Time was running out for Bill Scherr. With 10 seconds remaining last Saturday in the final wrestling match of his career, Scherr was nursing a pulled groin muscle and trailing Andrei Golovko of the Soviet Union, 1-0. Scherr knew what was at stake: A win in this, the 220-pound match of the team final, would secure the Goodwill Games gold medal for the U.S. A loss would leave the Soviets only one point behind with one match to go.
With the sellout crowd of 6,741 in Seattle's Hec Edmundson Pavilion screaming encouragement, Scherr reached desperately for Golovko—and got him. "Fortune smiled upon me," said Scherr afterward. "And Golovko made a mistake."
Golovko's error was getting anywhere near Scherr with so little time left. Scherr shot in under Golovko's arms and, with one second left, brought him to the mat and rolled him over for a two-point takedown and a 2-1 win. The partisan crowd exploded. Though the official announcement of the U.S. team's victory would be delayed by Soviet protests of two earlier matches, these fans knew they had just witnessed the biggest upset of the Games.
The U.S. wrestlers had arrived in Seattle with a single daunting goal: Beat the Soviets. Though the U.S. had topped a largely second-line Soviet team this April in the World Cup, the Soviets had won every world and Olympic team championship since 1961. While last week the U.S. clearly was the best of the rest of the eight-team field, the Soviets remained the overwhelming favorite for the team gold.
August 6, 1990
"They've got their best possible team here," said Joe Seay, the U.S. head coach. "But that's the way we want it."
The Soviet team included five former world champions, among them Olympic gold medalists Arsen Fadzaev (149.5 pounds), Makharbek Khadartsev (198 pounds) and the hulking David Gobedjichvili at 286 pounds. The Soviets were so confident that they brought only 10 wrestlers and no alternates to Seattle.
Against this juggernaut, Seay, who as head coach at Oklahoma State has won the last two NCAA titles, fielded a team made up of both newcomers and established veterans. In addition to Scherr, a 1985 world champion and '88 Olympic bronze medalist, and Scherr's twin brother, Jim (198 pounds), Seay was counting on the redoubtable John Smith. Smith, a 24-year-old Oklahoma State graduate, is a two-time world champion and the 1988 Olympic champion at 136.5 pounds. He would be joined by another Cowboy alum, 1988 Seoul gold-medalist Kenny Monday (180.5 pounds), and Bruce Baumgartner (286 pounds), a former NCAA champ for Indiana State who was the 1984 Olympic champ and '88 silver medalist.
For the Scherr brothers, the Goodwill Games held an extra measure of importance. Forecast as possible gold medalists before the 1988 Olympics, the Scherrs had returned to their hometown of Mobridge, S.Dak., with but one medal between them—Bill's bronze. Seattle would be a shot at redemption.
"I don't look back," said Jim before the meet. "But a gold here would be nice."
Bill was less circumspect. "The Olympics were my biggest disappointment," he said. "A gold medal here could go a long way toward making up for that."
While Jim will compete for a spot on the '92 Olympic team, Seattle would be the last chance for his younger—by 15 minutes—brother. Earlier this year Bill announced that the Goodwill Games would be his final competition. Armed with an M.B.A. from Indiana, he will soon be going to work on Wall Street. "I've got a wife and two daughters, and it's time to move on," says Bill.
The Soviets and Americans moved as expected through their preliminary matches last Friday. On Saturday morning the U.S. beat South Korea, 32.5-5, and the U.S.S.R. beat Bulgaria 26-11 to set up the evening's showdown.
Seay was confident. After a few tight early matches, his wrestlers had settled down. Bill Scherr's groin was sore, but Seay, unlike Soviet coach Ivan Yarigin, had brought an alternate: Kirk Trost of Ann Arbor, Mich., a World Cup gold medalist, wrestled and won two of the four early matches, giving Scherr a rest. After their victory over the Koreans, the Americans went back to the athletes' village to study tapes of the Soviets in action.
"We're strong in the heavier weights," said Seay. "What we need is to win one of the first three matches."
They did better than that. In the opening match, Oklahoma State graduate Cory Baze clawed and wrenched his way to a 13-7 win over 1989 European champion Gnel Medzhlumyan, to give the U.S. a 3-1 lead and himself the 105.5-pound individual gold medal.
Zeke Jones of Arizona State, who looks more like David Cassidy than like a world-class wrestler, was next up, at 114.5 pounds. Trailing 3-2 with 12 seconds to go, Jones took down world champion Sergey Zambalov and rolled him over, exposing the Soviet's back to the mat for a two-point takedown. Jones's 4-3 win was the basis of one of the Soviet protests. Yarigin walked onto the mat to confront the presiding judge and to argue that Jones, in rolling Zambalov, had touched his own back to the mat; therefore, both should have received two points. (Later, the Soviets would also protest Baze's victory, saying he had been awarded points that rightfully belonged to Medzhlumyan.)
The U.S. team was unfazed by the dispute. Former Iowa Hawkeye Joe Melchiore, his left brow stitched after he suffered a nasty cut in the preliminaries, shut out Ruslan Karaev at 125.5 pounds, and Smith beat Stepan Sarkisyan 3-1 in a rematch of their Seoul final. Smith's win also gave him the individual gold medal.
Suddenly, after four matches, when it had figured to be well behind, the U.S. led 12-3. But Seay's faith in his heavier wrestlers was about to be tested. At 149.5 pounds, Nate Carr was disqualified for passivity against Fadzaev (Carr had already earned the individual gold). Rob Koll lost to world champion Adlan Varaev at 163 pounds; Monday and his opponent, Elmadi Jabrailov, another world champion, were both disqualified for passivity; and Jim Scherr dropped a 2-0 decision to Khadartsev.
When Bill Scherr stepped onto the mat, the U.S. held the lead, but its momentum was gone. Two wins would give the Soviets the gold. But in that one dramatic second, Scherr all but gave the U.S. the top prize. When Baumgartner lost 3-1 to his old rival Gobedjichvili, the only question remaining was how the Soviet protests would be resolved. If even one had been upheld, the team score would have been 15-15—giving the gold medal to the Soviets, as ties are broken by counting the number of matches won by each team.
After 40 minutes of deliberation, officials from the international wrestling federation (FILA) announced that neither result would be overturned. The Americans had won.
For Bill Scherr, though, there was one last disappointment. Goodwill Games gold medals were given to both Scherr and Trost—who between them went undefeated—but under FILA rules, which award medals on the basis of points scored by an individual wrestler, the official 220-pound gold went to Petyo Makedonov of Bulgaria, whom Trost had beaten on a disqualification the day before.
"They just told me," said Scherr, standing alone in the staging area behind the stands, where a cool night breeze blew into the overheated arena. A few moments later he was seated with his teammates at a long table in the press room. "This is a great bunch of guys," he said, looking at the row of rough, flushed faces. "I'm glad I was a part of it."