The renowned wrestling coach and Olympic champion pushes excellence on and off the mat.
When University of Iowa wrestler Doug Schwab takes the Olympic mats in Beijing this month, it will evoke memories of the 1972 games in Munich for Dan Gable. But the renowned athlete and coach says other moments outshine his Olympic championship.
“With all the successes that I’ve had, I really think coaching is more of a highlight, because of its longevity,” he says. “And coaching isn’t about me. It’s about other people.”
Gable may be the most successful collegiate coach in wrestling history, but he feels his most important contributions are yet to come—and they’re likely to occur off the mat.
“I’m always the kind of guy who thinks, ‘Okay, what have I done lately?’” he says. “I want to do a lot more, with a greater impact.”
Gable became Iowa’s head wrestling coach in 1976 and created what many call a dynasty. From 1978 to 1986, his Hawkeye squad won the NCAA title each year, a record nine in a row. He continued to coach the team until a sabbatical after the 1997 season, achieving a 355-21-5 record in dual meets, including 15 NCAA titles and 21 straight Big Ten titles.
Even in 1997, when the Hawkeyes were expected to lose to Oklahoma State, Gable persevered, coaching on crutches after hip replacement surgery and leading his team to its 17th NCAA team title. Gable also was head freestyle coach for the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, 1984, and 2000.
Wrestling has been in Gable’s blood since he was a boy in Waterloo, Iowa.
“I don’t remember a moment that I didn’t want to be a wrestler,” says Gable, who still devotes time and energy to the University since his official retirement as head coach. He currently serves as the assistant to the athletic director for performance enhancement.
Gable remembers breaking his share of furniture as he practiced the sport in the 1950s. “I was a daily figure at the YMCA between ages 4 to 12,” he recalls, acknowledging coaches, teachers, and others as mentors and role models.
Wrestling wasn’t Gable’s first organized competitive sport. He swam until age 12, when he had to choose one sport over the other, since practices overlapped. He’s never regretted his decision.
“It’s the only workout that I can really do that totally engulfs me. It takes away all my thoughts. It encompasses me. It gets inside me, and it’s like a natural phenomenon,” he says. “It’s a wonder of the world, that feeling when you’re scrambling from one position to another.”
The discipline and determination he cultivated also helped him confront a family tragedy.
When Gable was 15, his 19-year-old sister and only sibling, Diane, was raped and murdered in his family’s home while he and his parents were away on a weekend fishing trip. Gable believes he could have prevented his sister's death, a thought that forever haunts him.
"That will never go away," he says, recounting how he suspected a neighbor of the crime. The young man had revealed his feelings for Diane while walking home from school with Gable, and was later sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
Losing his sister propelled Gable further into wrestling, partly as a way to honor Diane, but also to distract his parents from their loss.
“I made some decisions at that time that I didn’t even realize. It was natural, it was automatic, it was instinctive,” Gable says. “It’s given me a real chance to sort out things and make better decisions in my life on a daily basis, both small and bigger things.”
Today, Gable refuses to let Diane be forgotten. He speaks to homicide survivor groups and to an educational psychology class taught by Mitch Kelly, a former wrestler turned UI College of Education faculty member.
Family remains essential to Gable, who credits his success to achieving a balance between work and home. He says his wife, Kathy, and their four daughters have enthusiastically supported his passion for wrestling. In turn, he’s encouraged their passions.
Gable knows he’s become a symbol of the sport and an ongoing inspiration. But he encourages young athletes to consider all the ways they can impact their world, balancing family, work, and faith, and applying all their talents, whether they fall in wresting, teaching, accounting, or any other field.
Gable himself has other loves—playing with his four grandkids, fishing along the Mississippi River, relaxing at one of his cabins, or helping with cleanup at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, which sustained major flood damage this summer.
He’s also working with author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate John Irving on a movie about his life, and he continues to be an advocate for wrestling worldwide. He’s especially interested in getting more girls and young women involved in the sport.
“Yeah, I’ll be retired from The University of Iowa, but I’ll go to my grave working and supporting my family and my profession,” he says. “And I’ll never totally sever the ties with the University.”
It’s this kind of thinking that keeps Gable certain his best work and most important contributions lie ahead. “I really think that my best is yet to come,” he says, “and so I hope that whatever is it, it will make a difference.”
Story by Lois Gray; photo by Tim Schoon
Aug. 4, 2008