Gable: This era is great, but the sport needs to evolve more

Updated: August 10, 2023

Photo: The 2023 Junior/16U Nationals in Fargo last month drew over 7,000 wrestlers, including many who had qualified for age-group World Championship teams this summer. (USA Wrestling photo)

Note: One might say that Dan Gable, the legendary wrestler and coach, has been part of some of the great eras in American wrestling; from his days as a collegiate and World champ and Olympic gold medalist in the early 1970s to his coaching days) in the mid-1980s and later in the 1990s, when Team USA was earning nearly as many titles as today. Gable recently spoke to WIN editor Mike Finn about comparing these eras.

WIN: The recent Junior/16U Nationals broke many of the tournament participation numbers and now this country is preparing to send many of its younger and Senior-level wrestlers to the World Championships where they have earned a record number of medals (15 overall in each of the last two Worlds). With this mind, is this the greatest era in American wrestling?

GABLE: I believe that every era of wrestling in this country is the greatest because 90 percent of the time we have evolved into something that is bigger and better and more organized. Some people don’t know how to judge what you are asking. Because of that, they only think back personally about what has taken place in their lives and believe their era was the greatest. Or they will say that it was less evolved so you can’t really compare today’s era to then. 

I love hearing that today’s era may be the greatest because of today’s results. However, every era had its issues and some have been overcome. For example, in today’s era, we have female wrestling; something other eras did not.

There are always going to be new people making an impact, which is exciting. But at the same time, we have groups that used to be the best and want to be there again. For example, the states of Oklahoma and Iowa once had the best college teams, but now Pennsylvania does. I’d like to think that Iowa and Oklahoma would like to be No. 1 again. But what I hope is that there is another state or states that want to say that. And while only a few states have dominated this conversation, there have been years when another state or college makes a name like Arizona State in the 1980s or perhaps Minnesota around the turn of the century.

I would say to be careful if you are calling this the greatest era in American wrestling. We need the entire wrestling community to move forward and not get mad at each other. I know there were some people who were mad at me after what we were doing at Iowa in the 1980s and thought we were getting too much publicity.

And if this is going to be the greatest era, it needs to show that it will grow and evolve even more.

WIN: You mentioned the states of Oklahoma, Iowa and Minnesota, which all hired coaches who made big impacts at local universities like Myron Roderick, yourself and Cael Sanderson, respectively. Is that what it takes for another state or school to make a bigger impact in the future?

GABLE: Such a coach is certainly a catalyst and will be a leader. But that leader must also have people who are willing to get on board or are willing to let that coach/leader get on board to what they are doing as well. 

WIN: When you speak about people getting on board, what does that mean?

GABLE: For example, someone like Gary Kurdelmeier, who hired me, could have stayed on at Iowa and I could have left Iowa. Who knows what would have happened if that occurred? In every school that I’ve talked about, there were people behind the scenes administratively or monetarily, who have a big impact.

There also is a lot of homework that must be done and the person leading the way has to be likable, a good communicator, has to get people excited … and has to get good results. Without those results, plans fall apart. That doesn’t mean that you must have instant results, but you must show progress and keep people excited like having one more All-American than you did a year earlier. For example, Iowa continues to sell out Carver-Hawkeye Arena and the Hawkeyes have not been the No. 1 program the last few years. Does that mean that fans will continue to show up there? Probably not, if they don’t show some progress.

WIN: You mentioned each era has issues. What could be a possible issue amid today’s success?

GABLE: That USA Wrestling or other groups start patting themselves on their backs too much and all of sudden, success doesn’t turn out that way. Also, these groups and programs must come up with agreements on how things need to evolve.

WIN: One might say that America’s wrestling organizations are getting along better than in the past. What are your thoughts on that? Can’t arguments between groups and programs also be a good thing to avoid complacency?

GABLE: Yes, and let’s not sit back and say this is the greatest era in American wrestling. Be willing to express your thoughts. I would hope that USA Wrestling continues to stay on board with the NCAA and with high school organizations and with youth wrestling groups.

Also, wrestling needs to make sure that female wrestling continues to advance to the extent of helping the total sport. But as we add women’s wrestling, we must make sure we are not eliminating some men’s programs. I want to believe we are at a point where people are accepting women’s wrestling but also want to see even more men’s programs.

Team USA at the 2022 Worlds

The following is a breakdown of how the United States fared in the different age groups at last year’s 2022 UWW World Championships. This includes all three styles: men’s freestyle, women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman.

Tournament Gold Silver Bronze Total
Senior 7 6 2 15
U23 1 4 4 9
Junior (U20) 3 4 4 11
# Cadet (U17) 5 6 3 14

# In the 2023 U17 Worlds, which took place July 31-Aug. 6 in Istanbul, Turkey, Team USA won a combined 13 medals: six medals (three gold) in men’s freestyle, six (two gold) in women’s freestyle and one (gold) in Greco-Roman. The 20U Worlds will take place Aug. 14-20 in Amman City, Jordan, followed by the Senior Worlds, Sept. 16-24, in Belgrade, Serbia, and the U23 Worlds, Oct. 23-29 at a site to be determined.