Four-time Olympic wrestler Bruce Baumgartner could not have been happier watching Jordan Burroughs last week in New York City.
Burroughs joined three other U.S. freestyle wrestlers — Helen Maroulis, Adeline Gray and Kyle Snyder — in collecting $50,000 bonus checks from the Living the Dream Medal Fund as rewards for their world championships won in September in Las Vegas.
“I feel very, very good that this money is, number one, a bit of an incentive,” Baumgartner, a 1984 and 1992 Olympic champion, said.
“This money takes that hardship away,” he added. “I’m glad the wrestling community has come together and provided that opportunity.”
Although the fund wasn’t around in his day, the 55-year-old Baumgartner, now athletic director at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, is the first to admit luck was with him throughout his career, which included four medals in four Olympic Games as well as nine world medals.
“A lot of things led to my longevity; I was a heavyweight, so I didn’t have to cut much weight,” he said. “I stayed healthy, I didn’t miss one day of competition in 16 or whatever years.”
TeamUSA.org chatted with Baumgartner about his thoughts on the current state of wrestling.
Through the U.S. Wrestling Foundation, this fund offers sizable bonuses to wrestlers, up to $250,000 for Olympic gold. Beyond the obvious — money for living expenses — what’s the most important benefit to athletes?
Most of the people who are training for the Olympics turn down income opportunities, because they can’t go to a speaking engagement that comes right in the middle of a training cycle. These checks give them the ability to say, “Well, I’m not going to interrupt my training cycle to go do a clinic, or a speaking engagement, or an autograph-signing session.” There’s always that question athletes have: Do I cash in on my successes as I’m having them, or do I focus on the next medal? It’s a balance. It’s a tough situation for a guy like Jordan Burroughs, a three-time world champion, an Olympic champion. I know he has turned down opportunities so he can win the next medal and represent the USA in the best fashion.
How were you able to balance your training, with your financial obligations, for so many years?
I had a great employer and support in Edinboro University; I was the number-one assistant and head coach for a lot of the years I competed, so I was able to support my family. My wife was very supportive. I was gone wrestling and training, and she was home working and taking care of things. I also had the New York Athletic Club; it helped me and supported me. USA Wrestling, awesome organization, helped. I was able to do the sport I love for so many years, and when I quit wrestling, I still had a good job at Edinboro University.
In 2013, the International Olympic Committee dropped wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games. The decision has since been overturned. You’ve been outspoken about how the sport needed to improve.
The world of wrestling got new leadership at the top (at FILA, now UWW), and I think it is great leadership. I just hope we just don’t repeat ourselves. Sometimes, we win the battle and we forget. Somebody had to come in and say, “Your sport is not very appealing.” I think they’ve changed it, they’ve added pageantry, they’ve included social media, they’ve made (rule) changes, so if you go and watch the event, it’s pretty exciting.
Now (weight-class events) are done in one day. So if you’re a Burroughs’ fan, you know what day he’s wrestling. Before you watched an athlete wrestle once or twice a day for three days. Now you see them wrestle four, five times in one day. And not to get real complex, but they’ve changed the scoring, so passivity isn’t rewarded. It had turned into a chess game, instead of a wrestling match.
Your era was a golden one; the U.S. won seven gold medals in freestyle wrestling at the 1984 Games, and two gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling. This year, the U.S. won four gold medals at the world championships, its most in one year since 1995.
I think the state of U.S. wrestling is phenomenal. I was at the world championships in Las Vegas, and I was encouraged even by some of the people who didn’t place. There were close matches; we could have had more medals very, very easily.
You own five world and Olympic gold medals, second only to John Smith, who won six world and Olympic titles. Burroughs has set a goal of passing you both.
I hope he does! The interesting thing about Jordan, he grew up in New Jersey, just like I did. I wish him the best. I hope he goes on and wins 14 medals. The kid you gotta watch, Kyle Snyder, is 19 and they’re already telling me, “He’s going to break your record.” Well, I hope Jordan breaks my record, and I hope Kyle breaks (Jordan’s) record three or four years later, because that means the U.S. is bringing those medals home.