For wrestling icon Dan Gable, Presidential Medal of Freedom is an achievement of a lifetime

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Dan Gable stood inside the Oval Office on Monday afternoon. To his left, President Donald J. Trump rattled off Gable’s many wrestling accomplishments: state champ, national champ, Olympic champ, successful coach, relentless ambassador, on and on.

Trump then turned to Gable with a wry smile.

“Now, I’m larger than you, a little bit,” Trump said. “Do you think I could take you in wrestling?”

Gable didn’t even smile at the idea.

“You would have no chance,” he responded, sparking laughter.

President Trump awarded Gable the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The modern iteration of the distinction was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to recognize extraordinary individuals who have made exceptional contributions to America's national interests, society and culture.

“I wouldn’t be here if I had just won an Olympic gold medal,” Gable said. “It has been a lifetime of work, learning from others, then taking that knowledge and applying it to others in many ways so that they can perform at their highest and be successful.”

Gable is the first wrestler — athlete or coach — to receive this honor. It is meant as an individual award, but for the 72-year-old, it represents so much more.

Gable’s whole family made the trip on Monday. His wife, Kathy, stood beside him, beaming. His four daughters, Molly, Jenni, Annie and Mackie, plus their husbands and his 13 grandchildren, filed in behind. He could not have pictured this day without them.

“My family, all right there,” Gable said, “… they are witnessing this historic moment of someone quite ordinary, mostly, going to the highest level.

“And because of this,” Gable continued, “they all have better chances of success.”

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For many years, Kathy and the girls followed Gable as he pursued his wrestling goals. It consumed all of their lives. But it also meant they got a front-row seat to one of America's greatest wrestling careers.

Gable won three state high school championships for Waterloo West and two NCAA titles for Iowa State University. Between his prep and collegiate careers, Gable went a combined 181-1, losing only in the 1970 NCAA finals. He won gold at the 1972 Olympics, where he won six matches at 68 kilograms (150 pounds) and didn't allow a single point along the way.

As a coach, Gable led the Iowa wrestling program to 21 straight Big Ten titles and 15 NCAA team championships from 1976 through 1997. He produced 152 All-Americans, 46 national champions and 12 Olympians who combined to win eight Olympic medals — four gold, one silver and three bronze.

“Gable has left me a lifetime philosophy that I do not deviate from,” current Iowa coach Tom Brands, who wrestled under Gable, said earlier this fall. “I am reminded every day when I see his statue,” which stands outside the main entrance to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.

“Those memories are strong with me,” Brands continued. “The bedrock of Hawkeye wrestling will always be Dan Gable.”

Even in retirement, Gable has stayed heavily involved in wrestling.

In the early 2000s, he worked behind the scenes to save Division I programs from being discontinued as an unfortunate side effect from Title XI, when men's sports programs were cut as universities sought to create parity for women's programs. There were 146 wrestling programs total in 1981, but that number shrunk to 77 by 2012. Last season, there were 79.

In 2013, Gable used his fame and knowledge to help keep wrestling in the Olympics after it was put on the chopping block. Not only has wrestling remained, but the United States has thrived on the international level.

Between men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman, the Olympic disciplines, Team USA has won 28 medals at the world championships from 2017-19. What’s more, 13 wrestlers won individual world titles in that span, and the United States won the 2017 men’s freestyle world team championship for the first time since 1995.

“Dan Gable is the most consequential figure in the history of our sport, in our country,” Rich Bender, USA Wrestling’s executive director, told the Register. “He has everyday household recognition, and he’s been the backbone of our sport for a long time.

“Dan Gable is being honored, but I think the sport is being honored, too, and I know Dan works every day to move the relevancy of wrestling forward.”

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Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable, shown in October. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday.

Wrestling is as popular as it has ever been. The Big Ten Network posted record viewing numbers for its wrestling programming last season. To accommodate the growing interest, the 2020 NCAA Championships were scheduled to be held in a football stadium for the first time, before the novel coronavirus pandemic forced their cancellation. 

Gable has helped fuel wrestling’s rise, thanks to his fame and relentless work ethic. On Monday, he attributed his longstanding success to the lessons the sport taught him from the very beginning. He hopes others will take aim at his accomplishments.

“This opens the door for a lot of people,” Gable said. “I look at it as an inspiration, that others will now have something to achieve that’s beyond just winning on the mat.

“The success one has with others is more important than the success you have yourself.”

President Trump closed his speech by saying that Gable is “an athletic giant who conquered one of the most difficult and ancient sports,” and that the United States has “never had anybody like him.”

Then he ended with one final note that most wrestling fans everywhere will agree with.

“He has made our country very proud, and he is a true GOAT,” Trump said. He turned to Gable: “Do you know what ‘GOAT’ is?”

Gable cracked a smile.

“He is,” Trump continued, “the greatest of all time.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.