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

September 23, 2016, 3:11 PM

— -- 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.