The thirty-first day of July, 1984, began quietly for me in my little corner of the Olympic Village on the University of Southern California campus, with no hint of the triumph and the fury to come. I arose at 6:30 and slipped out of my bunk in the comfortable, two-bedroom apartment I shared with seven other members of the United States Olympic wrestling team. I showered, shaved and dressed as usual. As I looked in the mirror and combed my hair, the face I saw looked just as it had a thousand times before, and just as it has a thousand times since. It was not a face of greatness I saw. It was not the reflection of someone special. I saw only me, Steve Fraser, an uncomplicated, ordinary guy who had never set limits on what he could achieve.
I left my apartment at the Olympic Village and took the 45-minute bus ride to the Anaheim Convention Center, where the 1984 Olympic wrestling championships were being held. I had won my first two matches here, against Karolj Kopas of Yugoslavia and Toni Hannula of Finland. My first order of business was to check the pairings chart to confirm who my third opponent would be. I was to meet Frank Andersson of Sweden, the man virtually everyone regarded as the favorite in the 198-pound division for Greco-Roman wrestlers.
Frank Andersson was a powerful, golden-haired athlete, who enjoyed the status of a movie star in Sweden and who had claimed the World Championship in 1979, 1981 and 1982. With his great strength and technique, his quickness, and his superb sense of balance, Andersson had devastated his first three opponents in these Olympic Games. Each of Andersson's foes had served as a foil for his most breathtaking and crowd-pleasing throw, the high arcing "Back suplex".
From the moment I saw us paired together on the chart, I knew our duel would be one of the ultimate contrasts. Frank Andersson was the natural, a brilliant athlete who had become internationally famous long before anyone knew my name. I was the boy next door, a wrestler from Hazel Park, Michigan, and now a sheriff's deputy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who had gone from being ordinary to exceptional by a dint of hard work and unwavering focus. Andersson was flamboyant, a thrower who could literally hurl his foes out of contention. I was unspectacular, a grinding, physical fighter who pounded his opponents into exhaustion. Andersson was the international wrestling community's pick to win the Olympic title. I was considered a long shot. Andersson was a man who had always been given his due. I, Steve Fraser, was a man who had always been underestimated.
As I waited to wrestle, I went back to the holding area and reminisced about my 13 years as a wrestler. I didn't know whether I would win or lose against Frank Andersson, but I did know that whatever the outcome, I would always be happy about my wrestling career. I knew I had done well to get as far as I had, and I knew I never could have done it without the energy and will that God had given me.
The story I am relating to you now is not just a wrestling story but a story of human potential. It is a story, I hope, others can learn from, too. I became a great wrestler not because I was born that way but because I made myself the best I could be. As I plodded through the ranks, rising from state high school champion to collegiate All-American to a national champion, I discovered a methodology for improvement and success. I allowed myself to dream, and I backed up my dreams with a plan of action, in both my practices and my matches. I trained with my goals constantly in mind, and as I met them I reset them higher and higher. I trained with a positive attitude, and I developed a mental toughness that short-circuited physical pain. In short I developed a kind of laser vision. Like a laser beam, a burning concentration of light of a single wavelength, my concentration was focused so fiercely on my goals that I never thought about defeat, and I never allowed myself to go astray.
My concentration was unwavering even in failure, because I learned that making mistakes is an important part of success. The most successful people in the world make mistakes, and they make a lot of them. I know I did. I was a freshman at the University of Michigan who failed to make the team. I was the college sophomore who was advised to drop to a lower weight class when I wasn't doing well. I was the college junior who was told I would never make it to the top if I continued to compete in two styles of wrestling, freestyle and Greco-Roman, instead of one. I was the sheriff's deputy who barely managed to make the United States Olympic Team. And I was the Olympian who was not expected to climb the highest mountain.
People underestimated me until the end, because they failed to understand me. Fired by the intensity of purpose and concentration, I never entertained the thought of losing – not when I was at the University of Michigan, not when I was embroiled in the Olympic Trials, and not now, as I awaited my great moment with Frank Andersson. I always had done my very best, and I never – never – relinquished one inch. This focused intensity had been a part of my life for many, many years, through victory and defeat. And it brought me face to face with Frank Andersson on July 31, 1984, in the quarter finals of the Los Angeles Olympic games.
Helping me devise a strategy for the Swede was Pavel Katsen, an assistant coach of the United States team. Pavel was a Soviet nationalist who came to the Unites States in 1979 and became a United States citizen not long before the 1984 Olympics. Pavel and I understood that although I had some spectacular moves myself – including a crushing slam headlock – I was not the technician Andersson was. Conditioning was my forte. To win, we knew I had to get Andersson tired. I had to make him wrestle my fighting, brawling style. I had to wear him down, I knew, somehow, I had to break him.
I believed I could do that, because I had never been in better condition in my life. If peaking is crucial for all athletes, it is especially crucial for an athlete whose success is founded on endurance. And I believed I had peaked perfectly. During the month-long Olympic Training Camp for the United States' team at Big Bear Lake, California, I had followed every detail on the plan mapped out by Pavel Katsen and the Olympic head coach, Ron Finley, who was the wrestling coach at the University of Oregon. Pavel and Ron had devised an excellent plan, which called for short, intense workouts during that final month. Their goal leading into the Olympics was to kindle the wrestler¹s fire, not to burn it out with too much work. I followed the plan 100 percent, and I believed going into the Games that I was ready to reach my physical and emotional peak.
My strategy against Andersson sounded simple. I was to wear him down physically during our six-minute match and win. But it was a lot more complicated than that. Pavel and I agreed that I would go out sprinting in the first three-minute period, and try to score on him. I would come at him like a grizzly bear, frantically and aggressively. Then I would pace a bit. Finally, at the end of the second three-minute period, I would finish as I had started, in a sprint, whether I was winning or losing. If I were losing, I would want to pick up the tempo in a final attempt to win; and if I were winning, I would still quicken the tempo in an effort to deny him any chance for a comeback.
This part of the strategy involved me. The other, more unpredictable part of the strategy involved Frank Andersson. I was worried, believe me, about his high arcing back suplex. I was worried about the suplex the way a pitcher would have worried about Joe DiMaggio's power at the plate, or the way a defensive back would have worried about Joe Namath's ability to throw the bomb. The suplex, like the homerun and the touchdown pass, meant big points. Four points to be exact. No other throw was worth that many. If Frank Andersson threw me once, I would be four points down. If he threw me twice, I would be eight points down, and I'd be in big trouble. If he threw me a third time to take a 12-point lead, the referee would halt the match and award him the victory.
Finally, the time came. A tournament official approached me in the dressing room and escorted me to the tunnel leading into the Anaheim Convention Center's arena. Frank Andersson was also escorted to the tunnel, and there, in the half darkness, we warmed up together. We did not say anything to each other, but we were definitely aware of each other. Although our eyes never met, I saw him, and I'm sure he saw me, too. I was aware of how he carried his muscular frame, upright and sure, and I sensed that he was confident, as he always was. He did not strike me as arrogant, because he is not an arrogant person, but he seemed confident and strong and sure. I didn't dare pay too much attention to him, however because I was concentrating hard, and I didn't want to lose one fraction of that concentration. If ever I needed my laser vision – my 'Fraser's edge' as I sometimes called it – I needed it then.
As I walked out into the arena, the partisan crowd cheering wildly, I was thrilled to be where I was. Mingled with the sound of the crowd were the fiery words of Pavel Katsen, who had left me with a ringing exhortation. Pavel had a way of talking to me that sent my adrenaline flowing. In a raspy, intense, guttural kind of shout, he sought to evoke my fury by striking at my heart.
"You gotta go for it buddy! You gotta be mean, you gotta be mean! You gotta go out there and get 'em!"
I was never one to make a big deal about getting "psyched up" as so many athletes do. But upon hearing Pavel, I knew more than ever that I was going to give everything I had.