Wrestling's `Comeback Kid'

Attorney is oldest wrestler in Olympic history

CHRIS CAMPBELL'S saga is one of the most compelling stories this Olympic season.

Mr. Campbell is a 37-year-old corporate attorney with three children, a house in the suburbs, and a Mercedes Benz. He's playing a sport whose ranks are dominated by 22- to 27-year-old free-wheeling bachelors with jobs as part-time coaches.

Campbell is the oldest American Olympic wrestler in history - six years older than the next-oldest American freestyle wrestler. He earned his trip to Barcelona two weeks ago in Pittsburgh when he won the final match of the 198-pound weight class at the United States Olympic wrestle-offs.

The victory was yet another step in Campbell's remarkable comeback from a five-year hiatus from competitive wrestling from 1984 to '89.

United States National Freestyle wrestling coach Leroy Smith says Campbell's comeback is so dramatic that "he's added a totally new dimension to the sport, in that now it's possible to continue at a high level in the mid-to-late 30s, something no one had ever dreamed of before Chris came along."

Chris Campbell's career, despite the fact that most everything is now going well for him, hasn't always been typified by a steady stream of positives. It's been more like a giant roller coaster ride with some small ups and a lot of major downs.

Two times as a child he grudgingly quit wrestling partly to placate his mother, a Jehovah's Witness who disapproved of wrest- ling because of its competitive nature. In 1980, Campbell was on the Olympic wrestling team that was bound for Moscow when the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan led to the US boycott. Then, in 1984, a last-minute knee injury kept him from competing in the Los Angeles Olympics.

After so many heartbreaks and almost a decade of barely earning enough money to feed his family, Campbell gave up his passion. "I was a world champion and I was broke," says Campbell. "Most wrestlers drift in and out of part-time coaching and other odd jobs, but I had a family to support." He went to law school.

In early 1989, after five years away from world-class wrestling, three at Cornell Law School and two in Carrier Corporation's legal department, Campbell says he had to attend to his pent-up unhappiness. Though he was earning a handsome salary and supporting his family as an attorney, Campbell remembers feeling "extremely unhappy" in late 1988 and early 1989. "I was just working for my family. I didn't have a positive outlook toward life. I didn't see anything good coming toward me from life - that is, be fore I started wrestling again."

GETTING back into wrestling revitalized Campbell, who says sitting behind a desk without being able to look forward to wrestling felt like being trapped inside a box filled with mosquitoes.

Campbell's comeback, something most wrestling aficionados wrote off as impossible, was made somewhat easier by the fact that he had stayed in shape during his off years, working out with Cornell's varsity wrestlers and later at Syracuse University.

The most important element, though, was what Leroy Smith calls "his incredible desire, and the unique ability to channel that desire into productive energy and a tremendous work ethic."

Most of the world's top wrestlers follow grueling workout routines, but few put the meticulous planning into every component of their training regimens that Campbell does. His conditioning includes yoga (for balance, flexibility, and concentration), weight-lifting, and long-distance running. His dedication is essential, since world-class wrestling is a chesslike sport with a thin line between victory and defeat. "It's such a complex sport," Smith says. "Like an airplane with all systems working, a wrestl er needs to have so many things meshing simultaneously to be on top."

In fact, the difference between victory and defeat on the mat often comes down to tactics and the mental game, strong points of the world champion and gold-medal favorite Unified Team, whose wrestlers spend long periods of time on technique and tactics.

Campbell's strategy of watching videotapes of opponents helped him beat Makharbek Khadartsev (also an attorney, incidentally) of the Unified Team in the 1991 world championships at Varna, Bulgaria. Campbell's victory over Khadartsev was one of the great upsets in wrestling history as he became the first person ever to defeat Khadartsev, the reigning world and Olympic champion, in a major international event.

Campbell attributes his victory over Khadartsev and much of his other success to his experience. Whereas Campbell thinks that most of his opponents are at the stage of their careers when they are not having fun, Campbell says that he has matured beyond that.

"They're getting older, and I'm not," says Campbell. "Most of the younger guys don't realize they're doing it [wrestling] for fun. They're in their mid- or late-20s worrying about turning 30 and having to retire. I went through that before I retired in 1984. But now I realize it's not a job. It's a blast."

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