Good article: The cousins are friends of mine from my hometown of Lisbon, Iowa.
Former Hawkeye hoopster pays homage to wrestling culture
On the evening of March 17, 1980, we returned to Iowa City victorious after defeating Georgetown in the NCAA East Region Final, advancing Iowa basketball to its first Final Four in 24 years.
On that same Sunday afternoon in Corvallis, Ore., the Iowa wrestling team won its’ third straight NCAA championship and fifth in six seasons.
We arrived at the Field House near midnight, shocked to find it packed to the rafters. The electric atmosphere may never have reached a fever pitch had it not been ignited by the arrival of the Hawkeye wrestling champs before us. It is a memory I’ll never forget.
Though I grew up in a basketball family, you can’t be from Iowa without some appreciation for wrestling. My cousins lived in Lisbon, and I watched from a distance as they competed for that proud, wrestling-mad mecca. I saw how this sport galvanized an entire town. As a young boy, I went to wrestling meets with my dad, and though I didn’t understand much, the cadence of the crowd was enthralling — the rise and fall of tribal-like emotion spurred by unpredictable and often instantaneous changes of fate.
Dan Gable won his first wrestling championship at the Waterloo YMCA when he was 12. He gives credit to the Y for his early inspiration. My wrestling fate was also sealed at 12 in a YMCA. Unlike Mr. Gable’s experience, I remember a former heavyweight of some repute sending us around the creaky running track suspended above the gym while he sat chain-smoking cigarettes on a poorly ventilated turn in the track. Lap after lap I’d run past him, holding my breath through a deepening haze of smoke. Perhaps this was part of his plan to toughen us up. I quickly convinced myself there was no room for a contact-averse, basketball-loving kid on the mat.
Former Iowa congressman Jim Leach, a 138-pound state champ in high school who later wrestled for Princeton and is now in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, joked with me that wrestlers are a bit envious of basketball players because girls seem to prefer tall and graceful athletes to stocky pluggers. At Iowa in the early 1980s, at least, there was no shortage of admiration among my teammates for wrestlers’ girlfriends. But our deepest admiration came from wrestlers’ single-minded devotion to being the best. Coach Lute Olson’s basketball practices were the most intense two hours I’ve ever experienced, yet watching the wrestlers, I grew to realize they operated on a different level. Their round-the-clock workout regimen has been described as the closest thing to Special Forces training in collegiate athletics. I couldn’t match this intensity, and as in many life situations when one doesn’t understand something or someone, I found it easier to label wrestlers abnormal or crazy than to admit that they might be the more impressive athlete.
It was sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction about Hawkeye wrestlers and their legendary coach. It was said that coach Gable wasn’t opposed to his wrestlers having some fun after dark on weekends, with one caveat: They had to be on the mat ready to wrestle him at 7 a.m. the following morning. It was widely reported he could still beat every man on the team at every weight class. We’d bump into wrestlers in the bars downtown at 10 p.m. only to hear they were back on the mat working it off by midnight. I heard Gable entered the 1972 Olympics knowing both of his knees required surgery, and somehow he adjusted, dominated the competition and won the gold medal without allowing a single point. In his autobiography he wrote, “Most matches are won and lost even before they are wrestled.”
Those stories were amplified by what we witnessed in the sauna located off the wresting locker room. We’d watch a guy ride the stationary bike as hard as he could for one minute, jump off and throw a cup of water on the hot rocks while another man took his place. Around and around they’d go. Once, a freshman teammate of mine took the bait and joined in. A couple of turns on the bike and he was gasping for air and begging for mercy, to the complete glee of the wrestlers. A teammate tells of finding Gable alone in the sauna wearing a rubber sweat suit and holding a deck of cards. The story goes that he would pull a card and drop down for that number of push-ups, return to his seat and pull the next card, continuing until he had gone through the entire deck.
Because the sauna was inside the wrestlers’ locker room, they often came in naked. On one occasion, a wrestler sitting next to a basketball coach decided to do handstand push-ups — fully naked and dripping in sweat. By the time this story circulated the basketball locker room, our whole team had a newfound awe of wrestling prowess and audacity.
A former Cornell University wrestler, Dr. Bob McDonald, a physician and health policy expert says, “The purpose of wresting is not wrestling. The purpose of wrestling is to develop tools. Tools like grit and tenacity, resilience and self-confidence. When you are prepared to go mano-a-mano in front of thousands of people with little more than a swimsuit on, it raises men (and now women) who tend not to make excuses, men who accept that their actions have consequences. To me, wrestling, and Iowa wrestling in particular, is special because it is a crucible for making Dan Gable the best in the world in one respect, and it is the crucible making Norman Borlaug (Iowa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning plant geneticist credited with saving a billion people from starvation) the best in the world in another respect. Each is the epitome of a type of excellence. Each has remarkable tools to pursue excellence. Their tools are forged in the experience of a wrestling room.”
I recently spoke with coach Olson. Besides the Field House memory etched in all of us, he couldn’t stop talking about the humility of Gable, a man who won 181 consecutive matches in high school and college, coached his Hawkeye teams to 15 NCAA championships and had an astonishing .903 winning percentage as Iowa’s coach. Olson said Gable never took personal credit for his success or talked about himself. He was all about the student-athletes, the team and his family.
I am indebted to Iowa wrestling for that magical night in the old Field House, and writing this piece allowed me to reacquaint myself with one of our state’s great legacies. Back in the 80s, I didn’t understand wrestling and thought you had to be nuts to participate. Today, not only do I have a deepening respect, I find myself thinking about that crazy wrestling discipline and how I might apply some of it in my own life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa 1980 Final Four team and a three-year basketball letterman. Today, he is an executive vice president of health policy and payer relations for iRhythm Technologies, Inc., a privately held digital healthcare solutions company that works in cardiac arrhythmia information. He lives in Austin, Texas. Darsee is a frequent contributor to the Register.