Gable book gives more insight to ‘life’ of wrestling legend

Updated: February 17, 2015

By Mike Finn

It’s been over 66 years since Dan Gable was born in Waterloo, Iowa.

It’s been over 50 years since his only sister, Diane, was raped and murdered.

It’s been nearly 45 years since Larry Owings stunned the wrestling world and defeated Gable in the 1970 NCAAs to end Gable’s combined 181-match high school and college winning streak.

It’s been over 42 years since Gable won a freestyle gold medal in the 1972 Olympics. gable book cover

And it’s been almost 18 years since Gable retired from coaching after leading the University of Iowa to 21 Big Ten championships and 15 NCAA titles, including at one point nine straight.

Yes, there have been a lot of moments in the life of this man, who grew to legendary status before he turned 50. And nearly every wrestling fan knows about these moments that helped create the legend.

But Gable and writer Scott Schulte believed there was more to the story of Gable and that was a big reason the two combined to write “A Wrestling Life: The Inspiring Stories of Dan Gable”, which was published by University of Iowa Press and will be available this March.

Schulte, a native of Connecticut, believed that before he first suggested that Gable share his stories as part of an internet piece. Schulte met with Gable at the 2012 Olympic Trials in Iowa City, where Gable was in an “emotional state” after former Hawkeye Brent Metcalf suffered a disappointing loss in the finals.

For Schulte, like many other wrestling fans, heard about these stories. He wanted to do more.

“…wrestling began and ended with Gable. Everything I heard in practice or at camps and clinics would include a story about him,” wrote Schulte, who graduated from high school in 1982 and once met Gable at a local clinic where Gable used Schulte as human “dummy” to illustrate a move.

“The move hurt, but I didn’t care,” Schulte wrote. “I was hanging out with Dan Gable.”

Schulte got a lot more time to spend with Gable over the past two years as Schulte suggested they work together to write a book of “Gable’s short stories.”

And together, Dan related his stories and Schulte added background to the stories over 150 pages and 26 chapters of a book that is a very easy read. (This writer read the entire book on a two-hour flight from Minnesota to Tennessee this winter en route to covering the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga.)

One reason there it is an easy read is that Gable provides more than what fans know from reading headlines and news stories.

You learn that Gable grew up in a home where alcohol unfortunately led to many arguments between his father, Mack, a local realtor, and his mother, Katie, and how that early tension led Gable to sucking his thumb until it stopped with “no great or profound solution.”

You learn that Gable was an ornery little boy, who at one time grabbed his sister’s purse and threw it out of the family convertible. He then retells hiding in a cornfield to avoid the punishment he eventually received.

You learn that Gable resented punishment so much that he once bit an older lady in her rear at a local department store when they were trying to make him stay in one place.

But you also learn that Gable’s behavior was the big reason why his parents sent him to the local YMCA, where he was first introduced to sports like wrestling and swimming … and how to deal with winning and losing.

One of those moments came in the University of Iowa swimming pool where an 11-year-old Gable lost a regional competition to a friend he used to defeat.

“The dagger of the pain was almost too much for me to bear,” Gable wrote. “Those who achieve the highest level of greatness in their lives often do so because they have people who love and support them.”

And Gable’s biggest fan … and critic … was Katie, who called her son a “Molly Putz” for feeling sorry for himself. One of those moments saw Gable take out his frustration by going out one night to shovel his family’s sidewalk and the entire neighborhood “until I worked myself into exhaustion. It felt so good to get out that anger that I kept shoveling and shoveling until it was gone.”

Growing up in a blue-collar community, Gable showcased his work ethic; first with a  local construction company that was paid by Mack for hiring his son until the owner felt guilty and wrote a letter to Mack, saying, “I appreciate what you’re doing for him, but we just can’t continue to do this with you paying us to pay him. We’ll pay him.”

Sadly, Gable’s sister, Diane, was not there to see Dan showcase his work ethic after she was murdered in her bedroom while Dan and his parents were two hours away on a fishing/camping trip. Gable recounts those moments from when he was 15 years old in the back seat of the family car when Mack got the sad news from a pay phone, which Mack dropped and yelled, “She’s not alive.”

Gable remembers his mother was so upset that she got out of the car and started running back to the cabin with Gable in pursuit.

“When I got back to the cabin, she was crumpled on the floor. Her arms were wrapped around her hair and she was banging her head on the floor, screaming,” Gable recalled. “She was completely out of control. Her face and head were bleeding badly.

“Within a few hours, our home had gone from being a picture of Americana to one of gothic terror … I had to say goodbye to my sister, whom I admired, and was forced to find within myself the will to save my family from being torn apart.”

But Gable also credits that tragedy in making him the man that he eventually became; starting with moving into Diane’s bedroom, which his parents refused to enter.

“I think of Diane every day and I remain appreciative of the inner drive I developed after her death,” Gable wrote. “That inner drive helped keep my family together, helped me win a gold medal at the Olympics and paved the way for the rest of my life and career.”

And what a life and career Gable enjoyed, as would anyone that won two NCAA championships at Iowa State.

But Gable did not win every match.

“People are really fascinated by my losses,” Gable wrote. “That’s okay because no one is intrigued in my losses more than me.”

Gable speaks about his 13-11 loss to Larry Owings in the 142-pound final of the 1970 NCAA tournament in Evanston, Ill., where Gable admits he did not enter the tournament with the right attitude.

“My brain was not there, even when we arrived at the arena at Northwestern,” said Gable, who actually made a commercial for ABC sports about how he would end his career with a third championship. “I took in the atmosphere of the tournament instead of focusing on myself, the team and our performance.”

Gable did not want to receive condolences after the historic loss and remembers going to the locker room where he set on a bench until he heard a shower running. It was there he saw his ISU teammate Chuck Jean refusing to compete in the 177-pound final.

“Dan, I’ve never been in lineup when you’ve lost and I’m not about to start now,” recalled Gable about the exchange which led to him telling Jean to wrestle, something Gable believes led to his emotional healing … and an early moment that he believed help him win an Olympic gold medal and eventually become a coach.

Gable’s career as a coach was nearly as historic as that of a wrestler; mainly because he had so many great wrestlers, who enjoyed personal championships … but also suffered tough moments.

One was Chad Zaputil, who dealt with the disappointment of losing three NCAA finals by altering a tattoo on his chest where it appeared a hawk was tearing out his heart.

“That was the toughest thing I saw in my coaching career,”  Gable wrote.  “I was in shock. I said to myself, ‘Is this what I’m doing for kids?’ ”

Gable faced many dilemmas in his 20 years at Iowa, including the 1993 season when he decided to bring true freshman Lincoln McIlravy out redshirt to help his team win a national championship; something that nearly backfired when the star recruit from South Dakota lost his very first match at home; upsetting many people, including McIlravy’s father.

That led to perhaps the most intriguing story from Gable’s book; how he scripted a plan to help McIlravy regain his confidence through a special event in Carver-Hawkeye Arena before nearly 2,000 fans.

Of course, McIlravy eventually won the 142-pound championship that March. (See page 38 for Kyle Klingman’s look back at the season.) And he was a key part of a second wave of championships that included nine straight titles between 1978 and 87 and six more between 1991 and ’97.

And along the way were the four daughters born to Dan and his wife Kathy:

• Jenni, the oldest, who used to sit under Gable’s chair at home meets;

• Annie, who grew close to the wrestlers while taking bus road trips with the team and painfully dealt with seeing the Hawkeyes’ first NCAA win streak come to an end in 1987;

• Molly, whose competitive push to exhaustion as a high school athlete literally matched that of her father;

• Mackie, the youngest who was named after her grandfather and who, with Dan, admitted had the most difficult time after Gable decided to retire at Iowa.

Gable creates chapters on each of his daughters; those stories also provide a much different side to Gable than most people know.

At the end of the book, a reader might give the book another title, “A Life” because there is more to this book and Gable than just wrestling. n