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

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