Wrestling: How a Pudgy Kid Became an Olympic Champion

Pudge

The Olympic champion wrestler Dave Schultz was known as “Pudge” in wrestling circles. He was a little bit chubby in his younger days. In fact, Dave’s friend Steve Holt stated in an article that Dave was a complete butterball with no well-defined muscles when in high school. He claims that Dave would often be mistaken for a score keeper or a trainer.

Steve first met Dave at a weekend tournament that Steve was wrestling in during his high school years. Steve states, “I noticed this fat, pudgy freshman kid sitting in the bleachers observing me during each round. He was watching and studying me like a scientist does with a white lab rat in a maze. I believe he was even taking down notes!”

According to Jim Humphrey, former head coach at Indiana University, “He didn’t look like an athlete, with his slumped shoulders, shuffling gait, and being pigeon-toed. He wasn’t particularly fast.”

So, what set Dave “Pudge” Schultz apart from other wrestlers? How did he become so dominant?

Sought Out Mentors

The young Dave Schultz became a wrestling fanatic. He couldn’t get enough. He wanted to learn the best techniques he could and sought out ways to get in extra practice time.

For instance, Chris Horpel first met Dave when Horpel was already an NCAA All-American wrestler for Stanford. The 14-year-old Dave walked over from Palo Alto High, asking the 21-year-old Horpel to wrestle with him. Horpel agreed, hoping to get rid of Dave after a few sessions. To his surprise, Dave kept coming back.

According to a Sports Illustrated article entitled “Brothers and Brawlers,” “Dave, dyslexic as a child, had taken up wrestling in the seventh grade on the advice of a teacher who thought it would help him build self-confidence. It did that and more. By his freshman year at Palo Alto High, Dave was a wrestling fanatic. He wore his singlet under his school clothes and his wrestling shoes everywhere. He trained as many as three times a day. After his high school workout, he’d ride his bike a few miles up the road so he could practice with the Stanford wrestling team, whose coach, Joe DeMeo, would then drive him 30 miles north to Skyline College for a session with a club called the Peninsula Grapplers.”

Dedication

Dave Schultz wasn’t a wrestling prodigy. He was dominant right from the beginning. It took time and dedication.

Dave Schultz had dyslexia and was teased and made fun of by other kids. When Dave first stepped on the wrestling mat in the seventh grade, he was clumsy and uncoordinated. He didn’t even make the varsity team and while wrestling JV he won only half of his matches. Many kids would have given up and found a new sport or hobby but not Dave. He was determined, and within two years was ranked the second best wrestler in the world for his age group.

I’ve already noted that Dave Schultz practiced a lot. He put in more hours on the mat than most wrestlers would be willing to. He walked around campus with his wrestling shoes tied around his neck. He would carry around a huge copy of an illustrated guide to wrestling in his backpack.

He didn’t get his driver’s license at 16 because he didn’t want to invest time in taking the class. He had a girlfriend for a short time during his senior year of high school but dropped her after she suggested that he should spend more time with her and less time wrestling.

Focus on Technique

Dave Schultz studied wrestling, analyzing techniques and breaking down each move. To Dave, wrestling was like a chess match. He knew he wouldn’t always be stronger than an opponent but he could out-think him. In a Sports Illustrated article Dave states, “Guys have certain tactics, and I study them. Then I try to do what screws ’em up best.”

Schultz has been universally praised as being one of the best technicians the sport of wrestling has ever had. Many considered him to be the greatest technician in wrestling and a master strategist. His wrestling knowledge was vast.

Bill Scherr, 1988 Olympic gold medalist and friend states, “Dave possessed many unique qualities that gave him the drive and the ability to become the United States’ greatest technical wrestler ever. First, Dave was as competitive as any athlete I’ve ever met. He did not like to get beat. He was consumed with being the best, and believed that learning more and better technique was the key to reaching that goal. Second, Dave had a tremendous mind. While we were on the National Team together, Dave got into chess and soon had all of us playing. And I don’t remember him losing.”

Schultz watched video tapes of his matches and those of his competitors. He always had a notebook with him and he would write down the techniques and the things he needed to work on.

He learned freestyle and Greco-Roman techniques in addition to his scholastic wrestling even when in high school.

Humble and Willing to Learn

Dave Schultz learned Russian and other languages so he could talk to and learn from wrestlers of different nations. And, he willingly shared his technical knowledge with anyone. He was a great ambassador for the sport of wrestling. He had friends around the world.

Two-time Olympic champion John Smith states, “He took time to spend with you to teach you techniques. He would not let you leave until you understood. This is very unique in wrestling, because most athletes hold his information. Dave Schultz was not this way.”

Dave was willing to learn from wrestlers, even those seemingly less talented. He didn’t have a big ego. He was willing to learn good technique from anyone. Information and knowledge were valuable to him. He was always picking everyone’s brains and asking other wrestlers about moves.

Other Wrestlers With Obstacles

Legendary wrestler Gene Mills, stated in a book, “I was an 88-pound butterball as a high school freshman when I began wrestling in Wayne, New Jersey. Wrestling was the sport for me and I went on to win the states as a senior and two NCAA championships at Syracuse University in ’79 and ’81. My father taught me my favorite move – the half-nelson. I had a lot of trouble breaking guys down conventionally, so I learned how to put in the half and run it up over the top. It worked great for me.”

Universities weren’t that interested in Gene even though he’d been dominant in high school. Mills was small and claims he could only bench 100 pounds at the time. His former Syracuse coach recalls Gene as a puny high school senior and yet he took a chance on Mills who would become one of the best wrestlers America has ever seen.

Gene, a two-time NCAA champion, set the NCAA Division I career pins record with 107 pins. That record stands to this day.

Gene was unable to wrestle in the 1980 Olympics because of the U. S. boycott. Gene states, “I wanted to pin my way through the Olympic Games and knew I needed to drop down to 114.5 to reach my goal. That was a tough pull for me but I made it.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t get to wrestle in the Olympics but he did win the prestigious Tbilisi Tournament in 1980 which was said to be tougher than the Olympics at one time.

According to the article “Gene Mills: The Uncrowned King,” “Gene Mills accomplished what no other human has done since the Russians’ renowned Tbilisi Tournament began in ’58. He had no bad marks, meaning he defeated all eight foes by 12 or more points. He pinned seven of his victims.”

A Sports Illustrated article referred to Doug Blubaugh as “a stocky, crew-cut Olympic champion who wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses.” In fact, some say that Doug Blubaugh was legally blind without his glasses. If you look at pictures of Blubaugh, he may even look a bit nerdy until you look closely at his body and see how muscular he was.

A fellow wrestler described Blubaugh, “Smart, trusting, kind, generous and a Superman with Coke bottle lenses that allowed him to see the world just a little differently than the rest of us.”

Doug Blubaugh was another humble, friendly man like Dave Schultz who happened to be a great wrestler and coach. Blubaugh grew up on a farm with no electricity or running water and had poor vision but it didn’t interfere with his desire to become a great wrestler.

Three-time NCAA All-American Ken Chertow didn’t start out as a perfect wrestler. It took time and practice for him to become so successful.

Chertow states, “When I started wrestling in middle school, I quickly incorporated shadow drilling into my training program. I was slow and chubby so my shadow drilling was not very fluent, but I steadily improved every day.”

Olympic champion Kendall Cross may not have seemed that imposing when he stepped onto to the Oklahoma State campus. But after winning the 125.5 pound Olympic title in 1996, Sports Illustrated spoke to U. S. wrestling coach Joe Seay who had a few words to say about Cross. “He came to Oklahoma State 10 years ago as a Gumby – no muscles. He made himself a champion.”

Final Thoughts

Maybe you’re clumsy and uncoordinated. Maybe you’re a bit overweight. Maybe you’re small. Maybe you’re scrawny. Maybe you’re not that strong. Maybe your vision isn’t that great. Maybe you’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity in your life. Perhaps you don’t seem imposing at all. But, Dave Schultz and other wrestlers have shown that with practice and determination it’s possible to become a better wrestler than you ever imagined.

Remember to seek out skilled mentors and teachers, be dedicated to putting in a lot of practice time, focus on perfecting your technique, be willing to listen and learn, and be humble and work hard. Then you’re almost sure to become a wrestling success.