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It’s been 20 years since Dan Gable was the University of Iowa’s head wrestling coach, 20 years since the beginning of what Gable calls the promotional phase of his life.
“I wrestled competitively, I coached competitively, and now I promote competitively,” he said.
What Gable mostly promotes, besides his own books, is amateur wrestling. He says he has about 50 speaking events a year. Circumstances took me to one of them last week, in Cedar Rapids.
Gable was there as a motivational speaker. Nearly all of what he draws on is people-related and/or wrestling-related.
Something that stood out to me during his 45-minute address was his strong desire to see girls’ high school wrestling get sanctioned as a high school sport in Iowa and every state.
In a follow-up phone call Tuesday, Gable freely admitted he wouldn’t have felt the same about that issue 20 years ago.
“It took me quite a while to understand it and become convinced,” he said. “Some of my best friends and some of my former wrestlers were put in roles of coaching females, and I got in a lot of conversations with them.”
His eventual reaction to girls competing in what had long been a males-only sport:
“Wow, it’s a good thing. It’s pretty fantastic, actually.”
In February 2013, the International Olympic Committee removed wrestling from the core sports of the Summer Olympics following the 2016 Rio Games. Wrestling was restored by the IOC seven months later. That was after the sport hurriedly modernized its leadership, changed some rules to makes its matches more interesting to fans, and created more weight classes for women.
Gable never criticized the IOC then, or now. He looked inward. He said wrestling’s leadership was lazy, and blind to needed changes. Gable joined many who aggressively and quickly made changes occur to win back the IOC’s favor.
That includes more opportunities for female wrestlers, who got their biggest platform in Iowa at the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials in Iowa City.
“It’s growing,” Gable said last week. “We’ve got six states with female-against-female wrestling at the high school level. Well, we’ve got to get 45 more states (counting Washington, D.C.) that can take that on. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.
“But we had zero not too long ago, and we almost got kicked out of the Olympics because we didn’t have (enough) women’s wrestling because we lacked poor leadership, because we thought we were entitled.”
While the numbers of boys who participate in high school wrestling has dropped 8 percent in the U.S. over the last five years, the girls’ numbers are sharply rising every year.
In the 2013-14 school year, the national number was 9,904. In 2015-16, it was 13,496.
There were 92 girls on Iowa high school wrestling teams during the 2016-17 season. This season, South Winneshiek High junior Felicity Taylor won her second-straight Upper Iowa Conference title.
“When she sets a goal to do something, she’s all in,” South Winneshiek Coach Jacob Elsbernd told The Gazette’s K.J. Pilcher. Similar comments have been made about female wrestlers around the nation and world.
Last month, an all-girls state tournament for kids from kindergarten through 12th grade was held in Norwalk, with almost 120 participants.
“We had to get on board with female wrestling, which is good,” Gable said. “You might not think so, because we’re one of the conservative states that probably don’t think so. I’ve got conservative values from Iowa.
“But what I find is they like it, most of them, and it gives them confidence. It actually protects them. Confidence and self-defense, there’s nothing wrong with either one in life.”
The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union says it needs one-third of the state’s high schools to field a girls’ wrestling team before it can become a sanctioned sport.
“I think we’re pretty close,” Gable said. “It’s pretty obvious it’s a no-brainer. It’s a matter of how to ease in, jump in, how to get in. I think we’re pretty close.
“I just think that at a certain point, it’s boy versus boy, girl versus girl,” Gable said. “But you have to be able to give the opportunity, even if it’s boy versus girl. That’s kind of where we’re at now, but it’s better than no opportunity.”