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The Ultimate Winner
Douglas S. Looney
July 18, 1984
Dan Gable willed himself to become the best U.S. wrestler ever. Now he's applying his singular dedication to coaching the American team in L.A.
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July 18, 1984

The Ultimate Winner

Dan Gable willed himself to become the best U.S. wrestler ever. Now he's applying his singular dedication to coaching the American team in L.A.

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The point is that world-class athletes—Gable being Exhibit A—want to prove themselves against the best. And while the U.S. seemingly was going to get thrashed and trashed by the Soviets, Gable wouldn't even consider such a possibility. Before the U.S.S.R. pullout, he was pounding his fist on his desk, on his car's dashboard, on his own thigh, on everything and saying, "Our goal is to beat the Russians in all 10 weights and win the Olympics." Incredibly, he believed his own fairy tale. That figures, because throughout his wrestling career, Gable willed himself to victory; now he wills others. When he's around, it's as if losing isn't an option.

Whenever the subject of Dan Gable comes up in conversation, the word intensity is never far behind. And while the word has been cheapened by overuse and misuse, Gable is its epitome. By God, he deserves "intense" as a descriptive. It's his. He earned it the old-fashioned way, he worked for it. Everything about Gable harks back to his intensity. Indeed, there's so much talk of intensity when Gable is being discussed it seems there's no other dimension to his character.

"I don't want to be an expert in all fields," says Gable, as he stands in the wrestling room. "I don't even want to be an expert in two fields. I want to be an expert in one field. Wrestling. Just wrestling. When I walk onto the mat, I tingle." The intense Gable is watching 25 Iowa and/or Olympic prospects drill in pools of sweat. "The way to win is to dominate. If you don't, you're more vulnerable and you're not realizing your potential. If you can beat somebody 30-0 or pin them, why coast to victory? My philosophy is to score, score, score. If that means humiliating a guy, that's tough. That's also wrestling, and if you let up, you'll get pinned."

You'll get pinned. The words snarl and snap as they come from Gable's mouth. How could anybody allow himself to get pinned? Suddenly, he's focusing on the efforts of 126-pound Iowa senior Tim Riley, who's clearly at the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. "Riley," barks Gable, "you have to move your feet more in order to create openings." With that, Riley quits and walks off the mat.

"Sorry you couldn't make the end of practice," Gable calls after him.

"I could have made it," says Riley, "I just didn't want to."

"Naw," says Gable. "You just weren't tough enough to make it." Gable shakes his head sadly, as if unable to grasp how an athlete—especially one of the best collegiate wrestlers in the country—couldn't finish practice. The next day, of course, Riley is back with an apology and excuse, and of course Gable takes him back. And Riley redoubles his efforts. But Gable muses softly, "In wrestling, you don't break down, you don't quit. See, that's the problem in life. It's too easy to turn on the TV and pull up the covers." Gable has never pulled up the covers. He'd have to be tutored to learn how to quit.

Gable has spent a lifetime possessed by demon wrestling. Even Mack Gable says that after Dan won in Munich, "they gave him all sorts of special dope tests, and I don't blame them. He looked like he was on dope. His eyes were glassy, and he was so psyched up. Getting psyched that high isn't good for you." Perhaps not. But it sure is good if you're America's Ultimate Winner.

Back over in a corner of the Iowa wrestling room, Pete Bush, a former NCAA champ at 190 pounds, is struggling. "Don't quit!" screams Gable. "You can't quit. Come on. Think that you have 30 seconds left and your career in wrestling is over." Bush struggles, tries, strains—and gives up. He lies, spent, on a slick of sweat. Gable looks down at him and asks incredulously, "You mean you couldn't hang on for three more seconds? Three more seconds." He again shakes his head sadly and Bush yells, "This is——!"

Indeed, Bush has hit on the essence of wrestling. It's not only the most thankless sport, but it's also the most intense. Chris Campbell, a 1980 Olympic team member at 180.5 pounds, says, "If you don't want to work, Gable is too intense. But it's so simple. It comes down to whether you want to win or lose. I think people hate him behind his back because he wins. What Gable teaches you is that whatever you do in life, pick something and go at it 100 percent."

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