Iowa Hawkeyes

Dan Gable is not an ordinary 'civilian'

Ogden column: Wrestler, coach loves the recognition Presidential Medal of Freedom afforded his sport

President Donald Trump awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to Olympic gold medalist an
President Donald Trump awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, to Olympic gold medalist and former University of Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday. (Associated Press)

On his way back from the nation’s capital Tuesday — after receiving the country’s “highest civilian honor” — Dan Gable had some research to do.

“What’s a civilian?” he said while waiting for his flight in Chicago. “I’m usually called a wrestler, an athlete and a coach.”

But not a civilian.

For the record, according to Merriam-Webster, a civilian is “one not on active duty in the armed services or not on a police or firefighting force.”

Gable doesn’t fit that description, but he also isn’t an ordinary “civilian.” Frankly, there’s very little ordinary about Gable.

For those who are unaware — where have you been? — Gable was a two-time state wrestling champion at Waterloo West High School. At Iowa State, he won two NCAA titles, three Big 8 championships and his first 118 matches. He “got good” after losing in the 1970 NCAA finals to Larry Owings.

He went on to win gold at the 1972 Olympics without giving up a point and actually outscored 21 opponents, 130-1, leading up to and including the Munich Games.

He joined the University of Iowa wrestling staff in 1972, working under Gary Kurdelmeier before taking over the program in ’76 and directing the Hawkeyes to 21 Big Ten and 15 NCAA championships in 21 years.

That’s no ordinary civilian.

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President Donald Trump called Gable a “true GOAT” — the Greatest Of All Time — while awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday at the White House and it’s hard to dispute that title.

Gable, as much as any sports figure, is deserving of such an honor.

But, he said Tuesday, he has to “figure out where it ranks.” It’s an unusual reward for a man born to complete. It’s one he didn’t have to train for, he said, or go toe-to-toe with an opponent. He didn’t have to prepare a team for the rigors of a season and the ups and down that follow.

This was simply an acknowledgment of a great body of work, of a job and life well done.

“That’s still yet to be determined,” he said about where this ranks in that body of work, but did acknowledge “it might be as well known as any (honor) around. It gets in people’s homes.”

That has been Gable’s mission since retiring from coaching after the 1997 season. He wants to make wrestling a household name across this country, expand it out of the pockets of Iowa, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

Gable is the first wrestler to receive this honor and getting it in “people’s homes” is a bonus.

“It’s about time we got it,” he said. “It’s great for the sport.

“We need some good news and we need some motivation out there.”

Gable, of course, was thrilled to get this honor and thanked the many people who not only worked to make it happen, but people like Kurdelmeier and his late parents and sister.

He also had quite the contingent in the White House with him — 23 in total. His wife, Kathy, their four daughters and their families, including 15 grandchildren, all made the trip to Washington, D.C.

Gable said the group showed up about two-and-a-half hours before the ceremony, got tested for COVID-19 and then toured the White House.

At least he thinks that’s what happened.

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“I didn’t get involved with all the hoopla,” he said. “I don’t even know what we did the whole time.”

That singular focus, that ability to block out distractions that made him a champion wrestler and coach kicked in before giving his speech.

All in all, Gable said he “loved it” — the event, the family and, of course, the honor.

But this isn’t the end for the 72-year-old wrestler and coach. Not by any means.

“It’s not like I’m letting up,” he said. “I’m not going to change. I haven’t changed since I was 4.”

Comments: (319) 398-8416; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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