At 37, Wrestler Tries For Pin-Nacle -- Chris Campbell Has A Score To Settle

ITHACA, N.Y. - When he's not busy moving mountains, Chris Campbell practices law. This requires wearing nice suits, which requires buying them, which is an exercise in thorough aggravation.

He needs a 46 or 48 jacket to accommodate his chest and arms, but then the sleeves and length are all wrong. His massive legs taper to a tight waist, so that's an impossible mix, too. He has neither the resources, nor the inclination, to hire a personal tailor.

"I get athletic cuts, and they just don't fit right," Campbell said.

The truth is, there's nothing about Chris Campbell that is off the rack.

He practices Zen and dabbles in poetry. He's a vegetarian who likes nothing better than tofu stroganoff. He leg-presses 700 pounds, meditates, and quotes everything from The Sermon On the Mount to The Teachings of Buddha.

And now, after a career that has included food stamps, a boycott, bitterness and a five-year retirement, he will be on the mats in Barcelona. A shot at Olympic gold is his, at last.

Chris Campbell will turn 38 a month after the Games, making him the oldest freestyle wrestler in U.S. Olympic history.

He was an NCAA champion at Iowa - 16 years ago. He was the world champion at 180 pounds - 11 years ago. And he was the favorite to win the gold medal in the Moscow Olympics 12 years ago, before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter said the United States wasn't going. The boycott galls him still.

"Jimmy Carter said to us, `Oh, we won't forget you. You're all Olympic champions.' Everybody said, `We won't forget you.' Well, guess what? They forgot."

Campbell exudes an uncommon strength, quite apart from his Mr. Universe torso. He has a jutting jaw and eyes that bore through you. At 5-8, 198 pounds, with a domed head and a cropped beard, he has, well, presence. A noble warrior is what his bearing suggests.

Mark Kerr says it is tough to define and impossible to miss. Kerr, of Syracuse, the 1992 NCAA champion at 190 pounds, has been a Campbell protege for four years.

"There's just tremendous character about him," Kerr said. "The way he concentrates, the way he works - he takes it to a level that most people don't even think about. And he's like that with everything in his life."

"There isn't anything about him that's ordinary," says his wife, Laura. "I've never seen him put his mind to anything and not have it come out about as close to perfect as possible."

Campbell works and lives in Syracuse, with Laura and their three children. He is a lawyer for the Carrier Corp., which has steadfastly supported his Olympic quest.

And it is some quest. Campbell retired in 1984, when a knee injury shelved him a week before the U.S. Trials. That was enough Olympic heartache for a lifetime.

He went back to school, this time Cornell Law. After graduating in 1988, he climbed into his ill-fitting suits and launched a career. He was a devoted family man, had a bright future - and he was miserable. He missed the sweat and combat, mental and physical.

"I was walking around in a funk all the time," he said. "I wasn't ready to jump off a building, because I had a commitment to take care of my family. But if you're talking about looking forward to waking up in the morning, I didn't."

Wrestling had been his passion since he was 14, growing up in Westfield, N.J. The freshman coach saw him playing basketball and told Campbell, "You're an awful player. Why don't you come out for wrestling?" Negative recruiting, but it worked.

By the time he was a high school senior, Campbell was getting scholarship offers, but not from the one place he wanted to go: the University of Iowa, a wrestling power.

He turned down everybody else and went to Iowa for the summer. He worked in a manufacturing plant, scraping rubber off Detroit-bound car door handles. And he wrestled. The more he did, the more he impressed Iowa coaches. When he battled the most touted recruit in the nation to a deadlock, the scholarship was his.

That tenacity has been a trademark. When he gets an idea in his head, forget it.

Neither Laura nor his father thought much of his law school plan. Their arguments got nowhere. Campbell prepared for the law boards as if it were a world championship match. He wound up scoring in the top 5 percent of all minorities who took the test.

His law-school dean told him it was a folly, trying to turn the calendar back to 1980 and compete again. After Campbell lost his first match, the referee gently told him he didn't have it anymore.

The comeback went on. Campbell trained 30 hours a week, while working 40. It

"Chris is an artist," Laura said. "Watching him is like watching a combination of dance, martial arts and wrestling. It's real beautiful."

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A preview of the events in Barcelona:

-- Dates: Greco-Roman, July 26-30; freestyle, Aug. 3-7. -- Local qualifiers: None. -- Who to watch: The U.S. team has at least three freestyle wrestlers with excellent chances of winning medals - John Smith (136.5 pounds), Larry "Zeke" Jones (114.5) and Kevin Jackson (180.5). The Unified Team could win as many as 10 gold medals. Other teams to watch: Bulgaria and South Korea. -- 1988 gold medalists: Competing under the flag of the Soviet Union, the Unified Team won eight gold medals and 15 of a possible 20 wrestling medals overall. -- Last U.S. medal: Smith (62 kg.) and Kenny Monday (74) both won gold in 1988. -- Fast fact: The former Soviet Union has won every world or Olympic Games in wrestling since 1961.