HAVANA -- Chris Campbell remembers the moment he heard that the United States was going to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He was in Tbilisi in the Soviet Union, preparing for a freestyle wrestling meet when suddenly there was a news flash that worked its way through the team, leaving everyone drained and furious.
An incomprehensible message had come out of Jimmy Carter's White House: Soviet tanks had invaded Afghanistan, so the United States was pulling its athletes from the Moscow Games.
"I thought, 'No way,' " Campbell said. "It was very disheartening, frustrating. It made me angry. I felt like I was sold and back-stabbed by the president."
Carter is retired, but Campbell is back. They call him "Grandpa" now. He is a 36-year-old attorney with a wife, three children and a house in Fayetteville, N.Y. And he's at the Pan American Games, prepared to tumble and sweat and push his way one step closer to his first appearance at an Olympics.
"Chris is the George Foreman of wrestling," said U.S. coach Bobby Douglas. "It's a real inspiration, because it's a real success story. Chris' accomplishments are astonishing. There may never be another person like him in this sport again."
In an age filled with creaky athletic comebacks that are nothing more than exercises in egomania and economics, Carter is pulling the day shift in court and the night shift in the gym. He is a 5-foot-8, 198-pound combination of reason and rage who is returning successfully to the sport after a five-year layoff.
The man who looks like a piano mover is a piano player who relaxes with yoga and bulks up on a vegetarian diet. He deals in torts and takedowns, flexing his mind on the job at Carrier Corp. and his muscles on the mat as a reigning U.S. national champion. Asked the difference between law and wrestling, he smiled and provided a one-word answer.
"Violence," he said.
Would you please elaborate?
"The nature of man is violence," he said. "You really have to take care of all your sides if you can do it in a controlled way. Wrestling is better than shooting animals, and I don't believe in war."
There is no mystery surrounding Campbell's comeback. He wants tomake his first Olympic appearance and win a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
"I have something left to do," he said. "I feel unfulfilled."
His career has been a series of near-misses. After the 1980 boycott, he went straight into the gym, became a 1981 world champion and trained three years for the 1984 Los Angeles Games. But a week before the U.S. trials, he ripped a right knee ligament and missed the Olympics.
Burned out physically, inquisitive mentally and holding a degree from the University of Iowa, Campbell enrolled in law school at Cornell. He couldn't train during the first-year grind, but got back into shape in 1986, working with the Cornell wrestling team.
After graduating from Cornell, he got a job with Carrier and practiced with the Syracuse team. He felt great physically and decided to stage a full-fledged comeback in 1989.
"A lot of people in wrestling said I was too old to do it," he said.
But Campbell was prepared to be patient. He said other old-time athletes who return to their sport quickly get discouraged because they fail to accept inevitable setbacks. The Baltimore Orioles' Jim Palmer couldn't stand the sight of his pitches flying over fences. Mark Spitz is swimming fast times, but times have changed.
"When I started to come back in 1989, I had already been training," Campbell said. "I'd go out at lunch with my boss and run 400 intervals. My body didn't deteriorate. I started in 1989 for 1992. At first, I was getting beat. But I was having a blast."
The comeback took off in 1990, when he won a world silver medal. He set himself up for Barcelona by winning the 1991 U.S. title and earning an automatic berth in the Olympic trials final.
What should be the happiest time in his life, however, is tinged with sorrow. Five months ago, his mother, Marjorie Lee, 59, died of cancer. Campbell's grandmother, Odell Campbell, 82, died of a burst artery July 30.
"I'm on an emotional roller coaster right now," he said.
But Campbell said he won't be deterred. He has waited too long and worked too hard to fulfill his career.
"I didn't watch the Olympics in 1988," he said. "It is bitter to watch that stuff if you know you could be there. The only way I'm going to watch the Olympics is if I'm there. And I'm going to be there."