The long-forgotten profile of wrestling legend Dan Gable every Hawkeyes fan should read
Editor's note: In 1983, nearly 11 years after Dan Gable won an Olympic gold medal and seven years into his legendary run as head coach of the Iowa wrestling program, Des Moines Register’s "Picture" magazine ran this profile on "super athlete" Dan Gable, written by Sherry Ricchiardi.
Dan Gable drove himself sweating and panting up a mile-long hill on a scorching afternoon as if it were 1972 and dreams of Olympic gold floated through his mind.
After the run, he drew a circle on the dusty country road and struck a familiar stance against an imaginary foe.
The scars on his damaged knees turned bright red and glistened in the blazing sun. As always, Dan Gable was ready for combat.
“I love wrestling – it’s my whole life. Only my family comes before it,” said the man who commonly is called “the greatest wrestler in U.S. history.”
Gable’s name is to wrestling what Joe Namath’s is to professional football and Muhammad Ali’s is to boxing. But Gable lacks the Hollywood style and loud-mouthed bravado of a Namath or an Ali.
Gable’s story is one of grit and determination that didn’t end with the winning of the Olympic gold. He recently said: “I get much more satisfaction out of coaching a winner than actually winning myself.”
He has developed a legion of champions at the University of Iowa – 10 wrestlers have won national titles, 42 have achieved all-American status – since he became head coach in 1977.
Sports fans the world over remember Gable as the fierce competitor who climbed limping and bloodied to the victory stand in Munich, West Germany, to collect the gold medal, which he solemnly lifted to his lips and kissed.
But few know the man behind the legend – the father who sits patiently through a daughter’s dance recital, the husband who spends afternoons pruning his wife’s raspberry bushes, the son who permits his parents to keep the gold medal on display in their home because “it makes them happy.”
Gable has weathered family tragedies that first struck when he was just 15. More recently, he has had to deal with stinging criticism from coaches around the country who accuse him of spoiling the sport he loves.
And few among his fans know of “the hell,” as his father calls it, that Gable went through during his first years of coaching at the University of Iowa.
In fact, there’s much about Gable – who at times watches the movie “Rocky” for inspiration – that remains a mystery:
- What drives him at age 34 to work out with the same ferocity that drove him when he first began pointing to the Olympic gold during college?
- What effect did the rape and murder of his only sister when he was 15 have on his life?
- There also are questions about his coaching career, which has netted six straight national titles at the U of I.
- What role did the late Roy Carver, the multimillionaire from Muscatine, play in Gable’s decision to coach at the U of I? There are rumors that Gable benefited financially from his friendship with Carver, a wrestling enthusiast.
- How has marriage and fatherhood changed the super athlete who once was so devoted to the sport that he starved himself to cut weight and ran to classes with 10-pound weights on his ankles?
On a June afternoon when thermometers hit 95, Gable stood soaked in sweat after a workout in the yard of his parents’ cabin on the Mississippi River near Lansing, Iowa.
He flashed the smile that soon will appear on thousands of bubble gum cards and said: “I can’t let up – we have the Russians to beat!”
Gable once again is on the trail of what many believe is an impossible dream.
Chosen to coach the 1984 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, he once again smells the gold – once again, he will try to snatch victory away from the heavily favored Soviets.
Gable often stays, “I won’t ask my athletes to do anything I’m not willing to do.”
If that means running miles every day, lifting weights and grappling with wrestlers on the mat, he does it despite bunged-up knees, a pinched nerve in his neck and chipped bones in his elbows.
He cracks jokes about his cauliflower ear and when the mood strikes, pulls down his lower lip and exposes scar tissue.
“I’ve probably bitten through my tongue 1,000 times. I’d get hit in the mouth and bite through my cheeks. My ear fills with liquid and has to be drained with a needle. I’ve had around 10 operations.
“But if I had a sprained ankle, I’d work right through it. After all, this is wrestling, not chess.”
Gable, who lost only one match in his entire college career – his record was 181 and 1 – admits he has an obsession with fitness. His body, though older and scarred by combat on the mat, still fits a description that appeared in Esquire magazine a decade ago:
“His wrists resemble ankles, his forearms approach the size of a normal human calf, his upper arms are respectable thighs. He has no hips, like a 10-year-old boy. His legs are sinewy as a sprinter’s. Like a turtle, he can make his neck disappear.
His is not a beautiful body. … Gable’s body is pure function; it looks built to perform.”
Yet, for all the public exposure, including television and magazine endorsements for vitamins, weight-lifting equipment and running shoes, Gable remains a very private man.
“I don’t want anybody to know me too well. The only ones who really know me are my parents and my wife,” Gable said. “I make friends, but I never get too close. If I get too close to a wrestler, I cut myself off. The only ones I won’t cut myself off from are members of my family.”
Married a decade ago, Kathy and Dan Gable have three daughters, Jennifer, 6; Annie, 4; and Molly, 8 months. Both talk as if they’d like more children. “Fishing is the only thing I love besides wrestling and my family,” he says.
Gable candidly admits that “money never has been a driving force for me – I don’t even want to know how much money I’ve got. I want to be the best wrestling coach, father and husband I can be – I put things like business deals and finances in my dad’s hands.”
He earns $35,000 a year for coaching plus revenue from advertisements and the wrestling camps he conducts. Recently, Gable lost out to marathon runner Frank Shorter for a $25,000 endorsement of Canon cameras. But out of the blue, a bubble gum company sent him a $250 check for permission to use his photo on a series of cards.
His father, Mack, a Waterloo real estate broker, says he set his son up with a piece of land and a building that is being leased to a Quik-Trip franchise in Iowa City.
But rumors that the late Roy Carver set him up in business before he died are not true, Gable said.
“To be honest, Carver talked money to me at first. He enticed me with it. He had condominiums in Florida, and he flew us there. He offered to take us to his villa in France, but I was too busy. I never took him up on it,” Gable said.
“Carver talked to me about business deals, but it never paid off. When I came to Iowa City and got started in the job, it was dropped. But that wasn’t why I took the Iowa job. Carver was definitely an influence on my decision, though. I knew he was going to create opportunities for us at Iowa so that we didn’t have to beg, borrow and steal to become a national power. When we needed a new wrestling room back in 1973, Roy (Carver) came up with $10,000. It was easier to get financial backing from private sources.
“Carver loved wrestling and he loved excellence. He would have gone crazy with what we did at the nationals this year. I missed seeing his face in the crowd.”
Gable was 15 when he was hit with what he calls “the worst thing that ever happened in my life.”
He was on a fishing trip with his parents when he heard that his sister, Diane, 19, was found stabbed to death in the kitchen of the family’s Waterloo home.
“My sister’s death affected my whole life. I dedicated my career and all my accomplishments to her. I said to myself, ‘She can’t be here with me, but she can look down on me and be proud.’ I tried to accomplish much more for her,” Gable recalled.
“My dedication to Diane kept me straighter – she was a motivating force. The glory always meant more to me if I knew my parents and my sister would see it.”
He recalled pacing nervously in the dressing room before his Olympic matches and thinking, “Diane is with me, too. My goal is hers.”
Tragedy struck again three years ago when doctors discovered Dan’s mother had cancer. “It drew us all closer together,” Gable said.
Katie Gable survived and once again orchestrates family get-togethers. Mention her son’s career, and she smiles and says, “He was ornery when he was a little kid, but I didn’t let him get away with anything.”
During a weekend on the Mississippi, Katie Gable talked of how she once played nursemaid not only to Dan, but to John and Ben Peterson, two wrestlers who gained Olympic berths with Gable in 1972.
For months, the two boys from Wisconsin worked out with Dan at the Gable home. The three showered together afterward. At one point, the floor gave way to the continuous blasts of water and drenched Mack Gable who happened to be passing below.
“No more showers, that’s it! None!” Katie recalls her husband screaming. Days later, a new bathroom was being built.
“I did tons of laundry and cooked tons of food for the kids. I loved every minute of it,” she said. “We ordered sides of beef and five-gallon cans of milk.”
Katie Gable still pampers her son. She stood in the kitchen that Sunday afternoon and fried the five-pound walleye Dan had caught just hours before.
It’s like pulling teeth to coax Gable into talking about his private self – he’d much rather talk wrestling.
But on a fishing trip on the Mississippi River, he let his guard down long enough to admit that, yes, he does make regular visits to the sick and dying at an Iowa City hospital. And, yes, he once did send some Hawkeye T-shirts to a blind man in St. Albin who is an avid wrestling fan. And, yes, he does remember writing notes to a man dying of cancer in Minneapolis.
“I never write sympathetic notes. I try to give them determination. You never know what will make a difference to a kid in trouble or to a guy who thinks he’s dying. A lot of times, I take one of my star wrestlers with me when I visit the hospital,” Gable said.
Recently, the Mr. Nice guy of the wrestling world ha suffered what Gable calls “the worst barrage of criticism in my career.”
In a Sports Illustrated article that appeared after Iowa won its sixth straight NCAA championship this year, Yale coach Bert Waterman said: “This is no national championship. It was sewn up before it started and that’s harmful to the sport.”
University of Michigan coach Dale Bahr calls Gable “the best wrestling coach in the country by far,” but he also says, “It defuses competition and the interest when everybody knows who’s going to win. Even Iowa fans will get blasé … they want to watch competitive matches and there aren’t many of those around.”
Bahr added: “I wish Dan Gable would set his sights on the Russians and a world championship. I just wish he’d do to the foreigners what he does to us.”
Coaches complain that their schools aren’t willing to invest as much in wrestling as Iowa does, and that they lack the full-time assistants that Gable has.
To Harold Nichols, Gable’s coach at Iowa State University in Ames and his arch rival today, such talk is “hogwash.”
“The rest of these coaches better get to work and catch up. Too many are sitting on their jobs instead of doing the job,” Nichols said. “In fact, Dan’s success is pointing up the state of Iowa in wrestling, and that’s good for all of us.”
The criticism stings, and Gable admits it.
“None of them ever say this stuff to my face … I don’t think much of people who would rather cry than do something about it. The ones who give up shouldn’t be in college coaching. They should be fired,” he said.
Gable credits his parents with being “the single greatest influence of my life,” and he remains close to them.
He covets the weekends he spends with his family at the cabin retreat.
“It’s the only time he really gets away – it’s a place he goes to escape,” said Kathy Gable, Dan’s wife.
Kathy Carpenter was 19 when she married Gable, whom she met through a former boyfriend of hers. She recalls they went for a bicycle ride around the neighborhood on their first date.
“People always ask me what it’s like being married to a famous person. But I don’t look at Dan as being famous. He’s never been on an ego trip. He’s worked his tail off to get where he is right now,” she said during a shopping trip around Iowa City one afternoon.
“There’s not much bad I can say about Dan except that he’s a workaholic. That’s about the only time I get mad at him. He won’t just sit down and relax. If he has free time, he either goes back to the office or he goes downstairs for a workout.
“He’s very easygoing – he never puts anybody down. And he never stays bitter at anybody no matter what they say about him,” he said.
Gable admits that during the first few years of marriage, “I was self-centered. I just wanted to fish and wrestle. I was so narrow-minded. I’m expanding my interests a lot more now because of Kathy.
“During the first five or six years, I was the dominant figure. She never really had a chance to do the things she loved. Now, we go to movies and take the kids to Disneyland.”
The Gables are building a new home a few miles north of Iowa City. There are pear trees, apple trees and raspberry bushes on the 26 acres of land. And because of Kathy’s passion for growing things, there will be three gardens, including an asparagus patch.
Ask Gable’s wrestlers what they think of him, and the word they’re most likely to use is “attitude.”
National champion Barry Davis said, “The most important thing the coach does is give us a championship attitude – he inspires us.”
It doesn’t take much prodding to get Gable to admit that he’s “one hell of a coach. A lot of my confidence exudes off me to my athletes. I’m not sure I’d have that if I’d lost the gold. Just being around me, a wrestler will come away wanting to be a champion.
“Attitude is the No. 1 thing I give them.”
But Gable’s father, Mack, talks of the rough times his son had when he joined the University of Iowa coaching staff as an assistant in 1973, just a year after the Olympic victory.
“It was tough – the kid went through hell the first year. He called me a couple of times and said, ‘I can’t take this, Dad. The wrestlers stop in the middle of practice and have Gatorade parties. There’s no toughness here at all,’” Mack Gable recalled.
“Some of those kids had been wrestling at Iowa three and four years. They felt this young punk Olympic champ wasn’t going to come in and tell them what to do.
“The Okies would give him a couple of oil wells anytime he wanted to go there to coach … but Dan never will leave Iowa. Iowans have been great fans – they’ve been loyal to him. He’d feel like traitor if he left.”
Gable talks of getting out of coaching by 1988.
“I can’t see myself coaching after that. If I beat the Russians next year, which I fully intend to do, they might ask me back as an Olympic coach again. But beating the Russians is going to be very tough.”
As if it’s burned into his mind, Gable recites the long list of potential Soviet gold medal winners.
“I don’t want wrestlers who are satisfied just to make the Olympic team – I want athletes who are after the gold,” Gable said.
In an instant, Mack Gable can relive his son’s fabulous Olympic performance. Over beers at the bar in the Lansing cabin, he recalled:
“In Munich, I knew he’d win. He had gold in his eyes – that’s all there was to it. The Russians knew he was good. They cut a world champion down from the next weight class to beat him.
“Dan was like a race horse – he was all psyched up. The officials stopped him a couple times to test him for drugs. He looked like he was doped up – he was glassy-eyed.”
And then, Dan Gable talked about what it was like on the victory stand:
“My life flashed before me during the National Anthem. The training, the pain, the amount of time I invested in it all flashed before me. It was a dream come true.”