Dan Gable speaking at the 2018 Freestyle World Cup in Iowa City (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
When I sat down to write about why Dan Gable is so deserving of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, my mind started racing in a million different directions.
His accomplishments obviously speak for themselves. Winning two NCAA titles, a world title and an Olympic gold medal as a wrestler. Winning an unthinkable 15 NCAA titles and 21 Big Ten titles in 21 seasons as the head coach at Iowa.
Coaching three of his wrestlers -- Randy Lewis, and Ed and Lou Banach -- to gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games. And later coaching another wrestler, Tom Brands, who won the Olympics in 1996.
Gable's accomplishments extend far beyond his incredible resume in the sport of wrestling. I have my own share of experiences and memories from being around Gable over the years that have given me a better understanding and appreciation of a man I have tremendous respect for.
I first learned about Dan Gable when I checked out a book on him at my school library while growing up in Tipton, Iowa. Like many kids in Iowa, and beyond, I wanted to follow in his footsteps and win the Olympics. His story was motivating and inspiring. My mother gave me a hard time because of how often I checked that book out from the library over the years.
I loved the fire and intensity Gable brought when I first saw him in person in the late 1970s. I was fortunate to grow up just a 30-minute drive from the University of Iowa. My father took me and my brothers to numerous Iowa home duals and we attended the Big Ten Championships at the old Iowa Fieldhouse. Gable's wrestlers were tough, relentless and entertaining to watch. They put on a heck of a show in front of the big crowds at the Fieldhouse.
I made the bold decision to attend the Iowa Intensive Camp in Waverly when I was in high school in 1982. I had heard how difficult the camp was and it was definitely an eye-opening experience. I learned first-hand how the Hawkeye wrestlers trained. The camp was run by Iowa assistant coach J Robinson along with current and former Hawkeye wrestlers that included Lewis, the Banach twins and Olympic silver medalist Barry Davis. It was one of the best -- and worst -- experiences of my life. It was torture, but it was also extremely gratifying to survive 10 days of pure hell. We had two, and sometimes three, high-intensity wrestling practices a day. We ran sprints, stairs and hills early in the morning, and did a grueling 12-mile run on the final day of the camp. Not everyone survived. My roommate quit after the first day of the camp. The one day that I remember most was when a balding man in gray sweats walked onto the mats at Wartburg College. It was Gable. Iowa was in the midst of its heyday and it was like God had just entered the building. He delivered a message that resonated with the kids at the camp: "This is how champions train!" he said emphatically while pumping his right fist.
Dan Gable getting interviewed by the media during the 2016 Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
I didn't reach my goals as a wrestler, but I definitely gained an appreciation for how Gable's Hawkeyes trained after attending that camp. I was fortunate to stay involved in the sport when I became a sportswriter. When I started my career, and was in my early 20s, Gable was someone who was available and accessible to be interviewed. I always appreciated his candor and his honesty. He would tell it like it is and not sugarcoat anything. He was a genuine, matter-of-fact, no-nonsense guy who was very down-to-earth. And he always had something interesting to say. That was refreshing.
I was covering the 2002 NCAA tournament in Albany, New York, when Iowa State's Cael Sanderson become the first college wrestler to complete a four-year career unbeaten. I ran into Gable just after the match ended and asked him for his thoughts about what had just transpired. Gable offered high praise for Sanderson, but he also became emotional while flashing back to his own career.
Gable was unbeaten in college until falling in his final match in 1970. He used that setback as fuel to win a world title and an Olympic gold medal the next two years. But wrestlers never completely get over those tough losses and Gable still felt the sting and impact of it 32 years later. To his credit, Gable came back with a vengeance and turned in one of the most dominant performances in Olympic history. He shut out every one of his opponents at the Olympic Games.
Iowa captured a record nine straight consecutive national championships under Dan Gable (Photo/George Tiedemann, Getty Images)
Gable enjoyed so much coaching success at Iowa that it was almost hard to believe. His teams were incredibly dominant and competed at an extremely high level. They did it by simply outworking everybody else. They trained like madmen. They pushed the pace and broke their opponents with an aggressive, attacking style. He was every bit as good of a coach as he was a wrestler. He knew how to motivate, push and drive his guys. He had a knack for having his teams peak when it mattered most.
When I joined USA Wrestling as the communications manager in 2006, I worked even more closely with Gable. Most notably was in 2013 when wrestling was in danger of being removed from the Olympic Games program. One of the heroes that year was Dan Gable. He put the rest of his life on hold so he could dedicate his efforts to saving wrestling. I remember him flying into Niagara Falls that year for a women's wrestling event that was hosted on the Canada side. He was exhausted from a long day of travel, but he still took time to sign autographs, pose for photos, give a speech to young wrestlers, do interviews with the media and help with the broadcast of the event.
Coach Gable called me frequently during the Olympic fight in 2013, always asking if there was anything more that he could do to help. He made numerous appearances at events and he was one of the leaders in keeping wrestling in the Olympic Games. It was amazing, but not surprising, how committed and dedicated he was to helping save wrestling.
Dan Gable (right) with wife Kathy (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
Around that time, I remember walking into the hotel lobby after a wrestling event that I had worked for USA Wrestling in Los Angeles. Gable was there and he invited me over to his table before Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo later joined us. I was like a kid in a candy store, listening intently to numerous stories that Gable told about his incredible experiences in the sport. Nobody is more passionate about wrestling than he is.
In 2020, I asked Coach Gable to write the Foreword for a book that I was working on. The book is on the amazing life of Afsoon Roshanzamir Johnston, a girl who fled Iran during her childhood before becoming a success story in wrestling in the United States. Gable had talked with Afsoon in Niagara Falls in 2013, and he had been there when she became the first U.S. world medalist in women's wrestling in 1989. The day I called Gable and asked him to write the Foreword, we talked on the phone for close to an hour. He was blown away by Afsoon's remarkable story and did a superb job writing the Foreword for a book that has received excellent reviews.
He retired from coaching more than two decades ago, but Gable is still doing a great deal for the sport of wrestling. It's nothing short of impressive.
The recently remodeled Dan Gable Museum in his hometown of Waterloo looks outstanding. Coach Gable is still heavily involved with events and promotions that are held there.
It's going to be incredible when Gable is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Monday in Washington, D.C.
Dan Gable speaking at a VIP dinner before the 2016 Olympic Team Trials (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
It is one of the highest honors a United States citizen can receive. I can't think of anyone more deserving. Coach Gable has had a tremendous impact on thousands of people around the world.
He not only is one of the best wrestlers and coaches of all-time, he's the best ambassador the sport has ever seen. He's done so much for wrestling. And he's one of the best people in the sport.
He is in his early 70s now, but he continues to be arguably the biggest name in the sport of wrestling. He's a legend in so many ways. Nobody has done more for wrestling than Dan Gable.
Craig Sesker has written about wrestling for more than three decades. He's covered three Olympic Games, written 10 books and is a two-time national wrestling writer of the year.