March 14, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. - When Bret Baumbach was 5, he wanted to wrestle. Not surprising, considering he grew up Iowa City, a wrestling mecca. Bret, who was in kindergarten, saw an ad in a newspaper for wrestling tryouts at the local high school and convinced his father Les to make a call.
There was only one problem: the minimum age was 6.
Les called anyway. When the coach balked, Les leaned on his banker smarts and called his bluff. He thanked him for his time and said he would take his son to the rival high school across town.
“Oh, we don’t want that to happen,” said the coach.
You can probably guess the rest. The coach relented, Baumbach became a star and competed in three state wrestling finals, winning his weight class as a senior.
He’s now a junior on the Stanford wrestling team, and recently won the 165-pound weight class at the Pac-12 Championships, becoming only the 15th conference champion in school history. He’ll join teammates Evan Silver at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, next Thursday through Sunday.
Baumbach, who is unseeded, is no stranger to The Iowa Events Center. Les started taking him to University of Iowa meets and NCAA Championships when he was 5, and he competed there in state meets.
“I know the arena like the back of my hand,” Baumbach said. “That’s going to give me a leg-up, mentally.”
Stanford coach Jason Borrelli agrees. Admittedly, Baumbach isn’t the most talented wrestler in his division, but makes up for it in other ways.
“He has the best work ethic of any wrestler I’ve ever coached,” Borrelli said. “He’s a very confident kid and deals with anxiety extremely well. And he cares about wrestling. It’s something that he is passionate about and wants to excel in. It’s easy for me to believe in him.”
Les and his wife Cindy still can’t believe how far wrestling has taken their son. In his first match as a 5-year-old, Baumbaugh was pinned in four seconds by a second-grader.
“Oh my God, there goes his wrestling career,” said Les.
When he found his son sitting alone, Les figured it was time to leave. On the contrary.
“He said, ‘That was great!’ ’’Les recalled. “He was ready to go and just wanted back on the mat. He won his next two matches.”
Wrestling at Lewis Central High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Baumbach was a four-time district champion and compiled a 189-20 record with 104 pins. He was one of Borrelli’s first recruits, although the process was hardly smooth.
Baumbach was all set to sign with Nebraska, where his family and friends could make a short drive and watch him compete. He also had interest from the Air Force Academy.
Then Borrelli invited him for an official visit. Jimmy Waters, an older friend and mentor who won three state wrestling titles and played baseball at Kansas, told Baumbach, “Wrestling will open doors to schools like Stanford. You really should just take a trip out there.”
So he did. Borrelli picked him up at the airport.
“Once we went down Palm Drive, I went like, ‘Wow,’ ’’ said Baumbach. “That pretty much sold it right then.”
Baumbach hit it off with the new coaches, who were trying to build the program into a national contender. Baumbach was sold and told to get his neglected application finished immediately.
“It was shoved under his bed somewhere,” said Borrelli.
Baumbach filled it out in three days. The following Friday, he was competing in a national meet and received a call from Borrelli, who told him he had been accepted. An ecstatic Baumbach couldn’t wait to call his parents, but had to leave a message on their answering machine.
“Oh crap!” said Cindy, when she finally heard it.
Not exactly the response Baumbach expected.
“Nebraska is like 45 minutes from home and she really wanted me to stay close to home and wanted to see me all the time,” said Baumbach, who has an older step-brother and two younger sisters. “They got over it. It took me all wrestling season to convince them.”
Not before Borrelli made a home visit to convince a tearful Les and Cindy that there son was in good hands.
"Blood, sweat and tears five days a week. Then literally right after practice, you'll be jogging and everyone is back to being best friends. You'll never, ever find camaraderie like that."
“It shows the power of getting a kid on campus and what the Stanford environment and community can do once we get these Midwest and East Coast kids to actually come out and visit, because it sells itself once you’re here,” Borrelli said.
In hindsight, Les said it was the best thing that ever happened to his son. Baumbach is majoring in political science, thriving in school, is interested in working for the Department of Defense, is taking finance classes, and already has a summer internship lined up with a wealth management firm.
“It worked out great,” Les said. “We’re exceedingly proud of him. I work Stanford into almost every conversation I have. I wear Stanford Cardinal red every casual Friday.”
Baumbach struggled at 141 pounds as a true freshman, posting a 10-22 overall record. Borrelli questioned whether he could compete at such a high level and redshirted the following year.
Last year, Baumbach went 11-10 at 165 pounds and finished second in the Pac-12 Championships. Wrestling at the same weight, he is 22-10 this year and has found his stride. The runner-up medal from 2012 still hangs in his locker for motivation. Now that Baumbach has cleared one hurdle, he sees no reason why he can’t do the same at the NCAA Championships.
“You always have to take it one match at a time,” said Baumbach. “That’s the way we tackled the Pac-12s. I’m going to focus on my first match, but I’ve trained to be a national champion. I’m definitely going in with the mindset I’m going to win it all.”
“I would label him as a darkhorse,” Borrelli said of his chances next week. “He has two of the top wrestlers in the country in his division. Few people across the country would consider him in the mix of the top eight, which would make him an All-American. But knowing the effort he puts in and the sacrifices he makes, how powerful his mind is and the way he believes and carries himself, he’s far more than capable of being an All-American.”
Baumbach is sporting a long scar above and below his right eye, courtesy of an opponent’s knee brace in a recent match. The gash required seven stitches. Earlier this season, he suffered a broken nose.
“Blood, sweat and tears five days a week,” he smiled, the mantra of most wrestlers. “Then literally right after practice, you’ll be jogging and everyone is back to being best friends. You’ll never, ever find camaraderie like that.” Win or lose, Baumbach is looking forward to the off-season, when he can indulge in his favorite food.
“I have a big sweet tooth,” he said. “Ice cream is one of my favorite things in the world. In the summer, we don’t have to eat so robotic, so every night we’ll get done with practice and dinner and get some ice cream. I love Mint Chocolate Chip or Milk & Cookies from Ben & Jerry’s.”
By then, Baumbach should know the fate of wrestling in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Last month, the International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate wrestling as one of its 25 core sports.
“We have kids on our team and I have a few friends who were in it last year that are going to try again,” said Baumbach, who like most in the tight-knit world wrestling community were stunned by the announcement. “It’s not official yet.
There’s still a chance it could be reversed at the end of the summer.”
It could be the greatest reversal in wrestling history.
-- By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the golf beat writer for the Examiner, as well as national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, and contributing editor to Golf Digest. He has been the editor of tigerwoods.com since 1997.