An excerpt from our 2014 interview with the legendary wrestler and wrestling coach Dan Gable. Register file video
Editor's note: This story by former Register reporter Buck Turnbull originally ran in 1981 when Dan Gable was head coach of the University of Iowa wrestling program. Others inducted in the Des Moines Sunday Register's Iowa Sports Hall of Fame that year were Doreen Wilber of Jefferson and Ted Payseur of Des Moines.
They were there from all walks of life several years ago, a large gathering of Iowa notables each well known in his own right, and somebody wondered who might be considered the most famous person in the room.
It was one of those fun evenings and this was a fun question.
Ordinarily you might have endless debate on such a subject. But when one bystander noted that, worldwide, Dan Gable is the most famous Iowan of this generation, and maybe the most famous ever, the debate was over before it started. Nobody disagreed.
Gable was attending that function as the University of Iowa's peerless wrestling coach, but he is far better known in Russia, Iran, Turkey and other points throughout the globe as perhaps the greatest wrestler of all time.
And a decade ago he may have been even better known in those countries, where wrestling commands attention as a major sport, than he was and is in his homeland, where it takes a back seat to baseball, football and basketball.
In stories telling of still another championship by Gable's Hawkeyes, he may receive a mention -- if any explaining is needed -- as being an Olympic golf medalist in 1972.
A few facts and figures on Gable's fabulous career are indelibly printed in the legend of American sport.
He won 181 matches and lost just one in high school at West Waterloo and college at Iowa State. The only loss was in his final collegiate bout.
Almost anyone who knows a takedown from a reversal knows that, but what went into the making of this international champion and all his successes are the stuff about which books are written and movies filmed.
Gable was added as the 95th member of the Des Moines Sunday Register's Iowa Sports Hall of Fame in 1981, and if ever anyone was an automatic entry, he was it.
All that needed to pass were the five years since he last competed to meet the eligibility requirements. The Hall of Fame is limited to Iowa natives or to athletes who attended Iowa colleges or universities.
GABLE BECAME so skillful at his sport that not only could nobody beat him, few could keep from getting pinned.
When you break down his remarkable record, it goes like this:
In three varsity seasons at West Waterloo under Coach Bob Siddens, there were 80 consecutive victories, 39 on falls, and a state championship every year, at 95, 103 and then 112 pounds.
In three varsity seasons at Iowa State under Harold Nichols, the unbroken chain continued with 101 straight victories, 74 on pins. He won national titles at 130 pounds as a sophomore in 1968 and at 137 as a junior.
It's no wonder then that Gable reached the 142-pound final of the 1970 National Collegiate championships in Evanston, Ill., as the object of so much attention. Here was a man who simply could not be beaten, or so it seemed.
As a senior there had been an astounding 31 pins and two decisions in 33 matches. His picture was on the cover of the tournament program, and newspaper stories all that week featured Gable heading toward the finish of a perfect career.
ENTER LARRY OWINGS, a sophomore at the University of Washington, to earn everlasting fame with a stunning 13-11 conquest of Gable. Stop the presses! Somebody had finally beaten the man they said was unbeatable.
In later years, Owings -- now a junior college coach in Oregon -- would tell friends it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. He had a fine career of his own, yet he is remembered only as "the man who beat Dan Gable."
How did it happen? Well, although he had lost a 13-4 decision to Gable as a high school senior two years earlier, Owings was no Humpty Dumpty. He also entered the title match with 33 straight victories.
"I can remember the whole setting," said Gable, "because you remember a lot of things that cut deep into you."
He recalls being hounded for interviews and autographs all that week, reaching a climax in the glare of TV lights on championship night -- when he did the introduction for ABC-TV's coverage. Suddenly he was one minute into the fateful match without his usual strength.
"I was tired ... just drained," he said. "I'd never felt like that before. Instead of being ferocious and intense, I was kind of 'blah.'"
Gable fell behind early, battled back to take a 10-8 lead, but in the final seconds he found himself on the back, the victim of a four-point move, and before he had time to counter, the bout was over.
"It was very hard for me to accept that defeat," he admits. "I felt I was the better wrestler, and I can't understand why I didn't prepare better.
"That night, by rights, Owings was a little better. He was sky-high and I just didn't seem as powerful.
"It bothers me ... it still bothers me. I should have won three titles, and I can't believe I didn't have myself psyched up to where I couldn't lose."
PSYCHED. THAT'S a key word in the makeup of Dan Gable. The few defeats he suffered in his lifetime, and they were years apart, only served to stoke the inner fires.
"A lot of my intensity in wrestling was due to my mental preparation before the matches," he explained. "I got myself into a different world."
Let's look at how he reacted to two other setbacks. They don't show up in any record book, but they had just as much to do with molding the future Olympic champion as the loss to Owings, and they show you how much he detests defeat.
Dan was born Oct. 24, 1948, and is the only son of Mack Gable, a real estate salesman in Waterloo, and his wife, Katie.
Like many youngsters, football was his favorite sport until he quickly learned he'd be too small to play it. Oddly, swimming and not wrestling brought him his first success.
He was the state YMCA backstroke champion at the age of 12, and he quips now, "I came off my back and learned how to wrestle."
MACK GABLE encouraged his son to try all sports, and since the father had wrestled for Valley of West Des Moines, Dan gave that a whirl in junior high school, where there was no swimming program.
"I wanted to succeed in something and wrestling was my best chance," said Dan. "One of my dad's close friends was Don Buzzard, and he had two kids, Bob and Don Jr., who wrestled at East Waterloo and became all-Americans at Iowa State.
"At that time East Waterloo was my favorite team. I went to all the meets and watched the Buzzards wrestle."
By ninth grade at West Junior High, Gable progressed to where he was a bright prospect himself. And then he suffered the last official defeat of his school career until Larry Owings came along.
A ninth-grader named Ron Keister of Edison Junior High beat the budding superstar. Not only that, he pinned him.
"Keister works for Deere in Waterloo and to this day he kids me about that," Gable said.
At the time, however, it was no joking matter. Gable went home and locked himself in his room. Mack mentioned that he was going to get his son a pair of ballet slippers.
"It was snowing outside," recalled Dan. "I went out and shoveled our driveway in about a minute. A snowblower wouldn't have done it any faster.
"When I came in I vowed that I would never lose a match in high school."
HE DIDN'T, of course, but he does have a vivid memory of one other defeat that spurred him on for the greatness to come.
It occurred on the basement mat at home following his senior season at West. By then he was a three-time prep champion and feeling his oats.
Bob Buzzard was home for the weekend from Iowa State, and if young Gable thought he'd already achieved superstar status, he was in for a rude awakening.
"Bob mopped up the mat with me," said Dan. "He showed me I had a long way to go. It so crushed me that I remember I cried because of the disappointment. I couldn't believe somebody could beat me so easily."
THOSE YEARS were not without personal tragedy as well, because Dan's only sister, Diane, was strangled and murdered by a younger male acquaintance at the age of 19. Dan was 15 and a sophomore in high school.
"We were a close family and this was just a shattering experience for us," he said. "If it was terrible for me, you can imagine what is was like for my mom and dad.
"For a long time I had a picture of Diane on the basement wall, a picture of where she was cheering for me during one of my matches, and I would talk to her while I was down there working out."
The senseless ending of her life became a motivating factor for him, he said, although he can never erase the memory of those dark days.
When it came time to choose a college, Iowa State and Nichols offered the closest big-time wrestling program to suit his needs, and after an idle year when freshmen could not compete, he continued his long winning streak.
One more experience deserves mention, time spent at an Olympic tryout camp in 1968, because it was there, competing with Rick Sanders of Portland State, that Gable added perhaps the mightiest weapon to his wrestling arsenal.
"Sanders taught me the effective use of arm bars to pin guys with," he explained. "I was a sophomore then and pinned my opponents about 50 percent of the time.
"But from there on I pinned something like 60 of the last 65 guys I faced in college."
BY THEN, Gable was already a familiar name in international wrestling, winning world championships and beating the men who would be his challengers for Olympic supremacy at 149.5 pounds in 1972.
He suffered only one more defeat between Owings and his Olympic victory, when a Soviet wrestler edged him, 4-3, in a 1971 meet at Tblisi, Russia.
The only thing that might have stopped him short of his goal was a knee injury in the spring of 1972, while he was serving as a graduate assistant at Iowa State.
But fortunately, the knee mended in time for the Olympic trials -- Owings was one of his victims, 7-1 -- and then it was off to Munich, Germany, for the long-awaited Games.
"I have never been more sure of winning in my life," he said.
It was no contest. Incredibly, Gable won the six matches that would bring him the coveted gold medal without yielding a single point.
The aftermath of his clinching victory, the five minutes as he sat there basking in the glory of a lifetime goal achieved, remains his biggest thrill and most cherished moment.
MEANWHILE, EVENTS had already taken shape back home that would alter the power of collegiate wrestling.
Gary Kurdelmeier, Iowa's head coach, had asked Gable to become his assistant the previous spring. After weeks of deliberation, Dan accepted, and the rest is history.
Where Iowa State had long been the wrestling stronghold in this state as well as nationally, far ahead of Iowa, the infusion of Muscatine industrialist Roy Carver's money into the Hawkeye program and the coming of Gable soon changed that.
The Kurdelmeier-Gable coaching tandem produced successive national championships in 1975-76. Then Kurdelmeier was elevated to assistant athletic director, with Gable taking over to coach four straight national title teams starting in 1978.
Dan's brilliant coaching record now stands at 89-4-1. So in 11 years of wrestling and coaching at West Waterloo, Iowa State and Iowa, he's gone home a loser exactly five times.
Many star competitors never become outstanding coaches, but Gable has a ready answer for that.
"It's because they don't change," he said. "You can't think single-mindedly. That's where Coach Nichols helped me a great deal when I was at Iowa State.
"He was very flexible in being able to help people and bring them along. You have to understand that every person is an individual, just like Lou Banach is different than Eddie Banach," he said, referring to the twins, both of whom won national championships for Iowa this year.
IN 1974, GABLE married the former Kathy Carpenter of Waterloo, and they have two daughters, Jennifer and Annie.
Dan would have joined The Register's Hall of Fame before this, except he tried to overcome a pinched nerve in his neck by shooting for a spot on the 1976 Olympic team. He had to drop out after losing a tryout match to Wisconsin's Lee Kemp.
Last year's American boycott of the Olympics in Moscow kept Gable from fulfilling another dream. He was to coach the U.S. wrestling team.
Still a trim 160-pounder, Gable continues to work out with his Iowa wrestlers and can beat them all -- the burly Banach brothers included.
"He's something else," marvels Ed Banach. "He can pin everybody in our wrestling room, and when he gets you on your back, you cannot move.
"I think he could keep you there for hours and days if he wanted to. That's the kind of pinning power he has."
Thus, on the final night of the recent NCAA meet in Princeton, New Jersey, in a small group similar to that gathering of Iowa notables, somebody nodded toward the 32-year-old Gable and offered the opinion that he could still beat anyone on the arena floor.