Randy Lewis still believes he’s the toughest kid on the block.
The challenges have changed over the years for the hometown kid who earned Olympic wrestling gold in Los Angeles in 1984, but that doesn’t mean the intensity still isn’t there to overcome whatever takedown move life throws at him.
Lewis throws it right back.
“The overall scheme of things, the gold medal, it’s very nice to have," Lewis said from his home in Rapid City. "I’m very proud of it. ... People recognize that, but life goes on with or without it."
His triumphs on the mat are legion: Three South Dakota state high school wrestling titles, including 45 straight pins; and four All- American honors and two NCAA championships at Iowa, where he was mentored by 1972 Olympic champion Dan Gable.
He won the gold in freestyle wrestling at 136.5 pounds in Los Angeles, manhandling his first four opponents 52-4. He then overpowered Kosei Akaishi of Japan 24-11 in the finals.
Lewis had also qualified for the 1980 Olympic team, but the U.S. boycott of the Moscow games ordered by President Jimmy Carter prevented him from competing.
Lewis was also a threat at the 1988 Olympic trials, losing to eventual gold medalist John Smith, and he won a Pan American Games championship in 1990.
Lewis’ determination to be the toughest on the block started as a youngster at Meadowbrook Elementary when a teacher, Jim Brandt, encouraged him to set his sights on a list of school athletic records.
Lewis chose the mark for pull-ups -- 18 -- and eventually set the new standard of 20. He would use those numbers to gauge opponents on the wrestling mat.
“I’d ask every kid before I wrestled how many pull-ups they could do. None of them could do 18, so I thought I would win because I could do more pull-ups," Lewis said. "That gave me mental strength to think that I was stronger than those guys."
As a collegian, Lewis was at one time 0-5 against the Russians, but he would again use the tough-kid mindset when the USA and Soviet Union squared off in a dual at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center on April 2, 1980.
Before more than 7,000 spectators, Lewis pinned two-time world champion Viktor Alexeev to spark Team USA to its first dual win over the Soviets.
Lewis knew he had to think of Alexeev as just another guy from his hometown.
“I had to bring it back to Rapid City, South Dakota. I was 50-0, with 48 pins here. This wasn’t to see who the world champion was," Lewis said. "This was to see who the toughest kid on the block was.”
Lewis considers the win over Alexeev a bigger highlight than his NCAA championships. The gold medal match against Akaishi remains the highest scoring final in Olympic history.
“I’m glad that during the Olympic finals I had a wild match, 24-11. I’d be embarrassed to have a 1-0 match in the Olympic finals," Lewis said. "It was fun to make big moves, go to my back three times and still tech-fall the guy."
Lewis retired from competition in 1992 and coached at a junior college in Phoenix and later with the Hawkeyes. He continued to dabble in amateur tournaments but found the physical strains were taking their toll.
“Over the years, I would go six months and not work out at all. I’d go into the room and wrestle a national champion and beat him for 10-15 minutes," Lewis said, "but my body would be so sore.”
Days before his 50th birthday in 2009, Lewis decided to take to the mat just once more, for the fun of it.
“Guys were still trying to talk me into doing it and I said, 'I can’t train,'" Lewis said. "They said, 'Don’t train. Just show up.'
"They got a few beers in me and talked me into it. I declared it online and had to go through with it.”
At the Northern Plains Regional tournament in Waterloo, Iowa, Lewis won his first two matches before falling to Moza Fay, a University of Northern Iowa All-American who was half Lewis’ age.
“It wasn’t like I made a comeback and was trying to make a world team or an Olympic team. It was just one day," he said. "I was going to get on the mat and have some fun and see if I could throw some people."
Lewis avidly follows high school and college wrestling. He hasn’t missed an NCAA tournament in 36 years, and in February he attended the state Class B tournament in Rapid City and watched Harding County’s Ryne Baier, the son of former Stevens teammate Kirby Baier, win the 195-pound state title.
“Wrestling is still a big part of my life,” he said.
Lewis isn’t a kid anymore. He celebrated not only his 53rd birthday on June 7, but also a return to health. He suffered a stroke in December, soon after his return to Rapid City to purchase Anytime Fitness.
“I lost a lot of my strength in my left arm and left leg. I’m glad to have the gym to work out. I lost 10 pounds and gained back a lot of the strength in my arms and shoulders,” he said. “I feel good, and I just want to stay in good shape and be healthy and have a good life."
Then as now, Lewis wasn’t always the toughest kid.
But he believed he was, and that has made the difference.
“I always gave myself a reason to believe I could win,” he said.