Dan Gable: U.S. won’t truly be back until it starts winning medals again consistently

Updated: September 26, 2011

Editor’s Note: Dan Gable made his name by setting college records as an Iowa State wrestler and University of Iowa coach. He also dominated on the World and Olympic stage by winning championships as both a wrestler and coach. Recently, Gable reflected on the United States’ successful World Championships in Istanbul, Turkeym with WIN editor Mike Finn.

WIN: The men’s freestyle squad produced its first gold medal since 2006 and finished third in the team rankings after settling for 22nd place in 2010. Some might think the Americans are back among the elite on the world stage. Is that accurate?

Dan Gable

GABLE: I’m not going to say the U.S. is really back. We are doing a lot better than what we’ve been doing and we’re on our way back. This is a freestyle coaching staff, led by Zeke Jones, which has only been in place for two years.

It’s a question of consistency, especially with next year being an Olympic year. Are we going to be heading the same direction? We can’t drop back to one medal. It’s encouraging that we’re saying the U.S. is moving in the right direction.

I don’t want to “poor boy” wrestling in this country. We’ve always been good in wrestling, off and on and mostly on since the 1950s. We just haven’t been the dominant team in recent years and when you go the opposite direction, you don’t want to continue to head in a negative direction. We don’t want to be a country where we have to learn the sport from other countries. We want other countries coming to us to learn what we are doing.

I didn’t like the fact just because we struggled that we felt we had to start all over. I felt like there was so much emphasis on qualifying weights for the Olympics. When I was at the training camp, I saw signs posted that the No. 1 thing was to qualify your weight class.

That should be on a much lower priority than winning gold medals. I didn’t go to high school simply with the goal of graduating from high school or I didn’t go to college just to get a diploma. That was an assumption. I didn’t question whether I was going to get my degree. If I go for a C, I’ll probably get a D. If I go for an A, I might get a C or I may get a B or higher. It’s all part of the mental development that has you at a higher level of expectation.

When you start questioning things, you’re not allowing people to get on a roll and actually be building during that time period. I watched (Greco-Roman wrestler Justin) Lester and thought he looked really good until he qualified his weight for the Olympics (when he reached the semifinals). It looked like he relaxed. I think we have to be a little more careful that we don’t leave out the highest possibilities. When we go to World or Olympic tournaments, let’s focus on winning the tournament.


U.S. national freestyle coach Zeke Jones shared congratulations with Yuri Shakmuradov, a long-time Russian coach after the countries finished among the top three and within five points of each other.

WIN: What did you see from the Americans in this year’s Worlds that maybe we didn’t see in the last couple years?

GABLE: We’re scoring points. One of the guys who did the best was Jake Varner, who tripled the number of offensive points compared to what he gave up, while Jordan Burroughs doubled his scoring compared to his opponents.

But if there was a flaw, they were also giving up too many points. We need to also be good from a defensive point of view.

I don’t like to think we’re taking more chances because that’s a gamble. I like to think we are just more aggressive. I also believe we are doing more things to make our sport more exciting. Maybe we need more of that scoring to delight and bring the fans in.

World champion Jordan Burroughs is doing it in dynamic offensive positioning. By being aggressive, he opened some eyes. The respect that you get as either a team or individual gives you more of a chance to be a winner. When they don’t respect you is when they kick the crap out of you.


WIN: Do you think the United States’ performance will make Russia, which scored just five more team points than the U.S., take more notice of the Americans?

GABLE: I think Russia will look at its own program. Even though they took first as a team in men’s freestyle and Greco, I don’t think they would have been real happy with their performance. They are a “repeat performance” type of team and yet they had two weight classes (74k/163 pounds and 96k/211.5) in freestyle that didn’t place in the top five.

Russian freestyle and Greco are used to being champions but they didn’t win enough medals and individual gold medals. They have just one mentality but that may be hurting them when it comes to their women’s program (which finished fourth). Russia expects it to be as good as the men’s freestyle automatically.


WIN: Do you remember a year that any American wrestler had a year like Jordan Burroughs, who has become the poster boy of USA Wrestling?

GABLE: I can’t remember him losing any time this year. I know he had some tough matches. He has developed mentally since he was a collegiate wrestler.

I think he really started this during his national championship run. If you remember the Big 12 tournament, he only defeated Oklahoma’s Tyler Caldwell by one point (2-1) in a low-scoring match. All of a sudden, he opened up and dominated once he got to the Nationals. He probably analyzed it there (at the NCAAs) and said this is what I can do. Since then, he’s been on a roll.


WIN: How is Burroughs doing this in freestyle considering he had rarely wrestled that style during his five years at Nebraska?

GABLE: I think his style fits him pretty good in freestyle, where wrestlers are usually on their feet as opposed to college wrestling when someone is put in the down position.

He has a style that is explosive and his best scoring positions are from singles and doubles. He’s not in there pressuring from a tie-up position, where he could get thrown. He’s tapping (his opponent’s head) and going, bobbing and weaving. He gets a guy off balance. The Europeans don’t like to move.

Burroughs is able to explode and shoot and has enough distance from his opponent that if a guy shoots on him, he is able to set his opponent up and re-shoot on him. He does have a little chink in his armor that guys are getting in on him and he needs some work there. If he watched the Russian (champion Besik Kudukhov) at 60 kilos, he could pick up a few pointers.

He has become very aggressive and he had to win some tough matches; something he may not be able to do all the time. There was a call in his gold-medal match against Iran, which they could have decided to give to the Iranian. Or look at what happened to (heavyweight Tervel) Dlagnev, where five times in a row, he lost the ball pull in overtime. How often does anyone lose a coin flip five times in a row?


WIN: Why wasn’t Burroughs intimidated wrestling in his first Worlds?

GABLE: He has no reason to believe anything else than that he is going to win because he’s had no losses. He has a lot of confidence.


WIN: In addition to Burroughs, another first-timer, Nick Simmons, had a lot of success. Is that because he also has a unique style with his length? Would you expect the Russians and Iranians to do more scouting of their styles? What must he and the American coaches do to help him for future international events?

GABLE: I felt like the Iranian (Hassan Rahimi) in Simmons’ bronze medal match knew that he should never get underneath Simmons. He tried to be explosive on his feet and did not allow Simmons to get on top of his head. Simmons has to learn how to be more aggressive from a tackle point of view. Once people think they have you figured out, you need another arsenal. The coaches need to continue to expand the wrestlers’ skills on offense and defense.


WIN: What did you think about Cael Sanderson’s performance considering he was away from this level of competition for seven years?

GABLE: He may have respected his opponents more than he needed to. He wasn’t as physical in his set-ups as he could have been and held back at times, which might have cost him points. In a four-minute match, it shouldn’t be that hard for an American to keep up his aggression. He may have wrestled more of (his opponents’) style, which generated less opportunity for him to score.

There was a point in the third period of Burroughs’ match against the guy from Azerbaijan (Ashraf Aliyev) where Burroughs may have broken his opponent. That needs to happen more with all the Americans. I don’t know if Sanderson ever got his opponents to that point because he may not have been offensive minded enough.


WIN: In 1984, you had to balance coaching Iowa and the U.S. Olympic freestyle team. Do you think Sanderson will come back for the 2012 Olympics, considering he has his plate full as head coach at defending national champion Penn State, which has also had to deal with some off-the-mat problems with some of its wrestlers?

GABLE: I know that he doesn’t like to lose. He didn’t experience what he wanted — a World championship — and now we’re heading into an Olympic year, which he’s already accomplished.

The tough part is that he has to really believe that he can win or he won’t come back. It may take more building.

I had a hard time focusing on more than one thing at the highest level. (Former World and Olympic champion) Bruce Baumgartner apparently did not have many problems focusing on more than one thing, but Edinboro wasn’t the national power like Penn State currently is.

I also did not have my brother on the coaching staff, who could almost guide me like a parent. I think the system is set up for him at Penn State. Cael has resources and World medals in the room now with the likes of Jake Varner and Franklin Gomez (a silver medalist representing Puerto Rico).

I believe he could help our program by competing. So could (2008 Olympic champion) Henry Cejudo. I think having Sanderson there makes (2009 World silver medalist) Jake Herbert step up his game. It puts more edges on everyone.