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Bruce Baumgartner: L.A. Games Were The Beginning

Aug. 10, 2014, 12:59 p.m. (ET)

Bruce Baumgartner (left) competes against Justin Greenlee during a USA Wresting competition in Las Vegas on May 6, 1995.

Not many athletes get a chance to compete in four Olympic Games and even fewer have the opportunity to compete in the Games on home soil.

Bruce Baumgartner went to four Olympic Games and twice competed in his own country.

The wrestler made his Olympic debut 30 years ago in Los Angeles and then ended his Olympic career in the Games in Atlanta in 1996.

“I wrestled in two Olympics on American soil so it’s easy for me to say how important it is to have the Games here,” Baumgartner said. “I hope that it does come back to the United States. I really do.”

Baumgartner had hoped to compete in the Olympic Games in 1980 but after the United States boycotted those Games in Moscow, he set his sights on 1984. Baumgartner was 23 when he competed in Los Angeles and he said the entire experience was mind-blowing.

“Those Games really transformed the Olympics,” Baumgartner said. “Everything about them was pretty awesome. The pageantry at the Opening Ceremony and the Olympic Village and the way the athletes were treated … the whole experience was really special.

“The Olympics in Los Angeles really was the catalyst, the launching pad, for the rest of my career,” he added. “Those Games by far motivated me to do what I was able to do.”

Bruce Baumgartner stands with his son on May 14, 1996.

Making those Games all the more memorable was that Baumgartner struck gold in Los Angeles in the super heavyweight class. Baumgartner was one of seven Americans to win gold medals in freestyle wrestling in 1984. Other gold medalists are Bobby Weaver (48 kilograms), Randall Lewis (62 kilograms), Dave Schultz (74 kilograms), Mark Schultz (82 kilograms), Ed Banach (90 kilograms) and Lou Banach (100 kilograms).

Meanwhile, the United States earned its first gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling. Steve Fraser won America’s first Greco-Roman gold medal in the 90-kilogram class. The following night, Jeff Blatnick, who had been diagnosed with cancer and underwent severe treatment leading up to the 1984 Games, won the gold medal in the super heavyweight class.

As accomplished as the 1984 U.S. wrestling class was in Los Angeles, the team has not been without its share of tragedy. Blatnick, who had such an emotional performance in the Games and shed tears following his victory, was not through with his medical battles. In October 2012, he died following complications from heart surgery.

Another tragic tale came from the freestyle side of the sport when Dave Schultz was killed after being shot by John du Pont in January 1996. Schultz had been training in Pennsylvania in an attempt to make the Olympic Team in Atlanta that summer. USA Wrestling has hosted the Dave Schultz Memorial International meet at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, ever since. A film titled “Foxcatcher,” which tells the story of Schultz’s life and death and stars Steve Carell, earned rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and is due out in theaters this fall.

But 30 years ago, when the U.S. wrestlers were in Los Angeles, there was much to celebrate. Team USA won the most medals (9) of any country in wrestling in those Games.

Baumgartner went on to earn a silver medal in Seoul in 1988, a gold medal in Barcelona in 1992 and a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996. In addition to his four Olympic medals, he earned nine world championship medals (three gold). He has been inducted into the International Wrestling Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Now 53, he has spent the last 16 years as the athletic director at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.

Los Angeles marked the beginning of Baumgartner’s Olympic run and Atlanta bookmarked the end. Atlanta was special because he was selected as the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony.

“That was awesome,” Baumgartner said. “That may be the biggest honor I ever had.”

Perhaps one day he will witness another Olympic Games on U.S. soil. Los Angeles, along with Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are potential U.S. bid cities for the 2024 Games.

Said Baumgartner: “I think it would be great if the Olympics came back to the United States.”

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.