21 Questions with 1984 Olympic Wrestling Champ Mark Schultz

The legendary Paly alum talks backflips, his sibling rivalry with Dave, and being played by Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher.

Mark Schultz reminisces about his wrestling career. "My philosophy was if I was having any fun at all, then I wasn’t working hard enough. So I pushed myself as hard as I could." Photo editing by Lucia Amieva-Wang.

September 27, 2018

If there was ever an athlete that so utterly personified “zero to hero,” it would be legendary wrestler Mark Schultz. He only started wrestling as a junior in high school, an incredibly late — and what some would call hopeless — debut into a sport infamously known for its induction of kids just barely out of toddlerhood.

 

His first year wrestling, while he was attending school in Oregon, Schultz’ record was a pitiful 4-6. Then his coach kicked him off the team, causing him to transfer back to Palo Alto High School. He only went to two tournaments his senior year, one of which he didn’t even win a single match. Then came the state tournament qualification series, where he suddenly and ruthlessly blew through his competition to win the league, the region, the section, and then the entire state.

 

That was the turning point: the unexpectedly dominant victories propelling Schultz to college on a wrestling scholarship and then to the Olympics, where he won gold.

Many recognize the name Schultz as in the brother duo Mark and Dave Schultz. They won the 1984 Olympics together, both taking gold in their respective weight classes. They're also the most decorated American brother duo in history when you combine all of their titles: NCAA, U.S. Open, World, Olympics... they've won it all. They motivated each other through a fiery sibling rivalry right up until Dave's tragic death at the hands of their shared sponsor.

The story of Mark and Dave is dramatized in the 2014 Oscar-nominated movie Foxcatcher.

.  .  .

Natural athlete. (Photo courtesy of Ed Hart)

EX-GYMNASTICS CHAMP

I was the Northern California All-Around Gymnastics champion before I got into wrestling. Even though gymnastics was giving me a lot of athletic ability, it wasn’t giving me the confidence I knew I needed to be happy with myself.

.  .  .

SCHOOL TROUBLE

I started off hating school. I didn’t stop hating it until senior year in high school. I flunked out of high school in Oregon. But I got my grades back up in Palo Alto, back to where I could get into UCLA.

.  .  .

(Left to right): Dave and Mark pose for a photo with high school wrestling coach Ed Hart in the middle; Mark's first wrestling match as a Palo Alto High School senior. (Photo courtesy of Mark Schultz)

OVERNIGHT SENSATION

Even though I wasn't winning competitions, I knew I was good enough to win because I was beating all these guys in practice. And at the end of the year I ended up winning the league, the region, the section, and then states. I'm the only California state champion in history to never win any tournaments prior to states. 

.  .  .

START OF A JOURNEY

I was so surprised when I started winning. I started to believe in God. I thought it was a miracle. I couldn't believe it. It got me a scholarship to college… my whole life changed.

.  .  .

(Left to right): Schultz in a low stance at the Olympics; Schultz in the NCAA finals. (Images via IMDB)

TRIAL AND ERROR

I wrote my own wrestling technique book, I studied all of the techniques, I tried everything. I went through trial and error to see what worked for me, what I liked, what that fit my body and my style.

.  .  .

FAVORITE TAKEDOWN?

It has to be the Schultz front headlock. Or an arm drag into a trip.

.  .  .

MAJOR CONDITIONING

As technical as wrestling has become, it's still really based on conditioning. Without conditioning, you can't beat anyone.

.  .  .

1984 Olympic Games: Schultz vs. Rinke. (Image via IMDB)

TOUGHEST MATCH?

In the Olympics, I faced Chris Rinke. It was the most brutal, most important, most critical, most pressure-packed match of my entire life. This guy beat me at the Pan American Games the year before. And he had my college coach sitting in his corner at the Olympics. He spent two years living with my coach trying to figure out how to beat me. So that freaked me out. But I won. It was so close, but I won. 

.  .  .

MAKE OR BREAK MOMENT

Sometimes I look back at the Olympic bracket sheet, the one they give you for winning the whole tournament, and I think to myself, ‘wow, if I gave Rinke that takedown I would have lost the criteria, the tiebreaker, and the gold medal. My life would have been ruined!’

.  .  .

(Left to right): Top of the podium (Image via Wrestling Gear); Dave and Mark celebrate their Olympic victories. (Image via IMDB)

DOUBLE GOLDS

Even though wrestling’s an individual sport, winning the Olympics with Dave was great. We could party together afterwards. Dave and I were the only brother duo in wrestling history to both win Olympic golds.

.  .  .

SECOND PLACE?

I have 3 silver medals that I’ve won in my entire life. One of them is on top of Gallagher Hall, one of them is in the Ottawa river, and the other one’s in the bottom of a garbage can.

.  .  .

KEY TO SUCCESS

Desire determines everything. People who have desire know this already. People who don’t have it don’t know this and will never know this.

.  .  .

(Left to right): Victory (image courtesy of Mark Schultz); backflips at the Olympics (Image via IMDB)

SIGNATURE MOVE

I used to do backflips after winning tournaments. That was to pay homage to my gymnastics background and, well, to rub it in. To let my opponents know how much energy I still had after beating them.

.  .  .

CONFIDENCE & HARD WORK

Confidence is based on facts. It's based on real, hard work. There’s no replacing hard work with anything.

.  .  .

1984 Olympic Games: Schultz vs. Ortelli. (Image via USA Today)

LOVING THE SPORT?

People don’t know this, but I hated wrestling. My philosophy was if I was having any fun at all, then I wasn’t working hard enough. So I pushed myself as hard as I could.

.  .  .

A BIG WEIGHT CUT

The most I ever cut was 12 pounds in 90 minutes. It was hot. I thought I was going to die. It was like being out in the Sahara Desert with no water.

.  .  .

SIBLING RIVALRY

I was ready to quit wrestling after college. My senior year was the hardest, most miserable year of my life. So when I got out alive, I was like, ‘that’s it I’m done, I’m gonna party like a rockstar now.’ But then Dave goes to the World Championships and wins the World Championships. And I’m like ‘son of a bitch, now I can’t quit. I can’t sit around and pick my nose while he’s world champion.’ So that kept me going.

.  .  .

A WRESTLING PIONEER

Dave changed wrestling in the United States quite a bit. He wasn’t your stereotypically built wrestler like I am. He added a lot more technical knowledge to wrestling than anybody else beforehand. 

.  .  .

(Left to right): Schultz in a Team Foxcatcher poster (image courtesy of Mark Schultz); Channing Tatum as Schultz and Steve Carrell as Du Pont in the film Foxcatcher. (Image via The Wall Street Journal)

END OF AN ERA

I stopped wrestling after the Olympics. I was in a bad situation wrestling on Foxcatcher for Du Pont. And I wasn’t making any money. You get sick and tired of being poor.

.  .  .

INACCURATE REPRESENTATION

I was excited that they wanted to immortalize Dave, and it was cool being played by Channing Tatum, but Foxcatcher is insanely inaccurate. The director didn’t like me; he didn’t like that he had to pay me so much money. But I got the last laugh on him, because I had this crazy Twitter storm with him. I was the #1 trending topic on Yahoo and then my book shot up to the #1 New York Times Best Seller.

.  .  .

2018: Tony Brewer, Mark Schultz, Dorothy St. Germain, Ed Hart, and Jonathan Kessler in the Palo Alto High School wrestling room. (Image by Zoë Wong-VanHaren)

BACK IN PALO ALTO

It’s great being here, if only for a few days. I credit so much of my success to this town. Especially seeing the new wrestling room… wow. It’s amazing. I like that they put my face up on the walls.

.  .  .

Correction: September 28, 2018

An earlier version of this article mistakenly used a photo of Reyad Katwan instead of Mark Schultz.

Sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter to get The Sunday Lens in your inbox. No spam, we promise.