The year is 1999. I am fourteen-years-old and watching Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle debut in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The man looks like the prototype for Captain America as he walks down the ramp in what will be his signature single decorated with the stars and stripes of the American flag. As I have watched Kurt jump between good guy and villain over the years, one thing remains constant; he never lets anyone forget that he won his Olympic medal “with a broken freaking neck.” I assumed he’s exaggerating as all professional wrestlers do, putting a hundred on ten. The year is now 2023, and I am thirty-eight-years old. I am watching Angle, the documentary about Kurt Angle’s life. I feel guilt as I see that not only was Kurt Angle not exaggerating about winning a gold medal with a broken neck, that’s not even the toughest part of his journey.
Angle takes us through the life of Kurt Angle from the very beginning. How he got into wrestling, his upbringing, the family he grew up with, and then his journey toward becoming not only a world champion wrestler but an Olympic gold medalist. We see Kurt Angle in a different light as he talks about his upbringing with his siblings, his closeness with his mother, his father being a stand-up man but also a high functioning alcoholic, the passing of his father, and then the drive that motivates him to rise through the ranks of amateur wrestling. It’s wild to go back and see this side of Kurt Angle, not only how he got into wrestling but his mentality that pushed him to want to become the very best at the sport.
“I didn’t come all this way just to say I came this far”
Watching this documentary, it feels as if we have a front row seat to the hero’s journey story structure of Kurt Angle’s life. The man competes at an entirely different level of wrestling, but then when he meets others on that level, he has to reinvent himself. We then see him under the tutelage of American Olympian and world champion David Schultz at the Foxcatcher facility. It is here where Kurt learns that his key to success is exhausting his opponent out. He then embarks on an absolutely spartan level exhaustion training regimen for two years. The regimen is so crazy that trainers have to watch him because he’ll over exhaust himself. As we see Kurt headed towards the Olympics, we see him having to deal with the murder of his mentor and friend David Schultz and then the injury to his neck.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes into the mentality of an Olympic athlete, Angle answers that question. The choices Kurt Angle makes in order to achieve his boyhood dream of becoming an Olympic gold medalist is as inspiring as it is frightening. Not only is Kurt’s neck injury serious, it’s life threatening. Knowing all that, Kurt Angle still said, “I hear you… but that Olympic gold medal tho.” Even when Kurt thought he couldn’t do it, his brother was there to tell him (much like his father did when he first got him into the sport), “Get up, you’re wrestling.” Angle makes you feel as if you’re seeing Kurt Angle going through the 12 labors of Hercules, except each labor is an opponent and obstacle he must overcome for his goal of Olympic gold.
“Damnit, I’ve been damaged but I can manage”
After completing his dream, Kurt Angle joins WWE as a professional wrestler. What I love about Kurt Angle and what his peers point out, is how he had no ego coming into pro wrestling. He was willing to not take himself too seriously, find his niche, then switch between being humorous and vicious. Kurt Angle can portray a goofy, naive, innocent goody two-shoes persona one minute or the most dangerous man in professional wrestling once he puts that mouth guard in. I always respected him due to his range and fearlessness to be the butt of the joke. I love pro wrestling because it tells a story of the illusion of hurt. Wrestlers go in and tell a physical story while at the same time protecting one another. Accidents happen, the pain is real that they feel but their job is to be illusionists with their physicality. Where wrestlers are careful with each other’s bodies, they’re all on their own when it comes to managing the pain of such a grueling sport and the toll it takes on your bod. A toll that can take people to dark spaces.
Kurt angle suffered a broken neck at the Olympics, but he would go through a series of neck fractures and breaks during his wrestling career. Watching the documentary, on the one hand, it’s so inspiring to see this man put everything into his craft. It’s also heartbreaking seeing how reliant Kurt becomes on painkillers in order to not only continue his profession but to just manage the day to day pain from putting his body on the line through the years. A while back, Jordan Calhoun was talking to me about the documentary Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off. The documentary focuses on Tony Hawk literally pushing himself in skateboarding past what his body can handle. As a documentary, Angle shows the aftermath of an athlete pushing themselves past their brink and how easily pain management with painkillers can turn into addiction.
Kurt talked about his sister’s addiction, reflected on his father’s alcoholism (only drinking when the kids were sleeping), and the pain he is constantly having to deal with due to his injuries. The Angle documentary offers a chance for Kurt Angle to reflect on his choice in self-medicating with pain killers. He doesn’t shy away from talking about the person he became while being dependent on pain killers, thinking he didn’t need help, and his wife snapping him back to reality.
As a documentary, Angle captures the tragedies, hurt, and loss Kurt Angle experienced in his journey to the Olympics and his career afterwards. Being able to see this Kurt alive and well to reflect on these periods of his life speaks wonders. Not many people can suffer a broken neck for Olympic gold, the loss of their friend and mentor, family members, and addiction. Seeing Kurt Angle still standing and being able to pull back the curtain, speak on these highs, lows, and tribulations that he went through is a testament to the hard work and never say die attitude the man has possessed all his life. We see Kurt Angle being strong enough to go the distance in his youth and risk it all, then years later in as a grizzled pro wrestling verteran, being strong enough to ask for and accept help to overcome his addiction.
The documentary serves not as a cautionary tale of the fall and rise of an Olympic hero but, in my opinion, the distance one goes for their dream and the issues that befall professional wrestlers as not only athletes but entertainers as well. Angle is a documentary where we see Kurt Angle pull an Andy Dufresne. Kurt crawled through a bunch of shit that life threw at him and came out the other side clean.
Angle is available to watch via Peacock streaming platform.