Gable: Success when you’re young should lead to confidence

Updated: November 29, 2023

Photo: Marcus Blaze (left) and Bo Bassett, still in high school, made national news this past month when they excelled in tournaments against college-aged wrestlers. You will find features of them in the latest issue of WIN Magazine.

This Dan Gable Q&A appeared in the latest issue of WIN Magazine. Click on the cover or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe.

Note: Before Dan Gable went on to win two NCAA championships at Iowa State, before adding World and Olympic gold medals and before coaching Iowa to 15 NCAA team titles, the three-time Iowa state champ first caught national news when he won the first of six Midlands championships as a true freshman in 1966; a time when freshmen were ineligible to compete. Gable recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn on why today’s younger wrestlers are having similar success against more veteran wrestlers.

WIN: At this year’s Clarion Open, two high school wrestlers — sophomore Bo Bassett and junior Marcus Blaze — turned in impressive wins against ranked college wrestlers. It was something you did less than a year after graduating from high school. Why were you able to succeed back then?

GABLE: Not too many kids wrestled in the Midlands back then when it was the most competitive tournament outside the NCAAs. I don’t think I could have gone to the Midlands as a high school sophomore and won a championship. One reason was because I was too light then. Also, a lot happened to me after I won my third state title, my championship mindset all of a sudden had to make a jump knowing my next competitions would be against college wrestlers. I trimmed my competition down to more elite wrestlers. Many high school wrestlers back then did not have the mindset of a college wrestler.

I was not wrestling college opponents as a high school wrestler in real matches, but I was doing it in practice growing up in Waterloo. I remember going against Bob Buzzard, a family friend, who was bigger and older (and a two-time All-American at 137 pounds). Bob would bring in some of his Iowa State teammates who were smaller and more at my weight.

Also, I remember wrestling older high school kids when I was in sixth or seventh grade. My sister was in high school and some of her friends were wrestlers at a time that Waterloo West High School was pretty strong. Of course, they saw this little kid and would grab me and tried to wrestle me in the front room of our house. But soon, their jaws dropped when I dropped one of those high school wrestlers on the carpet. Even my mouth dropped a little bit.

Six months after winning a third state of Iowa championship for West Waterloo High School, Dan Gable won the first of six Midlands titles while redshirting as freshman at Iowa State.

That’s probably when the word first got out that I might have been pretty good.

WIN: Is that when your championship mindset began; that you could take on wrestlers older than you?

GABLE: Yes. That’s why I can still remember that moment now at the age of 75. I just knew the kid was like four years older than me so I figured I was a pretty tough kid. Later on, I remember working out with Bob Buzzard and actually scored a point against him. Those memories and moments are what builds you for the future. If you don’t carry those memories with you, you are not utilizing opportunities to build what you need to build.

WIN: If someone like Bob Buzzard had not worked out with you, would you not have become the successful wrestler that you became?

GABLE: I would have been really far behind. He gave me confidence and then would talk about me to people like, “Wait ‘til this kid hits the mats.” When you start hearing that, you also start believing in yourself.

I remember my senior year in high school, I went to the national tournament at Iowa State. Bob didn’t get a chance to wrestle in that tournament, but he took me under his arms by taking me to some of their practices where all the other NCAA wrestlers were training.

I remember one of the guys who was supposed to win the weight class at 137 pounds. I had my gear on and that guy needed someone to work out with to get his weight down, so Buzzard said, “Here’s a high school kid, a tough kid, a three-time state champ if you want to work out with him.”

I think he must of have gotten upset (in the championship bracket) but needed some help to get back down to weight. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I still was basically a kid and all of a sudden, I felt like all eyes in that room were on me and this other guy because I just took him down and rode him. I was just there going hard and found myself “beating” the guy who was supposed to be a top seed. But at that time, I didn’t know he was supposed to win the NCAAs. He didn’t tell me to just flow and drill with him. He just told me we were going to wrestle hard and my mindset was my mindset.

I’m a guy who when the whistle blew, I was ready to go. But even I walked out of that wrestling room and said, “Whoa,” and started believing in myself more.

WIN: Why were you not in awe of wrestling a top NCAA tournament seed?

GABLE: I think I had enough knowledge of competition and how to compete. For example, I was not a very good swimmer as a kid but kept winning. Also, why did I always make the baseball or football teams? I had that edge of competitiveness that coaches could see.

I also think I have a mind that needs answers or needs to figure things out. While I was good at wrestling, if things didn’t go well like when I lost to (Larry) Owings, it (negative thought) would be in my mind and stay in my mind until I made it good.

WIN: What recommendations would you make to younger wrestlers, who accomplished something that many did not expect, but they have many more years ahead of them? How do they not get over-confident?

GABLE: First, I think it’s amazing high school kids can wrestle in some of these college tournaments and they should be thankful for that opportunity. But that’s just one tournament, one match, and they have a lot more to prove down the road.

WIN: How long should they celebrate the early successful moments? Or how should they deal with people who have expectations on them for more success?

GABLE: If they want to win other championships, they can’t celebrate too long. Those moments are “feel-good” matches, but you don’t celebrate “feel-good” matches.

It’s a moment they will never forget but take it and build on it. Family and friends are going to love to talk about it, which is great. But those moments are more for other people, not you. You really haven’t won anything yet.

When people start treating you like you are going to be the next superstar, remind them it was one match and say something like, “Wait until I win the Olympics.” You’ve got to win some of these matches to get to the Olympics.

Don’t forget those moments and let it help you. Those moments are not milestones from a longevity point of view. Your career is just starting. You see how long guys are wrestling internationally and look what they’ve accomplished. You’ve got a long way to go.