ATLANTA — The baby moved inside her often, especially when the crowd got loud and stomped its feet. She felt it kicking and punching then, as if it wanted to cheer its father along with the rest of them.
“When they yell ‘USA! USA!’ it’s the worst,” Chrissy Hall said, smiling and holding her eight-month pregnant belly. In a few minutes, her husband, Dennis, would try to become America’s first gold medalist in these homegrown Games. The NBC camera had been coming around since the last match, when Dennis advanced from the semis to the finals in Greco-Roman wrestling, his third straight overtime victory. Wrestlers don’t get this kind of attention but once every four years — and even then, only if they have a chance at glory.
Dennis had a big chance.
“They stick that lens right in your face” Chrissy marveled, laughing it off. “It’s weird.”
Here was an American tale if there ever was one. Dennis and Chrissy had known each other since grade school in small-town Wisconsin. One day, when they were 10 and 11 years old, Chrissy came in from the front porch, where they had been talking.
“Mom, guess what?” Chrissy said. “Dennis is gonna take me to the Olympics when he wrestles there.”
“Well, honey, you know the Olympics are sometimes far away,” her mother said.
“That’s OK. Dennis will make sure I’m there.”
Sure enough, he became a star wrestler in high school. Chrissy became a wrestling cheerleader. They dated in college. And the day before Dennis left for his first Olympics, four years ago, in Barcelona, she drove him to a field behind their old high school. He ran sprints while she waited in the car. He seemed to be taking a long time. When he reappeared, their song was playing on the radio, Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It For You.)”
He handed her an engagement ring.
That was the happy part. Drinking and driving
The sad part came on another innocent night, in that same Wisconsin town, when Dennis’ older brother Dan, a star wrestler himself, came home from a party. He had been drinking. Too much. He lost control of his Nissan pickup truck and slammed it into a tree. He was killed.
Dennis was in shock. Drunken driving deaths are always hard to take, but they seem to reverberate through small towns with a never-ending echo.
“Dennis still hasn’t really gotten over it,” said his younger brother Dale. Here in Atlanta, having climbed to the status of world champion, only the second American to achieve that in his sport, Dennis was dedicating his performance to his brother. This wasn’t for show. Wherever Dennis went, he talked to teens about drinking. He warned them to be careful because you can lose everything in one moment.
Just as you can win it.
“COME ON, DENNIS!” the Wisconsin section screamed now as his match was called. There were siblings, in-laws, friends, wrestling pals — the kind who tell stories about the old days in the basement, destroying the furniture — and, of course, his wife and unborn baby.
“From the United States,” the announcer bellowed, “the world champion at 125 1/2 pounds, Dennis Hall . . .”
He ran onto the mats, his head shaved, his goateed face in a near growl, his body taut and tightly muscled. And before you could blink, he and his opponent were locked onto each other, the NBC camera was back in Chrissy’s face, and small- town America was in the eye of the Olympic hurricane for a five-minute wrestling match . . . Some holds barred
“COME ON, DENNIS! DON’T GIVE HIM ANYTHING!” Chrissy yelled. She was on her feet, holding her belly from underneath. Dale stood behind her, snapping photos. Out on the mat, Dennis and his opponent, former world champion Yuri Melnichenko of Kazakhstan, were bent at the waist, clasping each others’ heads. Greco-Roman wrestling, one of the oldest sports in the Olympics, allows no holds below the waist, and no legs used in takedowns. Every grip counts.
“COME ON, DENNIS!” Chrissy yelled again. They had been living on meager funds, with no income besides what Dennis could win in his sport. He had no endorsement contracts. A shoe store gave him shoes. Not a shoe company — a shoe store. A gold medal could change their lives.
“USA! USA! US –“
Suddenly, Melnichenko had Hall in a lift, off the ground, swinging him wildly, and the whole story was in his hands. He slammed Hall to the ground and the referee signaled three points.
The cheering section went silent. They knew enough about wrestling to know this was a mountain to make up. Hall tried. He scored one point late and was digging his head into Melnichenko’s body, trying for a pin, when time ran out.
Melnichenko stood and raised his fists. The NBC cameraman took off. Hall got to his knees, then rose. And slowly, while the rest of the Wisconsin section stood stunned, Chrissy began to clap.
She clapped until the others joined in, and Dennis finally looked up. He came running into the stands and found his wife and hugged her, his sweaty torso pressing against their kicking baby. “I love you,” Chrissy said.
End of story. It wasn’t gold. But it sure was silver. And after the medals were given out, someone asked Dennis whether he would take his with him when he went to high schools to talk about his brother.
“Yeah,” he said, “because kids look up to people who do something good.”
Don’t we all?