How Kurt Angle won an Olympic gold medal 'with a broken freakin' neck'

Kurt Angle relives Olympic dream (2:13)

Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle relives his story from the 1996 Olympic Games, where he won a gold medal in Freestyle Wrestling, despite a number of major injuries. (2:13)

LONDON -- Kurt Angle glanced for a brief moment at the picture staring back at him.

It was him, 15 years younger, hand on heart standing in front of the Stars and Stripes. Only a winged eagle perched on his shoulders would have made him look more patriotic.

The man in front of him had a lot more hair, was dressed in a stylish Team USA Olympic tracksuit and looked full of vigour.

Angle, the 2016 version, was shaved bald, decked out in sweatpants and a sweatshirt -- and he looked weary.

Having admired the front cover, he opened up my tattered copy of his 2001 autobiography, "It's True! It's True!," and signed: 'It's true. Kurt Angle, Gold 96.'

The pride in his achievement was obvious, and for good reason: he should not have even managed to get to the Olympic Games 20 years ago, let alone win a gold medal.

The highest high

For most professional wrestlers, few things can top performing in front of tens of thousands of people at Wrestlemania, the WWE's version of the Super Bowl.

But Kurt Angle is not like most professional wrestlers; he is not like most people, and for the past two decades he has been trying to recreate the high of winning Olympic gold at Atlanta 1996.

"It was the best moment of my life as far as my career is concerned," he told ESPN. "Nothing has ever matched it."

Then aged 27, Angle overcame a serious personal tragedy -- all with "a broken freakin' neck" as went his WWE catchphrase -- to claim amateur freestyle gold in the 220-pound weight class on home soil.

"I've always looked for things to get that feeling back, and never did," Angle said. "That's what makes me so hungry, and what has kept me in the game for so long. I know what it felt like, and I want to feel that again. I'll do whatever I can."

Angle even took a break from his professional wrestling career to train for the 2012 London Olympics. But, 16 years on from Atlanta, he could not defy medical science.

"Every two weeks something would go," he said. "I was 42, 43 -- to be able to try out at that point in your life ... you're past your prime, you're still young, you know you can still go, but it's just little things.

"I tore my hamstring, then I tore my groin, then my shoulder went, then the knee went. It was just a lot of nagging injuries, not real serious, but enough to pull me out of it.

"I just couldn't do it. I tried. The thing is, I wanted to get that feeling back that I had in '96. I wanted to do it again in 2012. But it was just a little bit too late, a little bit too long."

Angle has always been a gifted athlete. A top American collegiate wrestler at Clarion State in Pennsylvania, he won NCAA titles in 1990 and 1992 and went on to become world champion in 1995.

Two years after winning Olympic gold, Angle made the transition to the then-World Wrestling Federation, something which was considered taboo in amateur circles at the time due to professional wrestling 'stealing the spotlight.'

He became one of WWE's most popular stars, and is still yet to hang up his singlet and boots having departed the company in 2006 for fellow American promotion TNA Impact Wrestling.

"I don't think I can just sit back and retire. I'm the kind of person that has to be doing something, has to be working towards accomplishments," he said.

"That Olympic gold made me who I am. I worked very hard to get that, and that's how my life is. I have an incredible work ethic. And I'll continue to do that, and we'll see where it goes."

This probably explains why Angle, now just three years off 50, was walking gingerly into a backstage room at London's Wembley Arena for our interview.

He was in town for the second leg of TNA's 'Kurt Angle Farewell Tour' earlier this year, as he prepared to finish his near 10-year stint with the company.

The work ethic that has kept him in the game this long he credits to his late father, David, who, Angle said, never missed a day's work and often completed 12-hour days on his construction job.

But, when Kurt was just 16, David Angle tragically fell 15 feet from his crane onto his head on a building site in downtown Pittsburgh, cracking his skull in three different places and breaking both of his shoulders.

He came to after a few minutes and walked himself to a hospital, Angle said in his autobiography, but three hours later was in a coma, and his family were told he was not coming out of it. They made the agonising decision to turn off his life support two days later on Aug. 31, 1985. David was only 55.

"If I had to point to one crucial turning point in my life that was it," Angle wrote in his autobiography. "I grew up and overcame my fears the day he died. I vowed right then and there to become a champion, to do whatever it took."

Young and dumb

Six months out from Atlanta 1996, Kurt Angle suffered a setback that would have ruled most people out of the Games. But Angle's drive and determination is of a different order.

"There were a lot of moments where I didn't think I was gonna wrestle in the Olympics," he recalled. "For one, I couldn't get a doctor to clear me. My neck was broken -- I had three discs sticking directly in my spinal cord."

Competing in the semifinals of the national trials, Angle came down hard on the mat on his head. The results were two bulged and herniated disks, two cracked vertebrae and four pulled muscles in his neck.

To add insult to injury, Angle then landed on his back to go 3-0 down with just a minute left. But not only did he continue the match, he somehow turned it around to win 4-3, despite every movement causing him excruciating pain.

He was told by a doctor he may have done permanent damage to his neck, but he still managed to edge a closely fought 0-0 final by the judges' decision after five minutes of regulation and three minutes of overtime.

The victory made him national champion and sent him straight to the final of the Olympic trials, where his rivals would compete in a mini-tournament for the right to face him for a spot in Atlanta.

Angle went for an MRI scan the next day and was told he had to rest and heal for six months. With the Olympic trials just two and a half months away, he cried his eyes out in the doctor's office.

"There were a lot of things that were going on. No doctor would clear me -- that was the most important thing, getting cleared," he said.

"Back then I was young and dumb, 26 years old, I didn't care about my health. I just wanted to get back into the game."

He was able to do some weight lifting and running. Despite crippling pain when he tried wrestling, he refused to give up on his quest to become an Olympic champion.

"Fortunately, I found a doctor either smart enough or stupid enough to allow me to wrestle," Angle said.

"He came up with a great concept that basically said, 'You can't train any more, and when you do try out for the Olympics, and at the Games if you make it, we'll shoot you in the neck with a bunch of novocaine so you can't feel the pain'.

"That's how I got through it. I could tell you an hour after each of my matches I was in excruciating pain, but in the long run it was worth it."

There were serious potential side effects of using the drug, and danger of grave injury -- "I was risking paralysis," he said.

But the plan worked and Angle won his best-of-three series in the final of the Olympic trials, needing only two matches to secure his place in Atlanta.

In cold blood

If a broken neck wasn't enough of a setback on his way to the Games, Angle also had to deal with the tragic death of his wrestling coach Dave Schultz.

Himself an Olympic champion, Schultz was murdered by the crazed millionaire John du Pont, events which would come to be depicted in the 2014 Academy Award-nominated film "Foxcatcher," as well as the 2016 Netflix documentary "Team Foxcatcher."

Du Pont built the state-of-the-art Foxcatcher Wrestling Club on his own Pennsylvania estate where Angle trained with around 40 other Olympic hopefuls.

They were all funded by du Pont, so they turned a blind eye to his increasingly more frequent bizarre antics, which included him twice driving his car into a pond.

With drinking and drug problems spiralling out of control, du Pont started carrying a gun with him everywhere, paranoid that everyone was out to 'get him.'

Schultz lived with his family on the farm and was outside working on his car radio when du Pont pulled up and shot him three times on January 25, 1996. He died in the arms of his wife Nancy.

Du Pont was found to be mentally ill but still convicted of murder. He was found dead in his prison cell at the age of 72 in December 2010.

"It was hard," Angle told ESPN. "Dave was my coach, my mentor. I trained with him quite a bit."

Angle had spent as much time with Schultz at Foxcatcher as he could, and it was the little things he learned that would help him win a gold medal.

"I trained with Dave for eight years, so I just did what he always told me to do," Angle said.

"He would tell you all his secrets, tell you the proper way of training. He didn't keep anything to himself.

"He taught people, spread the wealth. Eventually you would learn how to train yourself, and that's what I did."

Some of the guys stayed on at Foxcatcher because they had nowhere else to go for funding. But Angle quit out of respect for his mentor.

Nancy Schultz was so thankful for his gesture that she made Angle a member of the Dave Schultz Wrestling Club, formed immediately after her husband's death.

The club, which received plenty of donations from U.S. corporations, paid Angle's way and allowed him to continue chasing his dream.

Your Olympic hero

Following the Olympic trials, Angle took six weeks off to let the cracks in his neck heal, but he was still feeling pain and stiffness by the time he reached Atlanta.

Angle was also at a height and weight disadvantage to most of his opponents in his 220-pound weight class. He recalled in his book seeing a couple of Russian wrestlers smile with relish when he stepped off the scales at just 211 pounds.

To underline his underdog status, Angle entered the 7000-seat Georgia World Congress Center to the theme from "Rocky" for each of his five matches over the two days, and the working-class kid from Pittsburgh was the obvious crowd favourite.

On his first day, Angle beat Mongolian Dolgorsuren Sumiyabazar and then 6-foot-8 Cuban Wilfredo Morales Suarez, before coming back from 3-0 down against Russian Sagid Murtazaliyev to win 4-3 right when time ran out.

The semifinal was comparatively easy for Angle, who swept aside Ukrainian Konstantin Aleksandrov, fighting for Kyrgyzstan, 4-1. The final, against the tall and rangy Iranian Abbas Jadidi, was anything but straightforward.

A tight match ended 1-1 after overtime, and Jadidi barged his way into the judging area as the officials debated to whom to award the gold medal. There the Iranian saw his name circled on one of the officials' pieces of paper. He began jumping around cheering and Angle's heart sank.

All he could think of was having to put himself through another four years of torture to reach the next Olympics in Sydney; having to again train morning, afternoon and night, running 200-yard hill sprints with a training partner on his back, pushing himself to the brink of passing out.

The referee walked them back to the centre circle and Jadidi's arm shot up. Angle felt sick, but the referee had not raised it, and the American claimed the gold.

"The reason I won is that I did take him down at the end of overtime and two of the officials didn't give me the point yet. The head official did," Angle said.

"When they had the meeting they realised 'we didn't award him [Angle] the point even though he got it, so we should probably give it to this guy'.

"You can't just go in double overtime tied and beat the world champion. I had some favourability from being the world champion the year before."

Angle had won the Olympic gold medal, and he was understandably emotional. He thought of his father and Schultz, sure they were watching from somewhere. He looked for his mother in the stands. He saw her crying and cried too.

"I was really proud. I had the broken neck, and I was a little bit limited," said Angle. "I think back on how well I would have done if I didn't have the injury.

"But at the same time, the injury set me on another mind frame where I didn't make mistakes. I was a very aggressive wrestler, and I could've done worse if I was healthy. So I was a little more cautious, and I think that helped me out."

Angle was inundated with questions at his postmatch media conference. The murder of Schultz had brought wrestling more national coverage at the Olympics than it usually received.

But when Angle saw Nancy Schultz in the crowd, he had to pause proceedings.

"Nancy, I just want you to know Dave had the greatest impact in the world on me," he said at the time, according to his autobiography. "That one was for Dave, too.

"I want to thank you for everything you did for me, and I especially want to thank your husband for helping me win the gold medal."

With the news conference over, Angle hung his gold medal around his mother's neck -- but had to ask for it back the next day to wear to television appearances.

He went out with his old high school friends and got drunk -- something he seldom did at the time -- and probably felt a little worse for wear when he appeared on "The Today Show" live from Atlanta the next morning.

Angle's face was pictured on the front of USA Today and he managed just an hour's sleep in four days, in a limousine on the way to a standing ovation from 60,000 people at the Pittsburgh Steelers' game against the St. Louis Rams.

Finally came a meeting with President Clinton at the White House. A week after he had won gold, he suddenly thought, 'What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?'

Wrestling with demons

Aside from his broken neck, Kurt Angle has suffered nerve damage to his face, undergone multiple knee surgeries, torn muscles, dislocated shoulders, ripped ankle ligaments and had bone chips removed from his spine.

He had neck surgery in 2003 while wrestling for the WWE, opting for a reconstructive procedure instead of fusing the neck, which could have ended his career, cutting the rehab time from one year to three months.

Angle's second wife, Giovanna, even had to rush him to hospital for emergency surgery last July to remove fluid buildup on his spinal cord after he lost feeling in his extremities. The incident came a week after an operation to remove a benign tumour from his neck.

But he said: "I'm healthy, I don't have any problems. You're gonna have injuries in wrestling. Everybody does.

"A lot of people feel I'm banged up. I had some bad luck with my neck for a couple of years in WWE. Ever since I've been pretty healthy as far as my neck [is concerned].

"Obviously I've had knee injuries, shoulder injuries -- we all do. It's just a matter of the recovery time and when you can come back, and I've been very fortunate to come back soon."

Angle has always found athletic competition cathartic, which explains why he continues to put his body to the test.

Surrounded by death at pivotal moments in his life, he has drawn strength from personal tragedy. But, by blocking out the pain, Angle admitted he never dealt with it in the right way.

He "played the game of my life" for his high school varsity football team the day after his father died; a week after the death of his grandmother, with whom he was very close, Angle won his first NCAA amateur wrestling title.

The day after his sister died of a heroin overdose in 2003, Angle wrestled "one of the best matches of my career", a 60-minute iron-man match against Brock Lesnar for the WWE Championship.

Last month, Kurt's brother David pleaded guilty to killing his own wife, Donna Angle, at their Pennsylvania home in September 2015. Kurt had wiped tears from his eyes in Pittsburgh City Court a month after the tragic domestic dispute. He waved to his brother when he walked in, before hugging the family of his late sister-in-law.

He has had his own demons, too, struggling with substance abuse, the road to his addiction starting on the way to that Atlanta 1996 Olympic triumph with those novacaine injections for his broken neck.

His neck problems while working for WWE led to a painkiller addiction which spiralled out of control and brought further issues with morphine, Xanax and alcohol. He could not recreate that Olympic high, so he chased another.

Finally, Angle checked himself into rehab after a DWI arrest in Texas in 2013. It was his fourth alcohol-related arrest in six years. But he has now been sober for over three years and it has prolonged his career, maybe even his life.

For now, Angle is taking an extended break from professional wrestling, while keeping himself in ring shape with sporadic appearances on the independent circuit.

"Wrestling has treated me very well," Angle said. "I had a great time in WWE, I had a great time in TNA. I'm very proud of my accomplishments, but I'm at a point in my life where, right now, family is more important, and it's time for me to spend more time with them.

"So we'll see how it goes, and I'll go from there. I'm not gonna say I'm gonna retire. I just wanna get a feeler this year and see what I wanna do and see where I wanna go."

A six-time WWE champion, he will surely be inducted into the company's Hall of Fame one day. But you suspect he wants a swan song in that ring before the day comes.

He is certainly in a race against time. "I feel it now, I feel it now," Angle acknowledged of his decades spent throwing himself and others around wrestling rings and mats. "But I don't regret anything I've done, in amateur wrestling or pro wrestling.

"I'm 47 years old and I have my pains and aches just like anybody else, but the thing is, I can still go in that ring. I'm as good as anybody if not better. Even at 47, I'm at the top of my game, so the only thing I need is a little bit more time to recuperate. Other than that I can put on the five-star matches.

"So I'm not really concerned about my performance, I'm more concerned about how I'm gonna feel for the next 30, 40 years."

His body may have paid a price, but Angle does not care. In a post on his official blog earlier this week, he wrote: "Twenty years later, July 31, 1996 is still fresh in my mind and will stick with me for eternity.

"That moment is who I am and what I stand for."