There he stands, one February day, in a baggy, gray sweat suit, holding up a wall in the University of Iowa wrestling room. He's 5'10", 160 pounds, balding and wearing dark-rimmed glasses to correct his 20/200 vision. In a room otherwise full of guys with immense necks, massive shoulders and columnar thighs, this bespectacled fellow is obviously the one to seek out later this summer on the beaches of L.A. if you want to kick sand in somebody's face.
He's also the coach of America's 1984 Olympic freestyle wrestling team, whose chances of whipping the Soviets or, frankly, even the Bulgarians in L.A. were also pitiful looking. But with those two teams boycotting the Games, the U.S. suddenly has a fine chance to do some serious medaling. That's almost entirely because this baggy gray eminence is Dan Gable, America's Ultimate Winner. Never has there been an individual in any sport more dedicated to total excellence. His absolute devotion stems from his absolutely one-dimensional life. There's nothing that interests Gable except wrestling. Nothing.
His wife's name is, ahhh, it'll come to him in a minute. The kids are, ahhh, well, two girls and one boy. Or is it one boy and two girls? Stay tuned. Gable was recently trying to repair a leaky kitchen faucet, and all the while he was mumbling, "What does fixing this have to do with wrestling?"
Back in Gable's hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, his father, Mack, says, "Dan's Number One thing always was wrestling."
And what was his No. 2 thing?
"There never was a Number Two."
But because Gable's sport is wrestling, not a media favorite such as football or basketball or baseball, it's still necessary to run through Gable's resume. At West High in Waterloo, his record was 64-0, and he was a state Class AA champion in 1964, '65 and '66. At Iowa State, he was undefeated in 117 matches, including 83 pins, and twice an NCAA champ before losing his final college bout in 1970 (see box, page 509). As a junior he was 30-0, winning 26 bouts by falls; two of his other victories were by 25-6 and 12-1, and the remaining two were won by forfeit. At various times and by various groups he has been named man of the year, coach of the year, athlete of the year, human of the year and man of the ages. He won five U.S. championships, one Soviet national title, a world title and the Pan American Games gold medal. He amassed all those distinctions by destroying opponents mentally, then physically.
And in the highlight of his career, at the 1972 Games in Munich, wrestling with a ravaged left knee and a deep cut over his left eye, Gable blitzed the best 149.5-pound wrestlers in the world. But it was assumed he'd do that; what was truly stunning was that he went unscored upon in the Olympics. In fact, in 21 matches wrestled under international freestyle rules leading up to and through Munich, Gable gave up exactly two points. Incredible. "Sure it hurt," says Gable. "The point of wrestling is that it hurts and you overcome that. It never occurred to me that it wasn't supposed to hurt."
And since Gable took over as the head wrestling coach at Iowa in 1976—he was an assistant from "71 to '76—the Hawkeyes haven't lost in 53 Big Ten dual meets and have won an unprecedented seven straight NCAA championships.
But, for Gable, now 35, those accomplishments aren't nearly enough. What he desperately wants is to dominate his sport internationally. Twice, however, he has been foiled—in 1980 when he was the Olympic coach and the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games, and now in 1984 with the Soviets staying home. It makes him furious that he won't be sending his charges out to meet the Soviets; once, months ago, when he was asked what he would do if the U.S.S.R. failed to show up in L.A., he said rather flippantly, "I Wouldn't even coach. I'd turn the team over to my wife." Everyone laughed. Now nobody is laughing; Gable's wife isn't coaching; and he's very much in command, directing the U.S. team with his old white-hot fury. But he still feels thwarted.