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

BARCELONA 1992 OLYMPICS: 6 Days to the Games.

July 19, 1992|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"C\o7 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."\f7

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?"

\o7 "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.

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