Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wrestling, Murder and an icon in Iowa

At the age of 15,  enduring the pain of your 19-year old sister's murder has to be heart wrenching. Yet few people know that Olympic wrestling gold medalist Dan Gable -- who also coached the University of Iowa's wrestling team to 16 NCAA Division 1 national titles -- sees that experience as a defining moment in his careers as a competitor and coach.

My wife Angie and I were in Iowa last week to meet Dan Gable. We'd taken advantage of an "ultimate Dan Gable experience" auctioned on Ebay -- a gift for my birthday and Christmas. As a competitive amateur wrestler (yes, even in masters/veterans divisions as recently as last year), I'd always wanted to meet the man who is an icon in the sport of wrestling. When he won his gold medal in Munich in 1972,  he was undefeated in the tournament -- and no one scored a single point against him in all of his matches.  I remember watching the olympics that year as an 11-year old kid and thinking "I want to win like that, too." So maybe Dan Gable's winning tribute to his sister was paid-forward to guy who took that competitive spirit and applied it to his own life and career. I suspect I'm not alone there.

Back to our trip . . .Angie likely envisioned a romantic get-away for two with palm trees and white sands. This would be -- uh -- a different kind of weekend trip. We caught a flight from New York to Cedar Rapids, via Chicago O'Hare, and arrived to a balmy -8 degrees F. And yes, that was the air temperature, not the wind chill. We spent a few minutes with Iowa and NCAA champ Mark Ironside at his sports apparel store in Cedar Rapids, then hopped in the car for a ride to just outside Iowa City, where Coach Gable lives.

We spent an hour and half walking through Dan's home and listening to his stories. He was engaging and talkative -- even pensive at times. I can't possibly chronicle everything we learned, but here are a few highlights:

  • The murder of his 19 year-old sister was a painful motivator for him to excel in his sport, as he felt his wrestling would keep his mother and father connected and focused on something positive in what remained of their family. "A little while before she was killed ---we knew the guy who did it -- he made some comments to me about her. I thought it was 'guy talk,' but it really wasn't in hind sight," he said. When her murderer died in prison recently, the warden called Dan to report it, rekindling the emotional pain of a loss decades old. Even in telling us that story, we could see his emotion.
  • His home was warm and comfortable..a lot like any home you'd expect to see in middle America. His wife, Kathy, was cooking for a large crowd expected for a family baptism the next day. But there was nothing middle America about his family room. Above the fireplace on a brick wall were trophies and plaques from his big wins across the globe. They included his olympic gold medal and awards from the famed Tbilisi wrestling tournaments in what was formerly the Soviet Union. And how many of us have works of art by Leroy Neiman -- of us -- over our mantles? He looked over many of them, thought about others, and spoke about only a few.
  • I asked him -- as such a dominant wrestler -- was his goal simply to win, or was it really to pin his opponents. He said it was mission to win -- but to dominant them throughout. His ideal match was to control his opponent throughout the match (confident he could pin him at any time) and then pin him before time ran out. Kind of like a cat toying with a mouse for 7 minutes. He was undefeated in his own college career at Iowa State -- with the exception of a single loss in the 1970 NCAA finals. He lost on points to the University of Washington's Larry Owings in the 142-pound finals. He was devastated by the loss, but went on to beat Owings later for the US olympic team bid.
  • Down the stairs to his basement, he had framed posters of each University of Iowa team he'd coached.  Every year had a carefully and personally selected theme from the coach. What was remarkable was his personal connection to each team and each team member. He had wrestlers getting in fights, abusing substances -- even doing jail time right before matches.  And to reign them him, he made the rounds through Iowa City bars at 11 p.m. to ensure his wrestlers were home. He spent a good deal of time stopping on the staircase and sharing memories and current connections to his wrestlers. His bond wasn't only with the young men on his team, he said; it was with their parents.
  • In his basement was a small wrestling room with mats on the floor -- and the walls -- all in the University of Iowa team colors of black and gold. "When you wrestle here, there's nowhere to's so small that you can't escape. You just keep wrestling," he said. He and his wife have four daughters, so the wrestling in Dan Gable's basement happens when a current or former team member stops in, or when one of his three sons-in-law has the will to step on the mat. In fact, it's a tradition in the Gable household at Christmastime for all sons-in-law to wrestle. His fourth son-in-law will be initiated to that one next Christmas.
  • In his barn was a series of workout equipment, ranging from punching bags to weights -- and including the weight bench and barbells he's had -- and still uses -- since the age of 12. Seriously.
  • He's also got a separate office and gym on his property, away from him home. The walls are filled with wrestling photos and signs -- "W" for Waterloo West High School, ISU for Iowa State, where he wrested in college, and the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. "I need a USA sign" he said,  to represent his work as a competitor and now a leader for the Olympic wrestling program. For my Pepsi friends (where I worked for 17 years), the coach rewards himself daily with a Mountain Dew. It's his incentive to workout -- and he views it as something he earns for burning calories.

We learned even more about Dan at the Wrestling Hall of Fame/Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Dan's home town about and hour north of Iowa City. An ESPN video had comments from the coach's friends and team mates throughout the years. They paint a picture of a man truly driven to win, and dominate. says it all. If you've got a few minutes.

Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Klingman was our host for the weekend, and handled all the arrangements for our visit, tour and -- the last piece of our "ultimate weekend" -- the match between No. 3 Iowa and No 1 Penn State (the NCAA champs for the last 2 years).

Angie had never been to a collegiate wrestling match, so we figured a sell out crowd of 15,077 screaming fans and the No1 and No 3 teams in the nation would be a decent place to start. She was a bit confused at first, but as she watched, asked questions and listened to the guys behind us predict everything from who was going to get called for stalling to who had control in scramble -- she picked up the basics pretty quickly. As Iowa wrestlers in the first couple of weight classes posted wins, the mood of the fans was like kids in a candy story. Angie was high-fiving complete strangers. And Iowa upset the No 1 team. (Iowa's now No 2 and Penn dropped to No 3). It came down to the last/heavyweight match, and the place erupted.

I can't say Angie's a convert, but for the first time in 25 years of marriage, I saw her leafing through my copy of USA Wrestling's magazine. So she understands a bit more about the sport I've grown to love.  Sometimes we cannot understand how a profoundly horrible event can inspire, influence and re-direct the lives of so many others.  I didn't know that when I saw Dan Gable dominate his opponents in the 1972 olympics. It was just a sense of being dependent on myself, and doing the work required to win. But we see those stories play out - over time, even decades -- in ways that deliver amazing stories and inspiring results. I'll remind myself of that the next time I'm faced with that hill to climb. 

At veteran's nationals 2012

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There's no place like home, but Oz felt a lot like it

My last day in Oz started at 4 a.m. local time. I popped out of bed and knew the hours were closing in, so I got in a workout, grabbed breakfast, called home to chat with Angie and the kids, and mapped out my day. A quick stop to get some Aussie jeans and a sportcoat on Flinders Street, an iced Chai at Starbucks (it had been 5 days, people; nations have gone to war over less), then off to the Melbourne Museum of Natural history. It was, in a word, impressive, with featured exhibits on animals, human science and Aboriginese culture, among others.

The modern design of the museum was open, with tons of natural light flooding in -- and there was plenty on this beautifully sunny last day in Oz. The exhibits were highly interactive, with a dream simulator (perfect for those who want to lie down for 3 minutes) and facts on how and why the human eye can play tricks on us and our depth perception.  I enjoyed the circus-type mirror that made my forearms look like Popeye's (see picture). There was an in depth feature on Charles Darwin as well (you know there's a Port Darwin on the northern coast).

As I left the museum, I spent some time around the adjacent Royal Exhibition Hall, one of Melbourne's great claims to fame. It was here that in the early 1800s the city played host to the World Exhibition. At that time, Melbourne was considered to be among, if not THE, richest city in the world -- evidence of the then-gold rush era and the affluence it brought. The world came to see what Melbourne had to offer not just once, but twice as the host of the World Exhibition, another claim to Melbourne fame (no other city ever hosted more than once).

On the other side of the Great Exhibition hall were the most beautiful gardens -- Carlton gardens, complete with fountains, benches, wide pathways and even wider open patches of freshly cut summer grass -- all to inviting to pass up. So I threw my pull over on the ground and took another one of those dream simulation experiences. And hour and half later (yes, I did stop to smell the roses), it was a stop for a quick lunch and back to the hotel to begin packing and making plans for my last evening in Australia.

Departure is tomorrow and I have both sorrow about leaving and joy about what I take with me. On the tram restaurant dinner tour last night, the Winnepeg tourists I mentioned told me that on their first trip, all their friends said to enjoy it because they'd likely never be back. They told me they couldn't wait to come back, and have done so many times. I nodded in complete agreement that this is a country that never lets go once you's spent time here.

From the cosmopolitan streets of Sydney to the outer outer banks of the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns and the culture of Melbourne, I have so think I worked a lot in, but only scratched the surface. So I won't say goodbye to Oz, merely "See you again, mates."

May all your journeys be as fulfilling, Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The energy of Melbourne

I find Melbourne to be much like San Francisco, only without the hills. It certainly has diverse sections of the city, from the busines/financial district, to China Town, shopping/fashion centers and even a special place or two for its finest restaurants. The Yara River runs through the city, and the local say it runs upside down because of the brown color of the water (fine silt causes that color).

A 3 hour bus tour took me through just about every part of the city, from the Victorian homes near Port Melbourne, to shops along St Kilda street. We swung by some beautiful gardens that lay claim to being Captain Cook's (one of the pioneering discoverers of this part of Australia) to the Shrine of  Remembrance of World War 1 veterans who gave their lives.

This shrine, in fact, has an hourly memorial ceremony in which a small ray of light from the sun momentarily passes through an inner chamber that has a memorial plaque with the words "he hath no greater love." It was quite moving...a tribute to Australia's fallen soliders.

After returning to the hotel and quick workout, it was off to explore the neaby retail district. With trams running constantly (thus the San Francisco connection again), aboriginese and other music performances, and the hustle bustle of  millions of Melbourne residents, I daresay this is one vibrant city.

I have a dinner on board a moving trolley this evening, but I thought I'd close this with a few random observations about all things Australian I've seen in the last week:

  • Just about every toilet in every place I've been to has a full and half flush option -- quite the sustainable water practice, don't you think? And if you get it wrong, you can still flush again.
  • Pedestrian traffic passing -- just as cars do it on the left side, pedestrians are supposed to pass on the left, which is really hard if you're used to doing on the right your entire life, and can't move your 6-3 frame fast enough once you do remember -- (or are reminded by the grimaces on the faces of aussies you pass, who are quite irritated)
  • Rockets -- a common bitter lettuce type vegetable, often served in salads with something sweet, like pears
  • Prawns -- served not only with the legs on, but whole heads and beady eyes that say "eat me" -- really
  • On/off switches -- every hotel room as on off switches for each electric outlet. I suppose it's a sustainable enrgy practice, but speaking of irritating.
  • Take-away vs eat in -- nothing major here but when you order, you're asked if you want take-away (vs carry out). Also Yield signs in the US are "Give Way" signs here. "Way" better. So shoot me.
  • Lemonade -- ice tea here is a rarity, so lemonade is what I've asked for. In every case, it's served carbonated.
My last full day in Oz is tomorrow, so I'll make it one to remember. The good news is that I'm feeding off all this Melbourne energy!


After a 3 hour flight from the northern tropic of Cairns, I arrived in Melbourne this afternoon, a city with a population of about 4 million located in the southern coast of Australia.  The temperature difference was startling to say the least, about 60 degrees with a chilly wind.  A thirty minute trip to downtown Melbourne and I checked into the hotel , completed all my confirmation calls for tomorrow, and talk a walk downtown.

Like Sydney,Melbourne has a very metropolitan feel to it, wtih trams running (cable cars) around the city. The driver told me tourism is the big industry of Melbourne, but the Australian Stock Exchange is also located here, so there's quite a bit of financial industry here as well.

Tomorrow is a bus tour of the city and a gourmet dinner aboard one of Melbourne's famous tram cars. Tons of things to do, and so very little time left. Pictures and updates tomorrow!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A natural and fitting Wonder of the World

The Wandering Yank marvelled at the beauty of one the bonafide Wonders of the World today: The Great Barrier Reef. It took an hour bus ride and a 90-minute boat ride from Port Douglas, on Australia's northern shoreline, to get there. But it was well worth the wait, and the rides.

The group that does these outings is Quicksilver, and they're pretty buttoned up.  Quick transfers, all the prep on videos and you hit the pontoon boat in the middle of the Coral Sea running. I donned goggles, snorkel and fins quickly, as well as the $5 spandex suit rental to protect myself from the stray jellyfish and certain death. "A sucker born every minute Mark," you say? "You don't need that."  Well I emerged from the watter stingless. And the $300 I spent on an underwater shark repellent horn, and human blood de-scenter was really well spent, too.  As you can discern, I'm writing this after emerging from the sea with all my digits. We'll see who has the last laugh when the great whites and tiger sharks show up. Yeah.

Anyway, the snorkeling experience was amazing. Coral in blue, red, neon green and yellow were the backdrop for an array of fish I'd never seen up close. From zebra fish to big black surgeon fish, they swam literally inches from my entombed and ulta-protected body. I took a semi submarine ride and went out a little further and saw a huge sea turtle.

The 90 minute ride back was spent in sunshine and ocean breeze on the bow of the super luxury Katamaran owned by Quicksilver. It was a perfect time to reflect on the blessing of travels, the wonders of nature, and the support of family and friends. Seeing the Great Barrier Reef was a dream inside and dream I've had since I was a boy my boy's age.

I could share more details about dinner and looking around downtown Cairns, but the truth is, they all pale in comparison to seeing a true natural wonder.  So I'll let this be it for today. Headed to Melbourne tomorrow, but what a memory to pack with the bags and into my memory bank.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A day of transitions...

I journeyed from Sydney to Cairns today, courtesy of Quantas Airlines. It's a 2.5 hour flight, puctuated with a hot breakfast (did you read that United, American USAirways, and Delta?), and a light snack. I felt like I was flying in the 80s.

I arrived in Cairns (prounounced Cans) mid-day, and discovered what happens with a 50-year old guy who normally gets 8 hours of sleep a night, gets 5 to 6 for -- say -- 6 straight nights. Keeping with today's theme, I'll call it "transitioning." It involves sitting in the sun for about an hour, going back to your hotel room and losing consciousness for about three hours. In the immortal words of Billy Crystal in City Slickers, "I'm on vacaaaaaaaaaaa-shuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun."

Cairns is a city of about 200,000 on the norther tip of the Australian continent. I'm struck by the natural beauty of the mountains meeting the waters of the Coral ocean. I'll see lots more of that tomorrow on my Great Barrier Reef Tour. Cairns is also home to the the world's longest cable suspension lift, over the rain forrest. Hoping I can work that in Monday morning, but timing doesn't look good for that.

It's a charming small town from what I can see of it. I will say it is significantly more laid back than most metropolitan cities. Translation: jeez it takes these people forever to take your dinner order. Okay, it's the ugly American coming out for just a moment, but I only got 3 hours of sleep back, and woke up with raging hunger and thirst. I did refrain from showing any histrionics.

It's a beautiful place and I'm looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow, sharks and all.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A farewell to Sydney

My last day in Sydney was spent with no specific agenda, other than not to have one. After breakhast and a workout (no, I'm not slacking), I put on my tennis shoes and ventured out on a couple-mile walk in the opposite direction from where I'd spent most of the week. In other words, away from Sydney harbor. It was a refreshing change of pace to see working classs people shuffling to business meetings, to see where they live in neighborhoods filled with condos and flats, some townhouses and Subway restaurants on just about every corner.  So many city dwellers walk, or use bikes or public transportation. Not that there isn't traffic here, but I think far more Sydney siders hoof it. The clicking sounds made by pedestrian signals is pretty helpful for those hard of hearing, or whose attention span rivals that of a gnat. I'm just sayin.

I wandered through Darlinghurst, a neighboring community near city center, and enjoyed everything from people watching to window shopping and yes, my first Aussie hamburger. I went with The Works in a restaurant called "the Healthy Burger."  Yes, friends, it was all about making some horribly unhealthy but delicious angus creation ever so slightly -- shall we say -- better for me.  I was told there were no preservatives, all natural ingredients, no artificial flavor enhancers and everything was made right there on site. With that kind of intro, tt might as well have been oatmeal and broccoli. I was good to go.

I reflected on something I'd heard the tour bus driver say the other day {"McDonand's doesn't know burgers; if you want an Aussie burger, you have to go to an Aussie pub and ask for "the works.") So I announced to Collie, the woman behind the counter, that I'd come from New York, had waited to experience my first Aussie burger, and I'd selected The Healthy Burger to make it happen, No pressure, Collie,.

The Works, you see, comes with tomato relish, lettuce, tomatoe, bacon, eggs (yes eggs), onion and some special dressing."  What they don't tell you when they serve it to you is how to eat it without looking like you're 95, have no teeth, and have no muscle control to hold your spoon with tapioca pudding. This stuff slips and slides, explodes and dribbles in ways I cannot desribed. One of the beets slipped out so I didn't quite get that in, but successfully downed the rest of The Works with my Pepsi Max. I recorded proof with dear Collie, and you can see her testament on my facebook acct,

With The Works behind me, it was on to the Australian Museum, to see dinasours, minerals and a host of insets and reptiles with enough venom to kill me by looking at me.  The blue ringed octopus, funnel web spider didn't look so tough stuffed and mounted in their unnatural display cases. But in truth, I didn't look at them long, as I found myself trembling like a 10-year old girl. No offense, 10-year old girls.

Tonight it's an official farewell to Sydney, as I have an early departure for the airport tomorrow..flying Quantas to Cairns, which just escaped a category 5 Typhoon recently. The Great Barrier Reef awaits, but not before I head out this evening to take a few photos of Sydney at night.  It's all good.