"Chris is kind of a mysterious person," John Akers, sports editor of the Ames (Iowa) Daily Tribune, has said. "He believes that Hercules was a real man, for example. And that with enough work a human being can become as strong as a full-grown lion." Forewarned, a visitor comes to an old farmhouse in western Ames seeking out 1981 world wrestling champion Chris Campbell, who answers the door. Campbell is fully bearded, with an intimidating stare and an imposing physique—5'8" and 196 pounds of steel set in concrete. He wears faded gray sweats with lettering across the front of the shirt reading IOWA STATE WRESTLING. "My monk's robe," Campbell says, smiling. "Come in."
It's an April morning, and Campbell is fresh from two important victories. Competing in the 180.5-pound class, he won the prestigious World Cup in Toledo, Ohio in late March and the U.S.A. Wrestling Freestyle Championships in Madison, Wis. just days earlier. He's taking a few weeks off, he says. The day before, he ran six miles. Today he will both run and lift weights. "I don't feel like I did anything yesterday," he explains. "Besides, I'm getting to be an old man. I'm 28 now, and I've been getting lazy. I have to start pushing myself harder."
A two-time NCAA 177-pound champion for Iowa in the mid-1970s, Campbell soured on life in Iowa City and moved west to Ames four years ago, becoming an assistant coach at Iowa State. What he brought with him, from the looks of his living room, was nothing. "Chairs aren't very good for the body," he says. There is one chair, for guests, and cushions and pillows on the floor. "Upstairs, all our mattresses are on the floor," he continues. "And they're hard mattresses. For support." As Campbell speaks, the "our" arrives. Christopher Campbell II, almost two, wanders in from the kitchen, followed by his mother, Laura, who has just sent the family's other child, Rachel, off to third grade. Laura tries to explain the sparse furnishings. "It's creative space," she says.
By that she means it leaves room for her husband and herself to stretch, practice yoga and exercise. Laura is a 5'6", 135-pound body builder, racquetball hustler and all-around health junkie; her hours spent in the living room are a labor of love. For her husband the stretching and exercising are beyond that; they are medically necessary. Campbell, who has scoliosis (curvature of the spine), did not compete in 1979 because of an ailing upper back, a condition that recurred in 1981 and '82 and nearly forced him to retire. Between September 1981, when he won the world 180.5-pound championship in Skoplje, Yugoslavia, and last November, when he triumphed in the 190-pound class at the Great Plains tournament in Lincoln, Neb., Campbell didn't compete at all. Were it not for a sports medicine clinic in Seattle, where doctors devised a regimen of therapeutic exercises and weight workouts for him last spring, Campbell would not be—as he now is—the favorite for a 1984 Olympic gold medal. He would be neither Hercules nor a lion.
June 26, 1983
"Did Chris tell you about the brick wall phenomenon?" asks Laura, who's sitting on the carpet stretching her hamstrings. Chris, who typically trains seven hours a day, responds by describing the state of ultimate mental and physical preparedness that he has attained on occasion, as in 1980, when he upset both Mark Lieberman, a highly regarded wrestler from Lehigh, and John Peterson, gold medalist at the 1976 Games, to make the U.S. Olympic team. "I reach a point where I feel that I can actually walk through a brick wall, that I'm invincible," Campbell says. "In 1980, really, I was beyond walking through a wall. I was that ready." Then the Moscow boycott stopped him cold. "After that, you felt like you maybe could have climbed over the brick wall," says Laura jokingly.
"I would have needed a ladder," says Chris.
Actually, Campbell is a wrestler more likely to take apart a wall brick by brick. In 1981 he became the first American ever to be named Most Technically Prepared at the world championships, and he's so proficient at his moves, especially headlocks and high crotch lifts, that some think he isn't as aggressive as he should be. "When you execute as well as Chris does, you really don't expend that much effort," says Iowa Assistant Coach J. Robinson. "Sometimes he seems to ease up too much and look at his wrestling like a work of art."
Campbell's tendency to sit on leads of 3-2 or 6-5 as a collegian not only earned him a reputation for stalling but turned some action-hungry Iowa fans against him. Critics found his matches about as exciting to watch as the sculpting of granite. "He's so quick, so explosive, that people expected him to be spectacular all the time," says Robinson. "But I'll say this: We never had to worry about whether he'd win or not."
On the mat that has always been the case. Campbell, who won all 42 of his matches at Westfield (N.J.) High, came to Iowa as a walk-on in 1973 and went 122-7-2 over four seasons. He defeated Mark Johnson of Michigan 4-3 in the 1976 NCAA finals—"I was [Iowa Coach] Dan Gable's first national champion and I'm proud of that," says Campbell—and then beat Johnson again, 9-5, for the '77 NCAA title. Had it not been for a knee injury his sophomore year, Campbell might have been a three-time collegiate champion. Life outside wrestling, however, was never so easy.
Campbell has described his childhood as a "classic ghetto situation—no father, a mother who works for white people, the whole bit." His mother, Marjorie Lee, still works cleaning houses in Westfield. His father, Howard Thomas, is a junior high school principal in the Bronx in New York City, but Campbell, an only child, didn't see him until eight years ago. "All the fathers I saw were under severe economic pressures," recalls Campbell. "A lot of them turned to alcohol and quite a few beat their kids. I was kind of glad that I didn't have one." Campbell, however, did inherit athletic ability from the 6'3" Thomas, a former All-America halfback for Howard University who could run the 100 in 9.4. "There was a lot of folklore about my grandfather, too," says Campbell. "He used to wrestle around on street corners and they say he never got thrown."
Campbell himself spent time picking fights on street corners until the day he met up with a youth league wrestler. "He was this little frail kid who was lipping off, so I thought I'd put him in his place," says Campbell. "He double-legged me and rolled me. I was shocked. I couldn't do a thing." Campbell took an immediate interest in wrestling.
Marjorie Lee was devoutly religious, first as a Baptist and later as a Jehovah's Witness, and she reared her son by strict church doctrine. Campbell's religious beliefs kept him away from competition until he was a high school junior; Jehovah's Witnesses believe that time spent in organized sports is better spent serving God. But Campbell kept in shape by going over to Union County College in neighboring Cranford each afternoon and practicing with the team there. "They had a few state champions," he recalls. "It probably was good for me." The following year he was back competing for Westfield High, no longer as committed to his religion.
After winning the New Jersey state 167-pound championship as a senior in 1973, Campbell thought himself ready for major college competition. But the Big Four—Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State—weren't interested in him. Further, says Iowa State Coach Harold Nichols, "For religious reasons his mother wouldn't even sign the information questionnaire we sent out. She wouldn't have signed a letter of intent either, and without that there would have been no guarantee he'd show up at school." Facing the choice of a scholarship offer from Montclair (N.J.) State, a similar bid from the University of Maryland and no college at all—his mother's preference—Campbell chose none of the above. He sold his 1962 Plymouth Valiant a few days after graduation for $95 and used the proceeds to buy a plane ticket to Iowa.
He arrived in Iowa City, where in July he would wrestle in a national high school tournament and, he hoped, impress a few coaches. Meanwhile he worked in an auto-parts factory scraping excess rubber off door handles for the minimum wage. "It was about 100 degrees in there, and the foremen didn't have the most enlightened ideas about human relations," Campbell says. Fortunately, he performed well in the July tournament, losing a 2-1 referee's decision in the finals to, ironically, a much-heralded Michigan recruit, Mark Johnson. Iowa offered Campbell a partial scholarship and a job cleaning the wrestling mats.
Now free to live as he pleased, Campbell went, in his words, "crazy for six years." That's how long it took him to earn his sociology degree, an unsurprising fact, considering his statement as a freshman that "I didn't come here to go to school, but to learn wrestling style and technique." That's also how many years he spent "discovering my morals. If I hadn't done something before or if there was something that seemed to conflict with my morals, I tried it. You name it. Everything."
After completing his eligibility in 1977, Campbell had to take a job in a bar to make a living, and his wrestling suffered. He placed fifth at the '77 world championships in Lausanne, Switzerland and lost to Peterson in the trials for the '78 world championship team.
Along the way he met Laura, a psych major at Iowa whose background was in total contrast to his own. She had grown up on a farm near tiny Fostoria, Iowa (pop. 125), getting straight A's in school and helping her family raise corn, soybeans and beef. However, Laura was a wrestling fan. "All my boyfriends had always been wrestlers," she says. "I wanted to be a wrestler myself, but as a woman I was denied the opportunity."
Campbell learned about denial of opportunity soon after he and Laura were married in March 1979. For reasons still unclear to him, the Hawkeye Wrestling Club—sort of an Iowa wrestlers' alumni association—wouldn't sponsor him while he trained. Needing work to support himself, his wife and Rachel (Laura's child from a previous marriage), he applied for jobs everywhere, but didn't find one until he finally signed on as a guard at Iowa Security and Medical Facility on the outskirts of Iowa City.
"They called it a mental hospital, but it was a prison," says Campbell. "They said they believed in behavior modification for criminals, which was a joke. They believed in humiliating and torturing human beings. They'd put guys in confinement without any clothing or blankets, so the guys would get very cold. It was the most depressing time of my life. The day I was going to quit, they fired me, which I considered the ultimate compliment."
Campbell next tried to join the Coralville, Iowa police force but was turned down despite having, he says, high test scores. He filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, which found grounds for a racial discrimination suit. The case is still in litigation. Campbell meanwhile had had his fill of Greater Iowa City.
He received an offer in September 1979 to come to Ames from Nichols, 66, who has coached six NCAA team champions and such individual stars as Olympic gold medalists Gable and Ben Peterson. Under the agreement Campbell would have to coach part-time and work toward a master's degree; in return Nichols would give him a small stipend and employ Laura as a seamstress in the wrestling equipment business owned by his son. "It was a sweatshop," says Laura.
"At least you earned your way," answers Chris. "I was a freeloader."
Campbell became a fully salaried assistant in 1981, leaving Laura free to shift into volunteer work for a local health-food cooperative. Finally, it seemed, everyone was happy. And everyone was—until three weeks ago, when Nichols axed Campbell from his staff, saying Campbell had been spending too much time training himself and too little time coaching. Campbell was stunned by both the news and the explanation. "A lot of the wrestlers think I did too much coaching," he says. "I ran the practices. I planned out what we'd do. Maybe the boss just wasn't feeling like the boss anymore."
In any case, Laura is back searching the help wanted ads, and Chris is canvassing businesses in Iowa and in West-field, seeking donations to help defray his training expenses. Surprisingly, they will move back to Iowa City later this summer. "For all the drawbacks it has, it's still the best place for me to train," explains Chris. "There's no question I'll have better workout partners and coaching. Actually, this could be what makes me a gold medalist."
Yet no matter what happens in Iowa City, Laura will still be the greatest influence on her husband. Not only has she converted Chris to vegetarianism, she has also become his trusted technical adviser. Probably the world's most knowledgeable woman wrestling coach, Laura can be found in Chris's corner at almost every match and has been asked by other wrestlers to help them, too. Nonetheless, several members of the U.S. coaching staff didn't want her staying in the same room with Chris during the 1981 world championships in Skoplje. "It was crazy. They called to hassle me and then wrote a letter saying my baby might die if I brought it to Yugoslavia," says Laura. Chris threatened to fly home if Laura wasn't allowed to stay with him. She stayed.
Neither Campbell, obviously, is afraid to speak out. At an Ames High wrestling banquet held last year, Chris, the keynote speaker, capped off the potluck meal with a speech that went down like another helping of the Beefaroni au gratin. "He got up there and started talking about how the meat was rotting in our stomachs," says Akers. "I don't think it even occurred to him that he was grossing out three-quarters of the people."
No one watches television in the Campbell home; the set's in a closet. "We found it destroyed our family structure to have it out," says Chris, who skips Sunday workouts to be with his wife and children. Laura, however, whose family didn't have a TV until she was 19, admits, "I sort of miss seeing reruns of old shows I never saw, like Hogan's Heroes."
The books in the Campbell house are upstairs, and they cram the shelves. Laura's are the volumes on nutrition, fitness and do-it-yourself projects. Chris has contributed various Bibles, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita—as well as the science fiction novels. "I never read much when I was growing up," he says. "When I decided I wanted to go to law school someday, I realized I'd have to learn to read faster, so I chose an interest—science fiction—and went through every book I could get my hands on."
Robinson, his former coach, training partner and friend at Iowa, finds Campbell's choice of subject appropriate. "We used to sit around downtown in Iowa City and listen to Chris tell us what he was going to be," Robinson says. "At first he wanted to be an astronaut. Then it was a pilot. Then it was a lawyer. Then it was President of the United States. Chris is a bit of a dreamer, but I think that's important." With victories at this September's world championships in Kiev, U.S.S.R. and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Campbell can prove he's more than a dreamer. And, except to opponents, really no mystery at all.