In recovery from an addiction to pain medication and alcohol since 2013, Kurt Angle is in a good place today. He is married with five children. He was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame this month and has rejoined the company as an on-screen performer for the first time in more than a decade. And he has worked to launch a mobile app, AngleStrong, designed to help others in recovery find structure after they leave treatment.
Four years ago, however, such a feel-good story seemed unlikely at best. The relentless spirit that had driven him to the highest of highs nearly destroyed him in the process.
In 1996, Angle stood atop a podium at the Olympic Games to receive a gold medal for winning the heavyweight division of freestyle wrestling. A little more than a decade later, he was chasing a day’s worth of extended-release morphine and Xanax with a 12-pack of beer each night to ease the pain of a host of injuries, including vertebrae in his neck that had been broken multiple times in the intervening years.
“I not only almost ruined my career, I ruined my reputation,” Angle says. “I almost ruined my marriage and my relationship with my kids.
“It got darker.”
Angle’s meteoric rise almost never got off the ground. In the preliminary rounds of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996, Angle landed on his forehead while being taken down by his opponent. He heard a cracking sound in his neck, but didn’t know the extent of the injury. He continued wrestling. Eventually, Angle was diagnosed with four broken vertebrae and three discs sticking into his spinal cord. Still, he continued competing after receiving a healing agent in his neck. To get through later rounds of the trials, he was given 12 shots of Novocain to numb the injured area five minutes before each match.
“I wasn’t worried about long-term damage because this might be my only shot at the Olympics. I felt like this was it and I had to do it,” Angle says. “I didn’t want to give up on my dream, and there was no guarantee over the next four years that I would make the next Olympics. There could have been another Kurt Angle coming along that would’ve beaten Kurt Angle. This was my time, and I had to do something about it.”
He did, winning gold in Atlanta. Three years later, he rode his stardom as an Olympic hero to the world of professional wrestling with WWE. Within a year of his debut in the squared circle, he won WWE’s highest championship, entrenching himself as a main event talent for the rest of his run. It was a journey filled with nearly as many injuries as classic matches. Slotted for the top match on the top show of the year, WrestleMania, in March 2003, Angle broke two of the same vertebrae that were cracked in 1996, and discs in his neck had shifted again, pinching a nerve and causing him to lose feeling in his arms.
Not wanting to give up his headlining match, Angle agreed to a procedure in which the discs were clipped, relieving the pressure on his spinal cord and allowing him to regain strength in his arms in time for WrestleMania.
“WWE has a great wellness policy now. You have to pass physicals through WWE doctors, not your own,” Angle says. “But back then, I was convincing my doctor to get me back as soon as possible. As long as you were cleared by a doctor in 2003, WWE was OK with it. Now, they have their own doctors you have to go through. I rushed back in there long before I should have. That was my own fault, talking my doctor into clearing me.”
Making matters worse, Angle suffered the same injury again in November 2003, requiring the same procedure, and then a third time in March 2004. Surgery was no longer an option, and Angle finally was forced out of the ring for six months.
Wrestling with addiction
During this period, two key points in Angle’s story unfolded.
First, his sister, Le’Anne, died of a heroin overdose in 2003. She had been in recovery for two months when she relapsed, Angle says.
Losing his sister was “probably the toughest thing I went through,” Angle says, although it was not the first time—nor the last time—substance use disorder ravaged his family: