Wrestling With Himself : Olympic Champion John Smith Blocks Out Everything Else, Then Beats Everyone Else


“C ommitment.

“I make a commitment that no other wrestler does. There are probably a few wrestlers out there who think they make a commitment. But I really make a commitment.

“Anything that gets in my way, I pretty much eliminate. I don’t have too many close friends. I don’t have too many close relationships. I just can’t afford to have them to go where I want to go, to do what I want to do. I really focus on myself. I really figure out and find a way how I can win, how I can beat everybody. I’ll do whatever it takes.

“Put it this way: I’ve never had a girlfriend I’ve been good to, you know. Because I’d blow them off when it was time to go to work. I’d say, ‘Don’t come around. I don’t want to (see you).’ It’s been hard on some of those girls. They don’t understand it. But it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m in love with this more than I am with you.’


“I’ve probably hurt a lot of people because of this. But you gotta do what you gotta do if this is what you want.”

His name is John Smith. He is 26 and he weighs 136 1/2 pounds, more if you count the chip on his shoulder. He has won five world championships, including a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. No other American wrestler, including the legendary Dan Gable, can claim such a record.

Smith talks with an Oklahoma twang and is tougher than a piece of 7-year-old beef jerky. When he accepted his Olympic medal, the presenter had to be careful not to brush against Smith’s broken nose or his abscessed left ear. And please, be careful with the handshake. Jammed thumb.

Throughout his career, Smith has competed with broken fingers, sprained ankles, damaged knee ligaments, torn rib cartilage, separated shoulders and the most painful of them all, hip pointers. He recites the list of injuries as if it were nothing more than an annoyance, which to Smith, it is.


At the moment, Smith is obsessed with three things: himself, wrestling and winning. Anything or anybody else had better get out of the way.

It started last month at the U.S. Olympic trials in Pittsburgh. In what has been called the greatest upset in the history of American freestyle wrestling, Smith was beaten by John Fisher in the first of three qualifying matches.

In previous matches with Fisher, a competent but overmatched opponent, Smith had won by a combined total of 38-1. It was supposed to be no different in Pittsburgh.

But it was. Smith knew it the moment he stepped on the mat. So did Fisher. So did Smith’s parents, who had decided at the last moment to travel to the trials. So did Smith’s older brother Lee Roy, who serves as the U.S. national coach. So did Smith’s younger brother Pat, a three-time NCAA wrestling champion who still can’t believe what he saw after viewing a videotape of the momentous loss.

“That wasn’t John Smith,” he said. “To be honest with you, he looked terrible to me.”

He looked terrible to everyone and with good reason. Having spent the previous seven months as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Oklahoma State, Smith was no longer in wrestling shape. For all intents and purposes, the match against Fisher was his first of the year. He had overestimated his ability to prepare for the trials and underestimated Fisher.

What made the match’s result even more incredible was that a day earlier, Smith had been named the world’s best wrestler, pound for pound, by FILA, the sport’s international governing body. It was the award Smith coveted the most and now here he was, one match away from failing to make his own Olympic team.

Humiliation? Embarrassment? You couldn’t measure it with a tracking satellite.


The first match was at 1 p.m. The second was scheduled for 7. The third, if necessary, would begin at 9. Simply put, less than six hours separated Smith from becoming an Olympic qualifier, or the answer to a trivia question:

“What prominent U.S. wrestling legend had to be talked down from a ledge after losing twice in the 1992 trials?”

“I guess it’s something you have to sacrifice.

“You got to be isolated. There are some lonely times. You’ve got to have those times somewhere in your career to get to the point where I’m at. You really got to be a loner. You really got to separate yourself from the world.

“I kind of isolated myself from everybody, even my parents. I’ve probably gone two or three months without even speaking to them. And I’m an hour away. I had some serious, serious tunnel vision. I can remember times if any little thing went wrong, I was off the wall. If someone took me down, they better duck because I was probably throwing punches. You know, over a takedown.

“Now I understand myself a little better. I can go out and prepare now and know I’m shape. Then, I was always scared that I couldn’t do enough. I couldn’t do enough working out. I couldn’t train hard enough. I was young. I was immature about preparing myself.

“I mean, I’ve hit a lot of guys in workout rooms. They don’t understand. They don’t appreciate it. I can remember a particular time in the (Oklahoma State) workout room where me and this guy spent 15 minutes working out and an hour and a half fighting. One would sit on the other one until one cooled off. Things would be all right, but then, before you knew it, we were back at it again. There have been a lot of battles in that room.

“But I had to have it then. I can just see myself. I had to have what I wanted. There was no substitute. No matter what happened, I was going to get it. With that attitude, you can imagine what kind of frame of mind I was in.”


Smith was born and grew up in Del City, Okla., a blue-collar suburb of Oklahoma City. One of 10 children, he says he would probably be in jail if it weren’t for wrestling. He laughs at the thought.

When he was 6, Smith wrestled in his first match. He lost. He lost his second match, too. And his third. And fourth. And fifth. He was pinned each time. But there was something different about the boy. Even then, he took the defeats as personal insults.

One day Madeline Smith looked out her kitchen window and saw her sons Lee Roy and John wrestling in the back yard. At that exact moment, she knew. Knew that her scrawny, quiet, gentle John possessed some sort of inner rage.

“They were fist-fighting,” she said. “And you could see the hatred, the hostility in their eyes. You know what I think it was? Lee Roy was a little bit better than John. John couldn’t take that. The fight started over Lee Roy taking John down. But really, it was the fact that John couldn’t dominate over Lee Roy.”

Lee Roy was 14. John was 7 and was outweighed by nearly 50 pounds.

There was always wrestling in the Smith house. If there was no official tournament scheduled for the weekend, the six sisters and four brothers would have their own.

As usual, Lee Roy would end up wrestling John. As usual, Lee Roy would show no mercy. He would give his brother a bloody lip, a bloody nose and not think twice about it. This was wrestling. A winner and a loser, nothing less.

Pat watched all of it with nervous fascination. He heard John screaming, saw the blood rubbed into the back-yard grass, wondered why Lee Roy never let up.

“I didn’t understand it,” he said. “Now I know that Lee Roy was only trying to better (John), get that meanness in him.”

It worked. Smith, by his own admission, was the meanest 55-pound fourth-grader to walk the halls of elementary school. He didn’t lose a club match the entire year. But in the process, he came to hate the older brother he once idolized. The hatred lasted a long time.

By the time he left Del City High School for Oklahoma State, Smith had won two state championships, finished second in the Junior World competition and fourth in the junior nationals. He thought he was destined for greatness. He didn’t have a clue.

He was eliminated from the NCAA tournament in his freshman year, 1983. He lost in the final his sophomore year. As fate would have it, that tournament was at Oklahoma City, which meant the arena was packed with plenty of Smith family, friends and fans.

When Smith stormed off the mat at match’s end, he made a vow to himself. Weary of his failures, tired of his own excuses, he decided to dedicate himself totally to the sport. Nothing would stop him. Nothing. The promise had been made.

“I’m never going to lose again,” Smith said that day.

“Fishing is the best relaxation I could possibly do. I love fishing. I’m looking for the day I retire and I can go out and not worry about coming back in to train. I’m looking for the day where you go camping for two weeks and just fish and not worry about training. I’m just looking for those days when I can be a normal person who takes a vacation for a week.

“If I go out and take a vacation for a week, all I can think about is, ‘I’m losing conditioning.’ All I’m thinking about is, ‘I’m out of shape.’ Sometimes it’s a miserable feeling.

“Now, there are guys who take a month off. Good wrestlers. Olympic champions. I can’t imagine taking a month off. I’d lose everything. If I went and took a vacation for a month, I would be miserable. I would think I should be doing something.

“My last vacation was after the 1990 World Champions in Tokyo. I went to Cancun, Mexico, for a week. It was the most miserable week I ever spent. I couldn’t even lay on the beach. I’d be on the beach and all of the sudden I’d be running in the sand, go a mile down. I was running. I was in the weight room every day. I was doing my stance and my motion out on the sand. I was trying to get someone to wrestle Greco-Roman with me in the water.

“I think I had a good time.”

Smith won his first U.S. national title in 1986. He won his first Goodwill Games title the same year. That done, he returned home to a hero’s welcome and promptly lost to Gil Sanchez of Nebraska. The rage swelled once more.

Smith won his next 131 matches, including two NCAA championships and a Pan American Games title and his first world championship, among others. He kept winning until the 1988 Olympic trials, when Randy Lewis ended the streak in the first round of the wrestle-offs.

Four years earlier in a nasty, protest-filled event, Lewis defeated Lee Roy in the ’84 Olympic trials. Lee Roy was the world silver medalist at the time and, as it turned out, would never come that close again to an Olympic appearance.

John Smith faced the same sort of elimination. After the first-round defeat, Smith was, in his own words, “a madman.” He returned to the mat and beat Lewis twice, earning a trip to Seoul and avenging the ’84 loss suffered by his brother. As for the Olympics itself, Smith was unstoppable.

Despite the broken nose, the damaged digits and abscessed ear, which had to be drained of blood seven times in two weeks, Smith eliminated anyone who stood in his way.

“The Olympics were the most focused I’d ever seen him,” Pat said. “When I saw him walk out on the mat in ’88, I knew then and there he was going to win that thing. He was just totally locked in.”

But after winning the gold, he got bored. Stepan Sarkissian of the Soviet Union defeated him in the 1989 World Cup. Lazaro Reinoso of Cuba shocked him in the 1990 Cerro Pelado Tournament. So overcome with emotion was Reinoso, that he began slapping the mat with joy. Smith stood nearby and silently hoped that one day they would meet again.

After each loss, Smith would cry like a newborn and then rededicate himself to the sport. He did it when he was 6. He did it at Oklahoma State. He did it after Lewis, Reinoso and Fisher beat him.

“For me, a loss is something that takes a little piece of your heart and rips it out.

“Just sitting here thinking about that loss. . . . Here’s a guy, Fisher--he’s a respectable wrestler. He trains hard, he deserves good things in the sport. He’s wrestled for a long time. But he really hasn’t done much internationally, never placed in a world event. And yet, he beat me. It’s like, he doesn’t deserve to beat me.

“It burns me. It’s something I can only think about for a little while or I’ll get upset.

“It’s the same way with that Cuban. Even today I think about this guy beating me. I think about it every time I see him, everywhere I go at world events. I look across at him and he can say he beat me. It just . . . just gives me stomachaches when I think about it. I mean, this guy got beat by a guy from Sri Lanka at the World Championships. Sri Lanka? Where’s Sri Lanka? Sri Lanka. And he beat me. A guy from Sri Lanka can’t even beat high school wrestlers from the USA. It just takes a little bit of you. I don’t think I’ll ever get over things like that.

“These guys don’t deserve it to say they beat me. They don’t train as hard as me. They didn’t pour what it takes like I did. I’d rather have a Russian beat me.”

“The thing is, I never bring the best of myself out until the big event. No matter how much I’ve lost--and it hasn’t been that much in the last six, seven years--out of all those tournaments I have never brought the best out of myself until the most important events. The worlds, the Olympics, to me that’s the ultimate.

“Why haven’t I done that? Because it takes too much out of me to bring the best out of myself. I can only do it once a year.”

It isn’t unusual for Smith to work out at midnight. Or 4 a.m. Or whenever.

“John thinks that if he’s out there working while everyone else is asleep, he’s got a leg up on everyone,” said Madeline Smith, a devout Catholic who still sticks inspirational religious verses in her son’s equipment bag before an important match. “It’s part of his motivation. He’s got his tricky ways.”

It isn’t unusual for Smith to bark when a workout partner takes a water break. In Smith’s mind, that’s a waste of precious training time.

It isn’t unusual for Smith to think about wrestling 24 hours a day. He even dreams about it, he said.

Of course, all of this can take its toll on a person. The demands and expectations Smith places on himself are mind-boggling. He simply cannot and will not accept anything less than total domination.

At the Pan Am Games last summer, Smith beat a Puerto Rican wrestler by a convincing margin, eight or nine points. But it wasn’t enough and Smith’s opponent could sense the disappointment.

“I frustrated you, didn’t I,” the Puerto Rican said.

Smith clenched his teeth and seethed. He knew the Puerto Rican was right.

In fact, ask Smith the last time he came off the mat satisfied with a victory and there will be a long pause. In his mind, he last wrestled well at the 1989 World Championships.

This is the way Smith thinks. It is the way of the back yard in Del City. It is the way of Lee Roy, the brother he now appreciates.

Lee Roy was there that day in Pittsburgh. After the first-round loss to Fisher, which ended a 56-match win streak, Lee Roy offered his teary-eyed brother an easy-to-understand message.

“Find a way to win,” he said.

So Smith did. It wasn’t a classic display of wrestling. In fact, the sport’s purists winced at Smith’s ragged technique. But he won and earned a second trip to the Summer Games, becoming one of three past Olympic champions on the 10-member U.S. team. Barely.

“I thought I was the king of it all.

“I didn’t think I had to compete. I thought I could turn it on, turn it off, go out and destroy when I wanted to. I’ve lost a lot because of that. Right now, my biggest fear is that I’ve lost something going into the Olympics. But I’m going to do what it takes to win.

“Right now, I’m going to win the Olympics. I don’t care about anything else. I don’t care if the (Oklahoma State) job was offered to me tomorrow. I’m not going to concentrate about taking a position. I’m not going to put any thought to it. I don’t want to put two hours of the day thinking about anything else.

“Right now, I only want to prepare, focus on myself and go back to being selfish. I didn’t get to be a five-time world champion giving people time. I did it by being selfish and sometimes probably rude.”

There have been rumors that Smith will retire after the Games at Barcelona. He has accomplished so much, but in a sense, he has lived so little.

“He said to me one time: ‘You know, Mom, I was just a little boy. Now all of a sudden, I’m a man,’ ” Madeline Smith said.

John Smith went from rug rat to Olympic champion and never paused to smell a single flower. There was never an in-between with Smith. Even in victory, he could find glaring fault.

Maybe this time will be different. Maybe Smith, should he win the gold, will relax his standards long enough to enjoy the moment, to see the tears of joy in others’ eyes. Maybe he’ll be a little boy again.