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Klessinger: Gable still shows how wrestling makes life easier
Photo:Robin (left) and William (right) Chesley invited Dan Gable to speak to a group of wrestling advocates in Maryland earlier this month.
By John Klessinger
For a minute, I wasn’t sure if I was in a Jurassic Park movie or an event to promote wrestling. I looked around the room, where there was an impressive display of deer, bear and other game … as well as the legendary Dan Gable.
“I feel protected here with all the wrestlers and the animals in this room,” Gable joked to the crowd of former coaches, wrestlers and fans May 3 at the home of William and Robin Chesley in Harwood, Md.
It is no secret that Coach Gable has been an ardent promoter of wrestling since he retired from coaching in 1997. In this moment, Gable put on a display of motivation and good humor, all aimed at sustaining and growing wrestling. Gable had the room in stitches multiple times on various topics. He showed all of us that he still has that competitive fire about wrestling, life and family.
One moment he talked about Brad Penrith, a former Iowa NCAA champion and World silver medalist, and the next he spoke about his four grown daughters. In between, he bantered with members of the Baltimore/Washington area wrestling community, as young as wrestlers in high school upwards to those who competed in the 1950s and 1960s. The message: Do your part and give back to a sport that has done so much for the people in attendance.
The evening was possible because of the Chesleys. “Bill” was a former wrestler and coach in Maryland and is a successful real estate broker in the Baltimore area. Successful is an understatement. Drive up to his property and it is clear Bill has been more than successful. He started his company, WFChesley Real Estate, in 1970 after working in trades for five years.
“I started with homes, then office buildings, and now brokerages and investments,” said Chesley, who credits the sport for developing discipline and a tireless work ethic. “Wrestling has been a big part of my life.”
Chesley didn’t go to college but pointed out how the sport helped turn a wrestler into a successful businessman.
“I read Gable’s quote, ‘Once you wrestle, everything else is easy,’” he recalled. “I worked ten-hour days, seven days a week. Wrestling was more difficult.”
He also compared the challenges of wrestling to Navy SEALS and other military special operations personnel.
“Wrestling helps everyone on all levels try harder than they would otherwise,” Chesley said.
As if on cue, Gable corrected Chesley and admitted he may have been misquoted long ago about the “easy” comment.
“Wrestling makes life easier,” Gable said.
From there, he told a story about a friend on the phone at the airport in Chicago. His friends were going through a tough time. His wife was not doing well. He acknowledged what his friend was going through wasn’t easy. Still, the sport has allowed people to take difficult situations head-on and persevere more effectively than others outside of the sport.
Gable’s message was clear to all of us: attack challenges.
“That’s the only way to do it,” he said.
The event at the Chesleys featured college and high school coaches, officials, and former greats. One great was fellow Iowa State alumni Kelly Ward, a three-time NCAA finalist and one-time champion for the Cyclones in 1979.
“It was great to gather with people from the Maryland community. (NWCA executive director Mike) Moyer made a great speech about the Wrestlers In Business Network (WIBN). Thank you to the Chesleys for opening their home to us,” said Ward.
NCAA champions Teague Moore (Oklahoma State, 1998) and Reg Wicks (Iowa, 1968) were also at the Chesley’s. Maryland Coach Alex Clemsen and eight other college coaches were also there.
“It was great seeing so many people in wrestling from around DMV come together,” said Clemsen. “Mr. Chesley and his wife are great people. To make that happen for the community is a wonderful thing. Very thankful for their generosity and hospitality.”
Chesley started off the night discussing the importance of wrestling to him.
“Wrestling has done a lot for me, my son (Fred), and everybody. It greatly influences people to be better than they would be without,” Chesley said.
Inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2022, Chesley compared Gable to Michael Jordan, Pele and other sports icons.
After opening remarks, Chesley passed the torch to Moyer, who discussed the “Wrestling in Business Network” and how everyone in attendance can help the sport. He cited Gable’s influence since retiring from coaching.
Jokingly, Moyer also told a story of when he wrestled former Hawkeye champ Jim Zalesky at the national tournament. Moyer said he was in a position to upset the three-time national champion, and he heard Gable telling Zalesky instructions before lining up on the bottom, while Moyer picked the top.
“I knew that was your best position. I study all our opponents,” chided Gable.
Then Moyer added, “I was losing 15-1, but I felt I had a good shot.”
The crowd laughed hysterically. So did Gable.
Throughout Gable’s hour-long talk, he oscillated from being a coach, wrestling advocate and comedian. He demonstrated humility and vulnerability. Gable shared lesson after lesson with the onlookers.
But, he always went back to the point of the night. He was there to support and help in any way the future of wrestling. The impact it made on him. Everything he learned from the sport.
Gable said the loss to Larry Owings at the 1970 NCAAs was the best thing that could have happened to him. He told the tragic story of his sister being murdered when he was in high school. Gable told stories of various wrestlers at Iowa who struggled. Surprisingly, Gable talked about why he retired at 48 years old.
“I wouldn’t be here today if I continued to coach,” said Gable, who also showed why he is an icon in our beloved sport with a mix of intensity and light-hearted humor. He made jokes about himself often and his relationship with officials, including one who was in the audience.
“How many mistakes did you make as a referee?” Gable demanded. The former referee laughed and confidently said, “None.”
Gable laughed and said, “Great answer!”
Wrestlers talk about the community, the shared struggles, the lessons we learn and their impact on us. We take it for granted. But silently, when adversity sets in, something inside us knows we will be ok.
Anyone who has wrestled can attest to the demands physically and mentally. The emotional pain from a tough loss and the exhilaration after a big win. However, we cherish the challenges we’ve overcome, the grueling practices, hard weight cuts and facing our fears.
And then, at some point like Gable preaches, we learn that everything in life is easier once we’ve wrestled.
(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)