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Wrapped in Emotions : U.S. Flag-Bearer Baumgartner Loves Honor but Hates Remembering Wrestling Tragedy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dozen years ago--a life ago--first-time Olympian Bruce Baumgartner walked side by side with fellow wrestler Dave Schultz into the L.A. Coliseum, two young men dazed by the opening ceremonies amid a sea of U.S. Olympians.

Friday night, Baumgartner walked alone, with a flag in his hands and 700 Americans behind him.

And no Dave Schultz.

Hours before the ceremonies, Baumgartner, participating in his fourth Summer Games and hoping for his third gold medal, said he was sure the memory of Schultz, killed earlier this year as he trained for an Olympic comeback, would be running through his mind during the march.

“I walked into the Coliseum in L.A. with David in our first Olympics,” said Baumgartner, who was selected to be the flag-bearer by a vote of the American team captains.

“I don’t know exactly what things I’ll be thinking, but [since the tragedy] I know that when I was training or pretty much just doing anything, David was always in my thoughts.

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“Once we start competing, he’ll surely be missed, and he’ll always be in my memory.”

Schultz (at 163 pounds) and Baumgartner (286) won freestyle wrestling gold medals in the Los Angeles Games and remained friends through the years. Schultz, generally considered the life and soul of American wrestling, was a top contender for a gold medal this summer.

Schultz was shot and killed at the Team Foxcatcher compound Jan. 26. He was 36. Foxcatcher founder and USA Wrestling benefactor John du Pont has been charged with Schultz’s murder.

"[Du Pont] did a lot of good for wrestling, and obviously, he did more bad, especially at the end,” Baumgartner, 35, said. “It was a tragedy. Dave was set to be one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.”

In a time of increased corporate sponsorships and with $100-million-plus athletes such as Shaquille O’Neal participating in the Games, Baumgartner acknowledged that he, and wrestling, represent a purer sort of competition.

To earn a living, Baumgartner is the wrestling coach at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.

“You learn early as an athlete that you can’t worry about things you can’t control,” Baumgartner said. “I don’t begrudge [O’Neal] getting what he can get. For me to say I’d love to have a few millions lying around left over, that’s not what I can think about.

“If that’s what the free market bears, and if whoever gave it to him can afford it, then more power to him. I knew when I got into it that wrestling wasn’t a high-profile or big-money sport.”

Baumgartner, whose wife has described him as the “shyest man in the world,” acknowledged that he felt a little nervous before Friday’s march. The last American to carry the flag into an American stadium playing host to the Olympics was Edward Burke in 1984.

Baumgartner, who won the 1995 Sullivan Award as the top U.S. amateur athlete and is a 17-time national champion, is the first wrestler to be selected as the American flag-bearer.

In Barcelona in 1992, Francie Larrieu Smith was the American flag-bearer.

“I think any of us put in that situation with NBC’s coverage around the world, you’re going to feel a little self-conscious,” Baumgartner said. “And I don’t want to make Teresa [Edwards, the women’s basketball player who recited the athletes’ oath] any more nervous or myself any more nervous, but I want to do the best job I can.

“I can’t even imagine how it’s going to be. I realized how big the Olympics really were in 1984, when we walked into the Coliseum and just heard people screaming and cheering.

“To be carrying the American flag onto the field, here in America, it’s going to be the highlight of my sporting career.”

But, with a wink, Baumgartner, one of the favorites to take home the gold medal in the 286-pound division in freestyle wrestling, warned that he has not always had luck carrying the American flag.

Baumgartner also won gold in the 1992 Barcelona Games and a silver in Seoul in 1988.

“The first time I carried the flag was a World Cup in Ohio [in 1987], and that was the most miserable tournament I have ever wrestled,” Baumgartner said. “I got beat, oh, two or three times?

“But, since then I’ve carried the flag and been successful in the tournament. So I don’t feel too superstitious about that.

“At the 1994 Goodwill Games [in St. Petersburg, Russia], I had the good fortune to carry the flag.”

Meanwhile, Edwards, also a four-time Olympian and also aiming for her third gold medal, had vivid memories of hurdler Edwin Moses’ difficult time--he unsuccessfully tried to memorize the oath--in 1984.

“I do remember Edwin Moses, and I thought, ‘God, that has to be the toughest job in the world right now,’ ” Edwards said Friday afternoon. “To be so visible and have that responsibility. . . .

“Every time I see him, that’s what I think of, the pressure of that moment. And it feels like a great sense of responsibility that I welcome.”


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