Lock Haven, tucked away among the ridges and rills of the Bald Eagle Mountains in north central Pennsylvania, is the home of Piper airplanes, of several new department stores along Main Street and, temporarily, of a slightly bowlegged, scrawny, 5-foot 5-inch transplanted Southerner named Elliott Gray Simons Jr.
A senior at Lock Haven State College, Gray Simons is the best college wrestler in America and a heavy favorite to retain the National Collegiate Athletic Association 115-pound title (which he won as a sophomore and as a junior) at the championships this week in Stillwater, Okla. Simons has won 81 consecutive college matches—a record.
As small as the 22-year-old Simons is, he has big hands, exceptional balance and muscles that feel as though they had been sculpted out of marble. On the mat he is an aggressive, canny foe who can move with the speed of an opportunistic cat and make opponents pay dearly for their slightest blunders. During the season he wrestles at 123 pounds, but for tournaments he gets down to 115, and it is at that weight that he has won most of his trophies, which include, among others, the award last year as the Outstanding Wrestler in the NCAA meet. Saturday night he won the NAIA (small college) championship for the fourth time in a row (nobody else ever has), and for the fourth time he was voted that meet's outstanding wrestler.
Only twice has Simons lost in college. Both defeats came in his freshman year, and since then he has been unbeatable—almost. He did lose two bouts at the Rome Olympics, but Simons had two serious problems there: his wrestling style, which is perfect for college rules but unsuited to Olympic rules, and his weight. "I found that in freestyle wrestling I could use the same takedowns as in college, but I had to change, oh, I guess you'd call it my philosophy or strategy, when I was on top of my man," Simons said recently. "I had always been taught to be prepared to counter the other man's moves. In the Olympics you have to initiate the action when you're on top. You have to go for the pin and not worry about being reversed."
Even more bothersome for Simons was getting his weight down and keeping it there. In college tournaments, wrestlers are given two or three pounds' allowance after the first day of competition. Simons had to get down to 114.5 pounds and hold the weight for six days. Even on his small frame, that was like stretching a squirrel hide over a bass drum. Still, it took him a brief 2:08 to pin his first opponent.
Simons led 2-0 in his next match against Ahmet Bilek, a Turk, and the eventual gold medal winner, when he made a minute tactical error. Before he could recover, Bilek rolled to his left, taking Simons with him and brushing Gray's shoulders across the mat for a touch fall, or pin. For Americans the touch fall is the most exasperating aspect of Olympic wrestling. It requires merely that a man's shoulders touch the mat for an instant. In this country a pin is not achieved until a man's shoulders are held to the mat for two seconds.
Before being eliminated, Simons scored one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics by winning a 6 2, decision from Ali Aliev, a Russian who was a world champion in 1959 and again last year. Although Simons did not win a medal, he finally placed fifth.
Shy but successful
Like many successful young athletes, Gray Simons has always been dreadfully shy in public, but around his family and friends the bumpkin in him disappears and his face, slightly hollowed and accentuated by dark, heavy eyebrows, becomes serene and confident. He began wrestling in the eighth grade at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va. By the time he had graduated he had won 40 of 44 matches and one state championship.
"I used to rassle in the front yard [and "in every corner of the house," according to his mother] with my brother Wayne," Simons says. ' "We'd try out different holds and tricks, and that helped me a lot." Wayne, too, benefited. Wrestling for Granby, Wayne became a four-time state titlist and was undefeated in 58 bouts. Now, as a sophomore, he is the varsity 130-pounder for the nation's leading team, Oklahoma State.