Last week in Waterloo, Iowa, curators at the Grout Museum of History and Science noted with satisfaction the large number of young men in jeans and baseball caps who plunked down $2.50 to wander through an exhibit entitled " Dan Gable: The Making of a Champion." Going in, the youths gawked at a faux bearskin cape presented to Gable, who was born in Waterloo, by Soviet wrestlers in 1972. Coming out, they watched the video Dan Gable, Competitor Supreme. And in between, they met the '72 Olympic 149�-pound champ—touted in a 1993 Des Moines Register headline as THE ONLY WRESTLER EVERYBODY KNOWS—as a life-sized, ready-to-grapple-with cardboard cutout. By happenstance, the effigy stood just a few steps from a case of stuffed owls.
The flesh-and-blood Gable was in nearby Cedar Falls, reminding everyone that he is not yet a museum piece. Over the weekend the 48-year-old Gable once again fulfilled the hopes of the faithful by leading the Hawkeyes to their 15th NCAA championship in his 21 seasons. The somewhat unexpected victory—Oklahoma State was favored, having defeated Iowa at the National Duals in January—closed a season unlike any other in Gable's career. Forced to undergo hip replacement surgery on Jan. 23, he missed four dual meets, finished the season on crutches and sent out signals that he was about to retire.
"There's only so much pain you can take," he said between Saturday sessions at Northern Iowa's UNI-Dome. Not physical pain, he hastened to add, but the emotional hurt that is an inescapable part of coaching. "You have a kid you get attached to, and suddenly he doesn't win? That's been happening to me the last few years, and I find it hard to handle."
Gable's team didn't cause him much grief as it romped through Friday's quarterfinal and semifinal matches in the 10 weight classes. Supposedly weak at several weights, the Hawkeyes sent six wrestlers, including a fourth, a fifth and a sixth seed, to the finals. Upperclassmen Mark Ironside (134 pounds), Joe Williams (158) and Lincoln McIlravy (150) won their first, second and third national titles, respectively, and sixth-seeded senior Jessie Whitmer won at 118 pounds in his first NCAA appearance. For a final thrill, aptly named sophomore Lee Fullhart won the 190-pound division in a 4-3 tiebreaker. Iowa's team score of 170 points left runner-up Oklahoma State gasping at 113.5 and destroyed the old record of 158, set by Iowa in 1986. "This is a tribute to Gable," said McIlravy, who was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler. "He's a perfectionist, and I'm lucky to be part of it."
That's how many in the crowd felt. As Gable hobbled his way around the arena on a pair of custom-made crutches painted in Iowa black and gold, hands reached over the railing and handed him hats, programs, T-shirts, anything. It was a Gable Lovefest, a toast to the state's greatest athletic hero. Gable was relaxed and signed everything thrust his way. He was at ease during the finals, too, although clinching the team title after the semifinal round presumably had something to do with that.
Afterward Gable was noncommittal when asked if he would return for another season. And he was loath to accept the notion that his possible retirement had influenced the outcome. "The wrestlers are used to the idea that I might not be back," he said. "They're not used to being in second place."
Maybe. Back at the museum, a favorite line of Gable's crowned a wall display celebrating his accomplishments at Iowa: TO COACH SOMEONE TO BE THE BEST IS A MUCH HIGHER HONOR THAN BEING THE BEST. Gable now must wrestle with a dilemma of his own making: to go out on top or pursue that "higher honor" for at least one more season.