Iowa's Olympic wrestling legacy rolls on at Rio
Friday morning update: Former Iowa wrestler Daniel Dennis, the latest Iowan to compete for US wrestling in the Olympics, was eliminated from medal contention after losing in his first Olympic match 11-0 to Bulgaria's Vladimir Dubov, the reigning world bronze medalist.
It's a global grasp.
Daniel Dennis will step on the wrestling mat in the Rio Olympics on Friday and continue Iowa's worldwide presence in that sport.
Since 1920, at least one Iowan has been a member of every American Olympic team. More than 50 Iowans have competed, bringing home at least 22 medals, 13 of them gold.
If the state was a country, its gold medal count through 2012 would rank as the 10th-highest nation, topping the all-time output of Italy (seven), Germany and France (four) and Great Britain (three).
Dennis, a former University of Iowa competitor, is scheduled to compete Friday morning in the freestyle 57 kilogram class. The tradition of nearly a century will move on — and perhaps inspiring the Olympic dreams of young Iowans once more.
"Wrestling is the Olympics," said Dan Gable, a 1972 gold medalist and coach at multiple Olympic games. "This is the highest point. This is our impact."
Davenport's Nat Pendleton earned a silver medal in the 1920 games at Antwerp. Eight years later, Marshalltown's Allie Morrison became the first Iowan to earn gold.
The state's tradition has continued for almost a century, continuing through Olympics scratched due to war, a U.S. boycott in 1980 and a threat to end the sport for the 2020 Toyko games.
"It's good to be known for something worldwide," Gable said. "Some people know Iowa only from wrestling. A little state like that in the middle of the country is known for one sport."
Iowa's Enduring History
Forget the gold medal. Bill Smith looked forward to a sea cruise.
Smith, a Council Bluffs native, won a gold medal 64 years ago at the Helsinki Olympics.
He had won two NCAA championships at then-Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa). After graduating, he went to work at John Deere in Waterloo.
In 1948, three of his college teammates — Bill Nelson, Bill Koll and Gerald Leeman — had shipped out to the London games. Smith, who turns 88 next month, wanted his own passage to Europe.
"I thought that'd be great," Smith said. "I thought they'd send us on a luxury liner. It didn't happen. We went by airplane. I missed the boat on that one."
To Smith, who now lives in Humboldt, the anticipation of competing for an NCAA title seemed bigger than aiming for gold in 1952.
That attitude changed as he mingled with international competitors.
"When I started staying in the Olympic Village, I started getting more excited," Smith said.
Traveling to Finland was a sacrifice for his family. He was married, with one child and one more on the way.
"I had no business going to the Olympic games and spending a dime of my own money," Smith said.
He went on to coach in several states, including California, where he was given a perspective on Iowa's wrestling. California high schools had 800 programs competing in one class, but Iowa's talent level outweighed the state's size.
"I thought anybody who came out of that as a champion must be a stud," Smith said, "but they couldn't even whip a Class A wrestler from Iowa."
Inspired for Gold
Dan Gable's voice breaks into a pseudo-East European accent as quick as a shooting for a single-leg takedown.
"Don Gobble." It's an inflection he's heard around the world when a stranger from the overseas wrestling community attempts to pronounce his name.
It's a name that resonates through Olympic wrestling history, too.
Gable won a gold medal in the 1972 Munich games without surrendering a single point. The Iowa State graduate and former Iowa coach has been on the sidelines at nearly all of Team USA's Olympics since then.
But before Gable's legend was made, he was a 12-year-old in Waterloo, inspired to think he could one day compete in the Olympics.
"I always say I won that Olympic gold medal in junior high or high school," Gable said. "If you can see that in your future, it makes that that much more attainable."
One reason Iowa's wrestling legacy has continued is because each Olympiad's American success can inspire a new generation of hopefuls competing in youth or high school tournaments.
The 1972 team also included Gable's Cyclone teammates Ben Peterson (gold) and Chris Taylor (bronze). Ed Banach, who later became an NCAA champion at Iowa, said he was inspired by their march to medals.
Dennis is the latest in that chain. So are several Iowans who will be coaching. Former Hawkeye Terry Steiner leads the U.S. women's team. Iowa coach Tom Brands, who won a gold medal in 1996, is an assistant with the men's squad. So is Cornell College coach Mike Duroe, who will be coaching in his sixth Olympiad.
Once again, Iowans will be watching.
"An Olympic year for the sport that does well really does promote the sport for a long time," Gable said.
A Coaching Connection
Above Kevin Jackson's head is history on display.
The Iowa State wrestling team's home matches are held in Hilton Coliseum in Ames. Six banners hang from the ceiling, honoring the school's gold medalists.
That includes a banner for Jackson from the 1992 Barcelona games.
There's a strong link between Iowa college coaches and the Olympics — both on the mat and in the coaches' corner.
All three of Iowa's major college coaches are Olympians. Iowa's Tom Brands won a gold medal in 1996. Iowa State's Jackson finished first in 1992. Northern Iowa's Doug Schwab was a member of the 2008 U.S. team.
Hugo Otopalik, then-Iowa State's coach, led the 1932 national squad. Fellow Cyclone coaches Bobby Douglas and Cael Sanderson were among those who competed for the American team. Douglas also coached for the Cyclones.
Brands is an assistant on the current U.S. team.
Cornell College's Mike Duroe is in Rio as an assistant coach — it's the sixth time he's served on the U.S. staff.
The Latest Link
Dan Gable talked. Daniel Dennis listened.
When Dennis called Gable for advice regarding the Rio games, he quickly became captivated.
"I just started talking," Gable said. "He never said a word. He listened to three, four or five minutes of one-sided talking. Then I said, 'OK, go ahead.'"
Gable paused, then launched into another lecture: Stay focused. Take advantage. Remain in control.
Dennis and Gable had three or four discussions. The connection between Iowa's Olympic past and present was confirmed.
There's a lot at stake for Iowa, where a gold medal in the sport carries a weight far heavier than its 17 ounces.
"It's just not OK, it's not just any other tournament," Gable said. "This is what helps the future for our sport."
Dennis has received a lot of his good wrestling skills from training and competing in Iowa.
On the world's biggest stage for the sport, Dennis can keep the legacy alive.
"It's not about the past, it's about the future," Gable said. "We have another opportunity to score big in Iowa."
Iowa's Olympic Wrestling Timeline
1920: Nat Pendleton, who was born in Davenport, won a silver medal. He went on to become a movie actor.
1924: Sibley's Ken Truckenmiller became the first of five Cornell College wrestling Olympians.
1928: Allie Morrison of Marshalltown is Iowa's first gold medalist. Edgewood's Lloyd Appleton takes silver.
1932: Iowa State's Hugo Otopalik coached the U.S. Olympic team. He would help foster a long association between Iowa coaches and the U.S. squad.
1936: Dale Brand of Cornell College represents Iowa at the Berlin games.
1948: At least six Iowans were members of the U.S. team, including Clarion's Glen Brand (gold) and Osage's Gerald Leeman.
1952: Bill Smith of Council Bluffs takes gold in the Helsinki games.
1956: Marion High School graduate Dale Thomas places fifth in Greco-Roman light heavyweight competition.
1960: Iowa's Terry McCann brings home gold in the bantamweight division.
1964: Bobby Douglas, who later becomes Iowa State's coach, competes for the first time. He returned in 1968.
1968: Iowa's Steve Combs and Iowa State's Tom Peckham bring college representation to the Mexico City games.
1972: Iowa State athletes Dan Gable and Ben Peterson both win gold.
1976: Peterson returns to the Olympics and takes a silver medal.
1980: Iowa Hawkeyes Chris Campbell, Chuck Yagla and Randy Lewis are among those sidelined when the U.S. boycotts the Moscow games.
1984: One of the state's most successful Olympiads, as Hawkeyes Lewis, Ed and Lou Bananch win gold. Barry Davis took silver and Gable was the head coach.
1988: Iowa State's Nate Carr earns a bronze medal at 149.5 pounds.
1992: Cyclone Kevin Jackson, who later coaches the U.S. team as well as Iowa State, wins gold.
1996: Tom Brands, who will become Iowa's coach, takes a gold medal in Atlanta.
2000: Former Iowa wrestlers Lincoln McIlravy and Terry Brands win bronze medals.
2004: Cael Sanderson, an unbeaten NCAA champ at Iowa State, earns a gold medal.
2008: Doug Schwab of Osage, who is now Northern Iowa's coach, competes for the U.S. team.
2012: Jake Varner of Iowa State wins gold at the London Olympics.
2016: Iowa's Daniel Dennis represents the state at the Rio games.
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