Gable, Dan(iel)

views updated

GABLE, Dan(iel)

(b. 25 October 1948 in Waterloo, Iowa), the greatest amateur wrestler and wrestling coach in United States history.

Born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa, Gable was the only son and second child of Mack, a blue-collar worker at the local John Deere plant, and Katie Gable. At age four, Gable became active in the Waterloo Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and participated actively in their programs until he was fourteen. On several occasions Gable credited his YMCA experiences for their positive role in helping to shape both his values and his athletic career. When he was eight and nine years old, Gable was on the Waterloo YMCA swimming team. He was an intense, fearless, and determined competitor who had a strong will to win. This attitude, toughness, and relentless work ethic would define the rest of his life. In the 1958–1959 season he was undefeated in the backstroke and was on the eighty-yard medley relay team that won the event in the State YMCA Midget Division Championships. On his tenth birthday his parents gave him a set of weights, which—after some prodding from his mother—he used to his advantage. The tragic murder of his older sister when Gable was fifteen years old also had a profound influence on his life. His parents wanted to move, but Gable said no criminal was going to drive him out of his house and home-town.

Iowa and amateur wrestling (not to be confused with entertainment-oriented television wrestling) enjoy a special relationship. Amateur wrestling is important in Iowa, where duel meets frequently draw more than 5,000 fans. To watch an Iowa wrestler compete is to witness a private war fought in public between two finely honed combatants. Like a school-yard fight, it's whip or be whipped. Gable's wrestling career started at Waterloo West High School in the ninety-five-pound weight category. Gable was a four-time state champion and undefeated in high school wrestling (64–0). His college record was 118–1 at Iowa State University. He won 117 matches in a row, losing only to Larry Owings in the 1970 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships. Gable was NCAA champion in 1968 and 1969; and the tournament's Most Valuable Player in 1969 at 137 pounds. He was selected the nation's outstanding wrestler by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1970, and the United States Wrestling Federation in 1971. Gable was the Amateur Wrestling News "Man of the Year" in 1970.

Gable won the world lightweight freestyle championship in Sofia, Bulgaria, in August 1971 and at 150 pounds was the only U.S. wrestler to defeat the Soviets in a freestyle wrestling meet in Moscow on 10 February 1972. Gable was unscored on in his six-match march to a gold medal in the Munich Olympic games in 1972, the only wrestler in Olympic history to achieve that degree of success. The day after winning the Olympic gold medal, he resumed his training routine by running four miles.

When he returned from Munich, Gable took a job as assistant wrestling coach at the University of Iowa. As a coach, he continued his pursuit of excellence. He was named head coach in 1977. He won NCAA "Rookie Coach of the Year" honors when the Hawkeyes went 17–1–1, and placed third in the NCAA Championships. He went on to coach the University of Iowa to nine straight NCAA titles from 1978 to 1986. In his twenty years as the head wrestling coach at the University of Iowa, his teams won every Big Ten Championship and earned fifteen NCAA national team titles. During that time he coached 152 All-Americans, 106 Big Ten individual champions, and forty-five individual national champions, on eleven scholarships per year. Gable pioneered the use of video in coaching wrestling. His Hawkeye wrestlers had a duel meet record of 355 wins, twenty-one losses, and five ties. In addition to being consistent Big Ten winners, they never lost a meet in Iowa City, their home venue.

Gable was the Olympic head wrestling coach in 1980 and 1984, co-coach in 2000, and was the U.S. freestyle coach for the 1976 and 1988 Olympics. He also was head coach for five World teams, ten World Cup teams, the 1986 Goodwill Games, and several All-Star teams sent to Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1984 he turned down an offer of nearly $3 million to coach at Oklahoma State University. Gable did not even consider the offer, claiming, "Everything I like to do is in this state. I've been loyal to Iowa. I've represented it to people all over the world. I'm not money driven." In January 1997 the bespectacled and balding Gable underwent hip replacement surgery at University Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa. The following March, five of Iowa's six finalists in the NCAA tournament won individual titles, equaling a feat his team achieved first in 1986. After the 1997 season he took a one-year leave of absence, and in January 1998 had his second hip replaced. In March 1998 Iowa won another NCAA wrestling championship.

In 1980 Gable was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1985. He and his wife, Kathy, have four girls. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, he was serving as assistant to the athletic director of the University of Iowa, promoting amateur wrestling all over the world, coaching potential Olympic wrestlers in the local sports club, and being considered as a possible Republican candidate for governor of Iowa.

Gable dominated his sport as few others ever have. Only a handful of athletes, which might include Jim Thorpe, Johnny Weissmuller, Mildred "Babe" Didrikson, Wayne Gretzky, and Tiger Woods have ever been as controlling in their sport, and few, if any, coaches have comparable records of success.

Dan Gable, Coaching Wrestling Successfully (1998), contains biographical information. There are three biographies: Stephen T. Holland's Takin' Dan Gable (1983), Russ Smith's Dan Gable: "The" Wrestler (1983), and Nolan Zavoral's A Season on the Mat: Dan Gable and the Pursuit of Perfection (1998). Zavoral's biography is the best. A considerable section of Michael Chapman's A History of Wrestling in Iowa: From Gotch to Gable (1981), is about Gable. Two magazine articles about Gable are excellent: John Irving's "Gorgeous Dan," Esquire (Apr. 1973), and particularly Scott Raab's "Nasty Dan and His Wrestling Empire," Sport (Apr. 1988). Finally, University of Iowa Sports Information and the New York Times (31 Aug. 1971; 11 Feb. 1972; 22 Mar. 1988; 24 Jan. 1997; 24 Mar. 1997; 15 July 1997; 9 Jan. 1998; and 15 July 2001) are indispensable.

Keith McClellan