John du Pont builds top amateur wrestling club in United States

July 28, 1991|By Tim Panaccio | Tim Panaccio,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- In the du Pont family, hobbies soon became passions. Mother collected Welsh ponies. Father collected fine thoroughbreds. And young John Eleuthere du Pont collected seashells and birds.

Understand, we are not talking about a few snail shells or a couple of sparrows. By high school, du Pont's shell and ornithology collections had grown so big, he decided he needed a museum to display everything. So, in 1969, he built one -- the Delaware Museum of Natural History, in Wilmington, Del.

"I had a big collection [of birds]; I studied them on the farm and all over the world," said du Pont. "Actually, I probably had the world's largest seashell collection, too. But I collected birds from everywhere."

John du Pont is 53 now, an heir to one of the world's largest chemical companies. He has put aside birds and seashells.

But he hasn't stopped collecting.

These days, he is trying to assemble the world's finest collection of amateur wrestlers. And he's having so much success, some experts in the sport think that in just two years, du Pont's %J collection of athletes has started to look far more like a wrestling empire.

On the grounds of the 800-acre du Pont estate, he has built the fanciest wrestling compound this side of Leningrad. The Foxcatcher National Training Center in Philadelphia's Newtown

Square covers 14,000 square feet and was built at a cost of $600,000.

About 86 wrestlers use the compound regularly, some of them drawing as much as $1,000 per month from du Pont. A select few live year-round on the estate.

The Foxcatcher lifestyle and the generosity of its benefactor have made it easy for du Pont to conduct recruiting raids on other clubs. In two years, he has netted Team Foxcatcher 19 top, Olympic-caliber wrestlers. (One, Rob Calabrese, is also a coach.) Du Pont plans, by 1996, to fill all the berths on the U.S. Olympic team with his own wrestlers. Some wrestling experts say he may pull it off.

Some are not pleased by du Pont's aggressive approach to a sport that was once clubby and regionalized, with recruiting done on a modest scale.

The once vaunted New York Athletic Club has lost nine wrestlers to du Pont. NYAC wrestling chairman Sonny Greenhalgh says du Pont has ruined the NYAC.

"I hate the way John du Pont deals behind my back," Greenhalgh said. "We'd be better off without him. He's turning these guys into professionals."

Du Pont counters that his club is doing only what Greenhalgh and others have been doing for years. They simply did it on a smaller level.

"Sonny is upset because I turned the game around on them," du Pont said. "I remember a time standing near the [weigh-in] scales and watching NYAC recruit people as they stepped up to be weighed."

If some members of the tradition-bound wrestling fraternity dislike his methods, du Pont thinks he can live with that.

A sixth-generation du Pont, he sees himself as the outcast of the family. His parents separated when he was 3. John lived with his mother, Jean Austin du Pont, in Newtown Square. Two older sisters and one older brother were already married and on their own before du Pont enrolled in school. He says he was close only to his mother.

Du Pont says his family was not enthusiastic that his sport of preference was wrestling over, say, cricket. In college, du Pont concentrated solely on swimming.

"Wrestling was thought to be the sport of ruffians," said du Pont, who now wrestles in masters competitions. "Someone of society, like John du Pont, should not wrestle. It wasn't a country-club sport."

The more people said wrestling wasn't proper, the more du Pont wanted to prove otherwise.

"Wrestling has always been my first love," du Pont said.

That and being someone else's benefactor. Du Pont has paid for the education of more than 100 college graduates.

"It gives me a great deal of pleasure to pass something on to kids," said du Pont, who receives Father's Day cards from his athletes even though he has no children. "It's hard to put into words what it means to me to see a kid you've known all your life, have helped him at Foxcatcher, and then watch him become a champion."

Du Pont and wrestling have sometimes been a tumultuous mix.

His first wide-scale involvement with the sport came at Villanova University, where he founded a wrestling program in 1986, funding the entire enterprise on his own. He paid for the scholarships, the coaching staff and many of the expenses while paying himself a one dollar per year salary as head coach. There was only one problem: What John du Pont funded, he wanted to run.

After a series of disputes between du Pont and his coaches, and du Pont and the school, Villanova decided it had enough. The program was summarily dropped after only two years.

Still, du Pont was determined to have his wrestling kingdom.

Two summers ago, the Foxcatcher National Training Center was RTC designated an official Olympic training site for wrestling.

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