Amateur wrestling's Plastic Man, Wade Schalles, stands at the center of the mat, awaiting the start of a match. His eyes are droopy, his face expressionless, his hair moppy, his shoulders slightly hunched, his gangly arms seemingly prepared for nothing more strenuous than a knee-scratching session.
Indeed, once the bout begins, Schalles appears ready for anything but combat. He is quickly taken down and is perilously close to being pinned. Or is he? How did his right arm suddenly get over there? How did he wriggle his legs free to entwine his opponent? Why does his left arm look like it is emerging from beneath the mat? Now on top, Schalles applies the cruncher. Pin! Plastic Man, the United States' best hope for a wrestling gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, has done it again.
Gyroscopic balance, a penchant for improbable pins and a pliable body have made Schalles the most exciting and one of the best wrestlers in the world. After watching Schalles in one bout at the AAU nationals last month, Tournament Director Gene Gibbons said, "I can't believe what I just saw."
What Gibbons had just seen was a match during which Schalles, trailing Mike Bradley 6-3 and on the bottom, reached up, pulled his opponent down to the mat and pinned him with a near leg cradle. That is the wrestling equivalent of a baseball player hitting a home run while standing on his head.
May 9, 1976
Dan Gable, a gold medalist at the 1972 Olympics, says of Schalles, "I've never seen anyone so unorthodox who is so good. You never know what Wade will do next."
Schalles (pronounced SHALL-iss) was 49-1 for Hollidaysburg (Pa.) High School, then amassed the winningest-pinningest record in collegiate history for Clarion (Pa.) State, a small school with a big wrestling reputation. He was 153-5-1 with 106 falls—33 wins and 21 pins more than Gable had at Iowa State. Gable was the master technician; Schalles is the con artist and innovator. Gable methodically wore down opponents, rarely making errors; Schalles is almost strictly a counterwrestler who wants opponents to grab him and try to take him down. Then he works his wonders. Typically, Schalles is behind in points before extricating himself for a pin.
"A guy uses his moves on me and gets 10 takedowns," says Schalles. "So his moves have worked 10 times, but all he has is 10 points. All I have to do is get one of my moves to work once and it's all over."
That is what happened when Schalles, who is 24 years old, competed in an international tournament at Tbilisi, U.S.S.R. three months ago. He trailed world champion and Munich bronze medalist Ruslan Ashuraliev of the Soviet Union 4-0. But Ashuraliev made one mistake, and Schalles flattened him. It was at this tournament, one of the most prestigious in the sport, that Schalles proved he is a contender for an Olympic title. "Three men in each of 10 weights made the round-robin finals," Schalles says. "There were 28 Russians, a Pole and me."
Not only did Plastic Man win the 163-pound class, but he also pinned five opponents, which is believed to be a record for the Tbilisi meet. Moreover, he earned what amounts to the outstanding wrestler award. The only other American so honored at Tbilisi was Gable—several months before he won at Munich.
Because of his frenetic style and the risks it involves, Schalles often is regarded with suspicion by wrestling purists. Still he may turn out to be as vital to the American Olympic effort in '76 as Gable was in '72, since he has proved he can adapt to international freestyle rules. He was the lone American to advance beyond the preliminary rounds at Tbilisi, and his performance has become a source of considerable encouragement to other U.S. wrestlers.
This weekend Schalles should take a step toward Montreal when he competes in the first round of Olympic Trials in Cleveland. If he finishes in the top eight in his weight class, he will advance to the first of two month-long Olympic training camps. And there is a big incentive for finishing first in Cleveland, because the victor merely waits in the wings while six of the seven other qualifiers are eliminated in wrestle-offs. The survivor of the wrestle-offs then will face the Cleveland winner, who will need to take only one of seven bouts against his challenger to lock up a spot on the Olympic squad.
For Schalles, preparing for Montreal has been a strain physically, emotionally and—as many other American athletes have found out—financially. It did not take him long to realize he could work at his job as an assistant manager in a warehouse and pay his bills, or he could continue his training with three-a-day drills. Herb Werner, sports editor of the Mirror in Altoona, a city a few miles up the road from Hollidaysburg, wrote a column about Schalles' plight and asked fans to help him. They came up with $535. A Wade Schalles Pizza Night in Hollidaysburg netted another $50.
"I appreciate all this, but I hate soliciting money," Schalles said during a brief visit home last month. At the Mirror offices that afternoon he received a $100 check from the Hollidaysburg Lions Club. "Wade deserves help," said Project Chairman Gil Ginnick of the Lions. "He's a credit to our community."
As Schalles drove away from the newspaper office, he said, "The reason our wrestlers did so well in Munich—three golds, two silvers, one bronze—was Gable. The guys saw how hard he trained. That made them work harder than ever. But I don't think Gable will be eligible to compete this time, because he's been working as a coach, and I doubt that our team will do as well. Our best wrestlers have to quit the sport too young because they have to make a living."
Schalles parked his car and entered the Super Shoes Store in Altoona to thank store manager Robert Gilpin Sr. for a $500 check from the Plank Road-Pleasant Valley Trade Association.
"We have to be careful about the money that is given to Wade," Gilpin said. "It can be used only for expenses for the Olympics. We're proud of him. It's not every day a local boy has a chance to go to the Olympics."
During his visit home, townspeople repeatedly referred to Schalles' going to the Olympics as if he has been guaranteed a spot on the team. But to make the U.S. squad, he still must outwrestle 163-pound standouts such as Carl Adams, a two-time NCAA champion from Iowa State, and Stan Dziedzic, an NCAA titlist from Slippery Rock (Pa.) State, where he had a 118-2 record. Schalles has never beaten Adams. The scores of their matches have been 7-6, 5-5, 2-2 and 10-8, and Schalles has split 14 bouts with Dziedzic (pronounced DEZ-ick). "It scares me to think I might let all these people down," Schalles said as he left the shoe store. "But I know I'll make it."
Confidence—lots of it—has long been Schalles' trademark. As a high school senior, his technique was so oddball that his coach, Charles Jackson, summed up the opinion of many experts when he said, "Wade just doesn't impress you as a wrestler." Plastic Boy—he was not yet grown to manhood—had a 21-0 record with 20 pins that season. Still, only a few believed that Schalles had championship potential.
The wrestler himself and Gary McCarthy were two of them. Schalles met McCarthy the summer before his senior year in high school. "I saw this little guy about 5'2" at the YMCA, and I wanted to wrestle him," Schalles says. "But he didn't want to. I kept after him. Finally, he said O.K. I figured I'd whip him easy—I outweighed him by 20 pounds—but he tore me apart, bloodied my nose. Then I found out he had made the '68 Olympic team but hadn't been able to compete because of an injury. 'I hate braggarts,' he told me."
Plastic Boy had been turned into Silly Putty, but his humbling was followed by honing as McCarthy worked with him daily. That season local headlines identified Schalles as "Wondrous Wade."
Schalles pulled up outside Herb's Tavern in Lakemont, where he had promised to meet John Bismark, one of his most ardent fans. Bismark, a cannonball of a man with a mustache and mutton-chops and wearing a hard hat, sat with his knobby-soled boots on the rung of a barstool. He told Schalles, "Got a $5 check for you from a guy in Geeseytown. And we're gonna show some movies of your wrestling and have a raffle." Schalles thanked him, chatted for a while, then got up to leave. As he did, Bismark called out, "You gotta make the Olympic team. If you don't, you have to come back here and face us."
Amid laughs from Herb's clients, a smile struggled to come to Schalles' lips but did not make it. These, too, were people he did not want to let down. Returning to the car, Schalles said, "I'm feeling the pressure. I'm glad I'll be back at Iowa on Monday." He was referring to the University of Iowa, where he would rejoin the Hawkeye Wrestling Club to train for the Cleveland tournament.
Wrestlers have long yearned for a place where they could train year-round for the Olympics and not have to worry about finances. The Hawkeye Club was founded by Gary Kurdelmeier when he became coach at Iowa four years ago and is primarily funded by Roy J. Carver, a multimillionaire from Muscatine, Iowa. Members of the club train at the university, and most of their expenses—rooms, meals, transportation—are paid for when they take part in competitions. Schalles had already spent time with the club after his own training group, the Clarion Mean Machine, lost its angel early this year.
Schalles stopped to visit Fred Barefoot, his coach when he was a high school sophomore and junior. The two immediately began talking about Schalles' finances. "I don't think we'll have any trouble raising the money Wade needs," said Barefoot. "It's being kept in a trust fund, and whatever's left over after taking care of Wade will go to the Olympic fund. It's a privilege to be associated with someone who gets to the Olympics."
Schalles drove to the other end of town and three-quarters of the way up a mountainside. He walked the remaining distance to a local landmark called the Chimney Rocks—tall, white, sentinel like stones that can be seen for miles. Schalles silently scanned the valley for a while, then said, "I find now that it's important to be liked. I made enemies with my arrogance. Now it's time to let people know I can be nice.
"There's this boy, Ray Murphy. He was a senior in college and I was a senior in high school when we wrestled. I had him up in the air and was bringing him down. He tried a Granby roll. He got a broken neck. Now he lives in a bed with a respirator underneath. He weighs about 85 pounds. The hardest thing in my life was when I saw him the first time after it happened. His parents told me, 'We want you to know that Ray said if he had to get hurt, he was glad it was in a sport he loved so much.' No hate. No malice. Through his misfortune I've drawn strength. When things go bad for me, I always think, 'Remember Ray.' Even if I don't make the Olympic team, I've got a lot to be thankful for."