Kurt Angle reached his breaking point. It was 1996 and he had already lost his father in a horrible construction accident. He also lost David Schultz - who was his surrogate father and wrestling coach - to a senseless murder. Then, for an instant, Angle genuinely believed he lost the gold medal.
“That second broke me,” said Angle. “I really thought I won, and I immediately thought, ‘Sh--, I’m going to have to do this for four more years.’ I wasn’t going to quit until I won the gold. That was my mindset - I’m not done until I win. So when he raised his hand, the first thing I said is, ‘Sh--, four more years.’”
Angle and his opponent, Iranian wrestler Abbas Jadidi, wrestled to a 1-1 tie in a match to determine the 1996 Olympic gold medal. An Olympic official stood in between both men, holding both by their wrist, and Angle was unaware that Jadidi lifted up his own arm–which the referee instantaneously pulled back down before announcing Angle as the winner.
“His hand got dropped and my hand was raised, and I said, ‘I’m done. Thank you, Lord. I’m done,’” said Angle. “It was so fast. I was shocked, and it was like falling into depression and coming out of it in three seconds.”
Kurt Angle is an Olympic gold medalist, a legend in professional wrestling and an addict. He will be clean three years this July, and is fighting every day to help change the stigma of addiction.
“I treat the battle with addiction the same way I treated my Olympic gold medal,” explained Angle. “I realize I’m not going to overcome my addiction overnight, just like I knew I wasn’t going to win the gold medal overnight. It is one day at a time, which is the same way I trained. Every day I trained was important, and I treated every day like it was my last training session. Now, I treat my addiction like I treated my training.
“Every day is important to stay clean–not only for me, but also for my family. If I make the wrong move, I’m dead and my kids are fatherless. That’s helped me stay clean, and I’ve been really blessed not to have any triggers. None of that has happened to me. I really believe that God gave me the work ethic and the ability to have a strong will. That doesn’t mean I can’t fall–I fell into it. I got addicted and was really messed up, but to stay out of addiction takes as much hard work as I did with the Olympics. That’s what I do–I work hard and stay clean each day.”
Angle, who is taking the majority of the year off from wrestling, has been rumored to return WWE.
“I had a talk with WWE,” said Angle. “It’s confidential. I will not be returning for the draft. Possibly in the future, most likely next year, but that is not a guarantee. It was a loose conversation but I will be in touch with Triple H [Paul Levesque] in the future.”
Professional wrestling has always provided the ultra-competitive Angle with a job that challenged him physically and mentally. That singular devotion turned him into a legendary figure in wrestling, but began to show some ugly side effects near the end of his run with WWE in 2006 and continually during his time with TNA.
“I had some bad luck,” said Angle. “In a two-and-a-half year span, I broke my neck four times. I haven’t had a problem with it since, and it’s been ten years. But I was rushing myself back so fast that I didn’t let my neck heal. That bit me in the ass. That, along with the 300 days a year of travel, wasn’t helping. When it comes down to it, that’s my fault. I did it myself. I encouraged my doctors to release me as soon as possible. It was my fault.”
Angle left the WWE in 2006, but he expressed gratitude for the way the company, and Vince McMahon in particular, never stopped caring about him.
“Vince always cared about me,” said Angle. “He’s a good guy, and he felt like he was my father figure. I admired Vince’s work ethic and drive. He was a machine. He was willing to sacrifice so much to be a success, and he was one of those guys who I feared and looked up to. I feared him the same way I feared my father. I was right – he was a good guy. He would tell me when I screwed up, and he’d tell me how to fix it. He basically said, ‘Listen, you won an Olympic gold medal. Very few people on this planet have ever done that. You’re special, you can kick this thing.’ But I fell back into it.”
Angle’s tenure in TNA was a combination of spectacular wrestling and a train wreck of addiction.
“I was at a company where everybody was drinking, and you were encouraged to drink with them,” said Angle. “That’s where the alcohol came in. I didn’t go crazy with it, but when you mix it with pills, it can make you do some really crazy things. It can make you careless. When I traveled, I was drinking and driving, and I got nailed a bunch of times. I couldn’t believe TNA kept me after the second and third DUI. I continued to go with that behavior, and I was lucky to either get a reduced charge or have it thrown out.
“[TNA owner] Dixie Carter played a big role in me going to rehab. She called me and said, ‘You need to go.’ I didn’t want to go, but when I got there, I realized I had a serious problem and I needed to fix this. Dixie made the right call, and I cleaned my ass up and I’ve been clean and sober for three years now.”
Now a father of four, with a fifth on the way with his wife, Giovanna, in November, the 47-year-old no longer relies on the blue wrestling mat, the squared circle or stardom to be fulfilled.
While he awaits his return to the ring, Angle is staying active with his work with those suffering from addiction, even building the “Angle Strong” app.
“I want to use my experiences in life to help people,” said Angle. “When you have an addiction, you need to have the mindset that you can win every day.”
#AngleStrong, which is seeking the right professionals to team with, will be an assistance-based technology with daily affirmations, tips, health, wellness and exercise. Angle has also connected with Reliance Treatment Center to help work with others in need.
“I’m interested in helping anybody,” said Angle. “I was really shocked that my first [speaking] appearance had over 300 people. It was open to the public, which I’d never done before. I really liked it and wanted to do more, and that brought the relationship together.”
Angle’s work with Reliance connected him with the treatment facility’s director of public relations, RJ Vied.
“When I met Kurt, we both told each other these deep, intimate stories,” said Vied. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is it. This is a friendship for life.’ Kurt said that, after hearing my story, he was able–for the first time ever – to stand in front of a group of people and tell his story of addiction. He said it was the most fulfilling thing he’s ever done.”
The 6'3", 32-year-old Vied–who was a promising athlete in golf, martial arts, and football–describes himself as a person in long-term recovery.
“I used to be an alcoholic,” said Vied. “Then a heroin addict turned homeless and helpless. I experienced many traumas and hard loss during my active heroin use. I created and lost three families, but I am now two years sober and no longer hopeless.”
Vied, who says he has been to detox twenty-seven different times, described addiction as an insidious disease with zero remorse and an appetite for a person’s future.
“My addiction has taken away not only my kids, family and countless possessions, but it has taken my chances of becoming that all-famous athlete,” said Vied. “I had the talent, the height, strength, speed. Heroin and alcohol took that from me.”
One of Vied’s lowest points occurred when one of his heroin suppliers tried to kill him for his wallet.
“I was driving to the city to get heroin, and I had my middle child with me,” said Vied. “She was about a year-and-a-half old. The dealer jumped in my truck, put a gun to my head and was going to shoot me, but then turned around and saw my daughter.
“He took all my money, and my daughter was screaming and shaking. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes. But, for me, it was easy. This is a disease, and it’s the only disease that tells you that you don’t have a disease. It’s a disease of the mind, it’s a mental disorder. My mind and my body had a physical allergy to not having this craving. My mind is literally talking to me, saying, ‘I don’t care what it takes, my only concern on this earth is getting that next high so I don’t feel as bad as I feel at this moment.’ Then immediately, the second you get high, all that regret comes in–and it really rips you apart when you’re sober. But while I was in it, nothing else mattered except getting more heroin.”
Vied is working with Angle to remind people who are struggling with addiction that there is a support system in place to help them get clean and start anew.
“People need to realize they’re not alone,” said Vied. “I tried to kill myself several times, and realized the last time that I can’t do this. I thought there had to be a purpose for me, and I just gave it one more prayer. That was it–my entire psyche changed, and I never looked back.”
Separating between the person and the disease, Vied explained, is one of the most challenging parts of addiction.
“It’s the only disease where you tell your kid, ‘I’ll be here when you’re ready,’” said Vied. “The ones that we love the most are the ones who we hurt the most. I robbed, lied, cheated, and stole from the people who were the closest to me. The only way to get through it is to let go. A lot of people don’t like when I say that, because people die. Then I hear from a hundred more people, who say, ‘I said ‘No’ to my kid, and now he’s been clean for four years.’ As addicts, we have all kinds of resources. The parents only have each other. They’re sane while we’re doing insane sh--. It’s not traumatic for me to have a gun put to my head. I didn’t care about that, but for my mother to know that? She lost her sh--.”
Vied is working tirelessly to change the identity and stigma of an addict, which, he explained, would be impossible without Angle’s support.
“When you look at a man of Kurt’s stature, he is showing America that this disease doesn’t discriminate,” said Vied. “Kurt is changing the stigma. You don’t have to hide in your closet, you don’t have to be ashamed of this. You can take it and go out and save a lot of lives. The work Kurt is doing now trumps all of Michael Phelps’ gold medals. I admire him because he’s doing what he’s doing for people in recovery.
“Our main goal is to change the stigma of what an addict is and what they could be. Once an addict changes their identity in recovery, the options are endless. I’m sick of hearing that this is an epidemic–it is, but no one is focusing on the solution. There are a lot more of us that are sober and staying sober, but no one knows that. The same thing that tried to kill me gives me fuel every day not to go back. If you need help, get with somebody who’s been there and come out on top. Contact me, reach out.”
Along with “Angle Strong,” Vied is working on a recovery program.
“It’s kind of like Uber,” said Angle. “If an addict is in trouble, they call and someone shows up.”
Angle once used the amateur blue wrestling mat as his solace through hardship, even coaching himself the final six months before the ’96 Olympics after Schultz was murdered.
“I coached myself because I had to,” said Angle. “I had coaches, but nobody with the impact of David. He related to me better than anybody. He was almost like a God to me. I not only looked up to him, I wanted to be like him–he and his brother, Mark, were my two favorite wrestlers of all time. I studied him in college, so to have Dave as my coach was very, very important to me. He meant so much to me. I remember the ‘95 Worlds–we were on the same team. I won the gold, and he was my coach, but he took fifth. We went backstage and he said to me, ‘What did I do wrong?’ And I said to myself, ‘Holy sh--, Dave Shultz is asking me what he did wrong.’ I felt, at that point, that I was an equal to Dave. He made me feel that way. That little quote carried me through the whole year. He made me feel like I was meant to be there and that I was one of his equals. Dave gave me his stamp of approval. I picked up the pieces and did what he’d taught me to do.”
“I win my battle against addiction every day through staying clean and my marriage,” said Angle. “It took me a long time to realize this, but marriage is the most important thing in life. Growing up, I was always selfish. It had always been about me. If I hadn’t been that selfish, I wouldn’t have won a gold medal, but there was a point in my life where I had to change that and my marriage comes first before anything. When I make a decision, I go to my wife first. When your marriage unfolds, everything can soon follow–and I’m not going to let that happen. I just got my ordainment license, and I’m going to marry my nephew. My whole speech is about marriage and love and it’s about not letting anything come between the two of you. Your marriage comes first, and everything else comes second.”
Angle’s battle is far from over. Regardless of what his future may hold–a return to the WWE or even an induction into its Hall of Fame–his life mission is helping people make their addiction tap out. Just like training for Olympic gold, Angle understands this will take time, but he is now surrounded by the right team of his wife and children and support from people like Vied.
“I find the inspiration to win every day from my family,” said Angle. “For so long, people have kept their addiction quiet. People are embarrassed about it and told to keep it quiet. I did that for a little while, and I realized that it’s not helping anybody. There are people out there who will never go to rehab and will most likely end up dead. I want to help those people.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.