October 23, 2000 12:00 PM

It was a big moment for Bob Backlund as he prepared to meet Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert. Showing all the respect due a man who holds the office once occupied by Henry Clay, Backlund shook Hastert’s hand. Then he slipped behind the Speaker and put him in a waist lock.

“All these people were in the room—Dick Armey, J.C. Watts,” says Backlund. “They went silent.” Then Backlund whispered in the ear of the former high school wrestling coach, “Hey, Coach, you let me get behind you.” Hastert replied, “I should have known better.”

He should have. After all, Backlund, who is trying to wrest Connecticut’s First Congressional District, long a Democratic stronghold, away from incumbent John Larson, is the former World Wrestling Federation champion. And at least one of Backlund’s erstwhile ring opponents isn’t counting him out. “Bob is a very driven man,” says Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. “Nobody worked harder than he did to achieve his success in wrestling.”

Or to conquer the limited reading skills that dogged him most of his adult life. Son of a factory-worker father and a mother who worked as a school cook, Backlund, 51, grew up poor in Princeton, Minn., and got through North Dakota State on football and wrestling scholarships—with the help of cheerleader Corinne Gentzkow, whom he married in 1974 and who wrote his term papers. “I just got by,” he says. “I was probably [reading] 100 words a minute.” He was in his 40s before he remedied the problem via an intensive program of study and reading. “I said, ‘I’m going to approach this the same way I’d approach a wrestling match,’ ” says Backlund. “It’s practice, practice, practice. I’m trying to get up to 5,000 words a minute.”

Backlund became a pro wrestler in 1973, winning the WWF crown in 1978 and 1994. A 1982 visit to the White House, where he met President Ronald Reagan, triggered his political ambitions. And how does Backlund, running on a low-tax, small-government platform, translate his wrestling résumé into a life in politics? “Both,” he says, “are full-contact sports.”

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