IOWA CITY, Iowa — Wrestling legend Dan Gable has spent the last 40 years working to grow the sport that has defined his life.
Supporters won’t need to look at the statue that will be unveiled in Gable’s honor in this college town to see the ultimate payoff for those efforts.
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials will be held in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on April 21-22 before what is expected to be the largest crowd in the event’s history. Organizers have already sold more than 10,000 tickets, far surpassing the record crowd of 9,434 set 12 years ago in Dallas. The hope is that the 15,000-seat gym might sell out.
The overwhelming enthusiasm for wrestling in Iowa has been spurred by four decades of work by the 63-year-old Gable, a former Olympic gold medalist and phenomenally successful coach turned motivational speaker and ambassador for the sport.
“We have a good crowd base, and we would hope that because of that it’s a bigger deal,” Gable said. “The impact that we have here, we want it to be able to carry through the next Olympiad and maybe even the next one.”
The fans coming next week will walk by a 7-foot bronze statue of Gable, which will be unveiled on Wednesday. It is a fitting reminder of all Gable has done to further wrestling both in and outside of his home state.
The Waterloo, Iowa native went an astounding 182-1 in prep and collegiate competition at Iowa State. He won a world title in 1971 and famously failed to surrender a point in winning gold at the Munich Games in 1972.
As if that wasn’t enough, Gable went to become one of the most successful coaches in NCAA history, in any sport. He led Iowa to 15 national titles, a .944 winning percentage and the Big Ten crown in each of his 21 seasons as head coach.
Gable, who stepped down as the Hawkeyes coach in 1997, was head coach of the U.S. Olympic freestyle team for the third and final time in Sydney in 2000. But he’s been around the Iowa program ever since, aiding university fundraising efforts and promoting wrestling wherever and whenever he can.
“It’s not like I had to do this my whole life. I love to do what I did my whole life,” Gable said.
Beyond spending time with his seven grandchildren and doing a little fishing, former Iowa wrestler Mark Ironside said Gable remains dedicated to his role as a spokesman and promoter of wrestling.
“He spends every single day of his life right now promoting the sport in one way or another. I mean, he’s dedicated,” said Ironside, a two-time NCAA champion who lives in nearby Cedar Rapids and is a color commentator for Iowa radio broadcasts. “It’s just in his character. It’s just who he is. He just doesn’t know anything else.”
The buzz over next week’s meet has been amplified considerably by the hardcore base of wrestling fans in eastern Iowa. But Gable wants to reach beyond that group and see the trials draw interest from casual observers and others who might initially be perplexed by the rule differences for international competition.
“We have a chance under one building to actually educate a lot of fans, because there’s going to be a lot of fans that don’t know what’s going on. They’re going to have to be patient and they’re going to have to watch for an hour or two to understand,” Gable said. “You can learn to enjoy the different craziness of it.”
Gable’s path to Olympic gold in Munich in 1972 began at the U.S. Olympic Trials in a high school gym in Minnesota. Gable has been an integral part of wrestling’s growth since then, and he hopes next week’s event will keep that momentum going.
“I’m just excited to be a part of something that can be impactful for the future,” Gable said. “I hoping between freestyle men’s and women’s, men’s Greco, that we can make a big enough impact that it carries on again. That’s what I love. I love to be in a position to make a difference, and we are in that position and Iowa can make a difference.”