.

Kim, also undefeated, lost to Jones in the 1990 Goodwill Games (9-5) and the 1991 World Cup (9-0).

"He is tough," Jones said. "I've wrestled him before. We've had some great matches. He's got a chance to be in the finals, so I'm sure he's going to be extra on it tomorrow.

"But I'm wrestling real well and I just need to stay focused one more day."

Tim Vanni (105.5) of Phoenix, Ariz., and Kenny Monday (163) of Stillwater, Okla., also are undefeated. Vanni, fourth in the 1988 Olympics, posted a 16-0 technical fall over Vincent Pangelinan of Guam and then edged Chen Zhengbin of China, 3-2.

Monday opened his defense of the 163-pound class by edging Czechoslovakia's Milan Revicky, 2-0.

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