Wayne Wells display at National Wrestling Hall of Fame (Photo/National Wrestling Hall of Fame)
Being a Nike signature athlete is a unique honor/distinction bestowed on a select few sports stars. Among the honorees: Bo Jackson, John McEnroe, Sheryl Swoopes. However, sports fanatics may be surprised to learn that Wayne Wells -- 1972 Olympic gold medal-winning freestyle wrestler -- was not only a Nike signature athlete ... but the very first one.
When the National Wrestling Hall of Fame brought this distinction to this writer's attention, I thought this story was too good NOT to share with the amateur wrestling community.
What is a Nike signature athlete?
Let's go to the source. Here's how Nike defines its signature athlete program at its website:
"Becoming a signature athlete at Nike is an honor reserved for few. In the company's 42-year history, less than one percent of its endorsed athletes have been given a signature shoe.
"As members in one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sport, Nike signature athletes take pride in representing the brand and the prestige that comes with having a shoe made just for them. Through a highly collaborative process, Nike designers create footwear that is engineered to the exact specifications of the athlete's physical needs and tailored to the demands of their specific sport. Fusing innovation with inspiration is essential."
"Nike's first signature athlete was welterweight wrestler, Wayne Wells. The 5' 8" Texas native had an accomplished career, winning a gold medal in Munich in 1972 while working closely with Nike footwear designers on his signature, high-top wresting boot. The Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee's inner drive translated off the mat as well; he later became a practicing attorney."
Wayne Wells (Photo/National Wrestling Hall of Fame)
Meet Wayne Wells
Born in Abilene, Texas in September 1946, Wayne Alton Wells moved to Oklahoma with his family as a kid. He was introduced to wrestling in junior high in Oklahoma City, then elevated his performance at John Marshall High School, wrestling for legendary coach Virgil Milliron.
After high school, Wells then headed south to University of Oklahoma, where he was a three-time Big Eight conference champ (1966-1968) at 152 pounds ... and a two-time NCAA All-American, placing second at the Nationals in 1967, then winning the 152 title as a senior at the 1968 NCAAs.
Beyond his collegiate mat career, Wells also made his presence felt in freestyle wrestling. He won two national freestyle titles and placed second in the Pan American Games. Wells represented the U.S. at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, placing fourth. He captured the silver medal in the 1969 World Championships, then won the gold medal at the Worlds the following year. Wells capped off his mat career by earning the gold medal in men's freestyle at the 1972 Munich Olympics at welterweight (163 pounds) ... the capstone to a year that saw him earn his law degree, pass the state bar exam, and serve as an assistant coach for the Oklahoma Sooners mat program.
After hanging up his singlet, Wells has had a long and successful career as an attorney. One of his specialties: providing agent services to professional athletes. A decade after winning Olympic gold, Wells was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1982.
The Nike/Wayne Wells partnership
As the Nike website explains, the Oregon-based athletic shoe company targeted elite athletes that excelled at baseball, basketball, football, golf, running, soccer and tennis. However, in the first decade of Nike's existence, Wells remained the only athlete with a signature shoe. (Now there are more than 30 Nike signature athletes.)
"I knew about the signature shoe program when I signed a contract with Nike in 1972," Wells told InterMat. "They were just getting started."
"Back then, there were few athletic shoes available. Nike wanted to get into all sports, including wrestling shoes. Nike designed the Wells wrestling shoe, as well as the Wells training shoe, which was designed for doing roadwork. I had told Nike they needed to come up with the training shoe."
"After I won gold -- the (Olympic) Games were over in September," Wells continued. "I came back to Oklahoma where I got a job to practice law. (Wells had earned his law degree from University of Oklahoma.) I was also doing wrestling camps in 1973. A Nike salesman contacted me. He was a wrestling coach, and invited me to L.A. to put on a camp."
"He wanted me to meet Phil Knight, the founder of Nike."
As Wells explained, "Phil Knight was a track guy connected with the University of Oregon. They were developing a new track shoe without cleats. It had a waffle-type sole that was really comfortable, super-light. In fact, Knight's wife used a waffle iron to make the first sole."
"There hadn't been a shoe named for a wrestler. I got some money for the deal. I had retired from wrestling, so that was fine with me."
Wells and wrestling as they once were, now on display
Wayne Wells' status as Nike's first signature athlete is now a key part of an exhibit at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. The display -- titled "Evolution of the Sport" -- features Wells' actual Nike shoes, the original Nike poster and a photo of Wayne Wells in action on the mat ... as well as other examples of wrestling gear, such as headgear and a previous-generation singlet worn by U.S. wrestlers in freestyle and Greco-Roman competition.
Wells lived through the evolution of wrestling gear and equipment as displayed in the Stillwater Hall of Fame. He was part of the generation of wrestlers who experienced firsthand how innovations in the sport helped make him (and his fellow athletes) better on the mat.
"We didn't always have Resilite-style mats," Wells told InterMat. "I remember wrestling on those old-fashioned horsehair-stuffed canvas mats in junior high. The Soviets and Eastern European wrestlers still competed on those old canvas mats into the late 1960s."
Wells also made clear that until the 1970s, most wrestlers didn't have shoes designed specifically for the sport such as the Nike signature wrestling boot developed with his input.
That said, not all changes Wells has witnessed in wrestling have made the sport better, in his opinion.
Wells weighs in on the state of the sport today
When at the Hall of Fame to see the "Evolution" display, Wells told Lee Roy Smith, Hall of Fame Executive Director (and himself a noted wrestler of the 1970s and early 80s) that he thought wrestlers of the past were better-known to the general public because overall media coverage was better in their native Oklahoma ... and throughout the nation.
With that in mind, InterMat posed the question to Wayne Wells: "What can wrestling do to generate more media interest -- and become more popular with the general public -- as it appears to have been 30-50 years ago?"
"For starters, I think they should stop fiddling with the rules," Wells said. "Rules have changed so much over the years, becoming more complicated for the fans."
"Wrestling has become more of a 'technical' sport," the 1972 Olympic gold medalist continued. "Rule changes have been implemented to avoid injuries, but I think fans want to see more strength, more toughness, and see the wrestlers 'fight' harder."
"Why do you think so many folks are now fans of MMA (mixed martial arts)?"
Wells also suggested that wrestling could become more popular with the general public and mainstream media by offering longer matches in college as well as in freestyle and Greco ... resulting in more action, and more potential for come-from-behind victories.
As Wells pointed out, "Back in the 1950s and 60s, college matches lasted nine minutes (compared to seven minutes now)."
"Back when I wrestled at the Olympics, matches lasted 15 minutes -- three five-minute periods. Now Olympic matches are just six minutes. That's the same length as junior-high matches."