CHRIS CAMPBELL DRAWS HIS 3-YEAR-OLD SON, JONATHAN, TO HIM and applies his muscular fingers to delicately unwrapping the flaxen strands of a spider web from the furry body of a caterpillar. “God, is he pretty. Look at all those colors,” says Campbell, a corporate lawyer who is undertaking the rescue at Jonathan’s request. “Make sure you don’t hurt him. Now put him back on the tree.”
A visitor to Campbell’s backyard in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville could be forgiven for thinking of Chris Campbell—a balding, bearded professorial sort—as a middle-aging family man. He is. But against all odds he is also a world-class wrestler and, at the advanced age of 37, a favorite to medal in the light heavyweight freestyle division at the upcoming Barcelona Olympics. “They call me Grandpa, Old Man, things like that,” says Campbell, who clearly enjoys the camaraderie of his teammates, men a decade younger. “But I give as hard as I take.”
Harder, in fact. Campbell has wrestled with one form of adversity or another most of his life. Reared by three women—his mother, Marjorie, his grandmother Odell, and his aunt Gladys—in a poor section of Westfield, N.J., Chris augmented the family’s meager budget by bagging groceries, delivering papers and pumping gas after school. “My mother cleaned houses and struggled to put food on the table every week,” he says. Chris didn’t meet his father, Howard Thomas, a high school principal in the Bronx, until he was 21.
Chris remembers having trouble in school during his early years. “I seemed to be getting into a fight every day,” he says. He did so poorly he was forced to repeat the fourth grade. He attributes his problems to his mother’s difficulty with being a single parent, which seemed to disappear after she became a Jehovah’s Witness. “My mother came to terms with her life and started to be a very positive influence,” he says. “By seventh grade I made the honor roll.”
And discovered wrestling. “I saw some guys wrestle at a high school match,” he recalls. “I was fascinated because they were doing all these complicated moves. It looked like a dance almost.” Chris quickly mastered the steps and was undefeated during his high school years. So smitten by the sport was Campbell that he sold his car for $100 to finance a trip to the University of Iowa, then—as now—the pinnacle of American wrestling. IU accepted him but didn’t award him a scholarship.
Scraping together the tuition by doing menial jobs, Campbell joined the wrestling team as a freshman walk-on and stunned the Big Ten by becoming the 177-lb. division champion. “The next year Iowa gave me a full ride,” says Chris. “I was killing people. Then I tore the ligaments in my right knee near Christmastime.” So much for national championship aspirations. But there was one consolation: a nursing student he met in 1975 and married four years later named Laura Beving. “I was impressed with her,” says Campbell, “because she was going to college and raising a child [Rachel, 18, who lives with Laura’s parents in Iowa]. I thought that was special.”
Campbell, having become national champion in 1977 and 1978, set his sights on the Olympics. But he was twice thwarted: in 1980 by the U.S. boycott of the Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and in ’84 when he tore up his right knee during a workout.
Fortunately, Campbell had prepared for life after wrestling. He had taken the law boards and that same year was accepted at Cornell. “I’ve always had this strong desire to take care of my family,” he says. The idea of competitive sport did not take hold again until 1989, shortly after he transferred within his company, United Technologies, to Syracuse and began to help coach the Syracuse University team. “I was wrestling with guys three days a week,” he says. “I found that I was training hard and not getting injured. I was having a blast. So I started my comeback.”
Even as Campbell began working into shape, he suffered two more devastating blows. In 1991 his mother died of bone cancer. “She suffered a lot,” says Laura. “It was a long, protracted illness, and Chris didn’t want to accept the inevitable at all.” Then, a few months later, he lost his grandmother to an aneurysm. “I hit rock bottom,” says Campbell, who suffered his worst loss, at the Pan American Games, during this period. “But time has helped.”
So, surprisingly, has his father, with whom he has been slowly building a relationship for 16 years. “I called him up when my mother died,” says Chris. “And then I called him again when my grandmother died, and he was there for me.” Indeed, these days Howard Thomas, now retired, visits the Campbell home and watches his grandchildren—besides Jonathan there’s Avasa, 7, and Christopher, 11—compete in soccer and track. He also has tickets for Barcelona.
As for the Olympics, Campbell believes he is no longer as strong or as fast as he once was. But he knows he is wiser now, less spendthrift of his energies, better capable of pacing himself. “Each day, each year, I’m getting a little bit better as a wrestler,” he says. “I have highs and lows. But I’m sure I have a big peak coming up.”
SAMUEL MEAD in Fayetteville