Photo by Sarah Brunson/U.S. Snowboarding
Nick Baumgartner will be competing in Sochi, Russia, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Snowboardcross team. But he’s never forgotten how wrestling helped get him there. Growing up in high school, Baumgartner was a state champion wrestler from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. And he was again reminded of his wrestling roots during his first press conference as part of the U.S. team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. There, someone mistakenly gave him a name tag that listed him as Bruce Baumgartner, the most accomplished wrestler in U.S. Olympic wrestling history, who won four medals, including two gold, one silver, and one bronze from 1984 to 1996.
"When I first noticed the mistake I thought 'I'm flattered, but this is my time to shine,'" jokes Nick. "But I still have no idea how they confused me with Bruce. What are the chances that the same person who set up press conferences when Bruce was competing set this one up? I doubt that was the case, but if you are going to confuse me, confuse me with a gold medalist and a champion like Bruce. I was honored."
Chances are Nick Baumgartner won't be confused at the 2014 Winter Olympics, where he is once again a member of the four-person U.S. Snowboardcross team that will compete February 17 at Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort.
Baumgartner, 32, hails from Iron River, Michigan, located in the rural West Central region of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. With a population of 3,000, it’s the kind of small town that holds pep rallies and chicken-and-spaghetti fundraisers at the local restaurant for its hometown heroes, like they did for Baumgartner at the end of January.
Mary and Bob Baumgartner had five kids—four boys and a girl—and wrestling was "a great way for my boys to blow off some energy, they were all very hyperactive," says Nick’s mom, Mary. She ran the town’s youth wrestling club while her husband would often drive wrestlers to tournaments as far as three hours away. Nick’s oldest brother Robby Baumgartner wrestled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Josh competed in youth wrestling until switching to basketball in high school, Beau was an Upper Peninsula state champion, and Nick, the youngest, was a U.P. state champion as well.
The Baumgartners competed for the West Iron County High School Wikons. At the time,schools from the Upper Peninsula were not able to compete against teams from the Lower Peninsula, so the state tournaments were called the U.P. State Championships. Nick was a U.P. state runner-up at 171 pounds in 1999 and a 189-pound U.P. state champion in 2000. Nick also earned U.P. All State honors in football and track, where he competed in the hurdles. He played football for a year at Northern Michigan before launching his snowboard career.
Nick was such a good athlete, such a daredevil (Baumgartner also competes as a professional off-road truck racer), that his high school coach, Doug Felger, remembers the day when he came to wrestling practice and saw the entire team standing around watching Nick run up the folded up bleachers in the gym, push off, and do back flips.
"It was an amazing thing to witness," recalls Felger. "I was laughing, but inside I knew I had to stop him from doing this for fear he would get hurt, but he was just such an impressive athlete that it didn't surprise me he was doing something like that. He was always looking for a challenge."
Felger described Baumgartner's wrestling as "just beautiful to watch," he says. "He was a prankster that kept the team loose and had fun, but when it was time to get down to business, he sure got it done. By the time he was a senior, people were dodging Nick. No one wanted to compete against him. He was just so strong and so athletic."
Baumgartner's main workout partner while wrestling at West Iron was coach Felger's son, David Felger. David was a three-time U.P. State Champion who went on to wrestle at the University of Michigan. The two remain close to this day and Nick was in David's wedding. "He was so athletic that I am not surprised he has succeeded in snowboarding,” says Felger. He could do some great things on the wrestling mat and really, in any sport where he competed. We would battle every day in practice and I know he made me better."
Nick has fond memories from those days, traveling from town to town in youth wrestling. He remembers how cool he thought it was to meet and compete against kids from other communities, getting to know others outside of Iron River. He also has clear memories of his road to a state championship, especially being in the finals match.
"When you made it to the finals it was just a cool experience," Baumgartner recalls. “They turn off all the lights, put the spotlight on you, put you on this stage, you had to pinch yourself because it was so awesome. At that time it seemed like all the hard work paid off. "Baumgartner said wrestling taught him the importance of mental preparation and how better conditioning and a strong work ethic can trump talent alone.
"Wrestling is so tough and physical, it tests you in every way possible, especially mentally," he explains. "I've seen a lot of good snowboarders emerge on the scene, but then they fizzle away because they maybe didn't have the mental toughness. Wrestling taught me the importance of mentally preparing for success and I believe that has helped me throughout my athletic and snowboarding career."
He adds: "One thing I take a lot of pride in is being in top physical condition, to be able to outlast anyone. In wrestling, if I didn't have more talent, I knew I was in better condition than my opponent. When I played football in college the level of talent and speed got better, but I was in better condition than anyone. I always pushed myself to the limit. If you don't have the endurance, you can't finish and that's important, especially in wrestling."
Baumgartner said wrestling taught him to be a leader and a good teammate. That's something he tries to teach his 9-year-old son Landon, who is embarking on his own youth athletic career.
"Wrestling is an individual sport, but you are also part of team," says Baumgartner. "It teaches you how to be there for your teammates, your buddies. It teaches you how to pick others up when they are down. It taught me the value of sportsmanship and being there for others when they need it.”
No matter the success, mom Mary and family are there to keep Nick grounded. "We are very proud of him, but he's still the same person to us; he still shovels snow when he comes home," says Mary Baumgartner.
Having already been to the Olympics once, Nick says he knows what to expect this time. And he’s set his sights higher after finishing 20th in 2010. Maybe this time at the Olympics they won’t get him mixed up with somebody else during that opening press conference. And if Baumgartner has it his way, he wants to speak to the media again after winning an Olympic medal. Then they’ll be sure to get his name right.
Fans can follow Nick Baumgartner on Twitter at @NickBaumgartner and through his web site, www.nickbaumgartner.com.