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The man who beat Dan Gable in U.S.-style wrestling is busy these days. He's an industrial arts teacher at Oregon City (Ore.) High and a member of his union's contract negotiating team; he's taking computer science courses at Portland State; he owns a contracting business; he's the employment specialist for his ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; he helps out his parents on their near-by 30-acre wheat and cattle farm; he's an assistant wrestling coach at a local community college; and he's a husband and father of three. All those things are in addition to the burdens of being the man who beat Dan Gable.
"I'd say a week doesn't go by," says Larry Owings, 34, "when the subject doesn't come up two or three times. Sometimes it's irritating, other times I like it. The recognition is nice, of course; the repetition isn't."
It was 14 years ago that Owings, an Oregon City native who was then a 19-year-old Washington sophomore, stepped onto the mat at Northwestern to wrestle the legendary Gable for the NCAA's 142-pound title. Owings had pinned his way to the finals, as had Gable, and was the second seed, but in this tournament there were, in effect, no seeds other than Gable, only seedlings.
Owings was an outstanding 29-1 for the season, Gable an astonishing 181-0 against high school and college competition. Overall Gable had lost just four matches—all of them while wrestling under unfamiliar international freestyle rules and in competitions in which he, though a promising youngster, clearly had been in over his head. The crowd had come to these NCAA championships to see Gable climb the final step on a stairway of perfection U.S.-style, and Owings was to be merely the last in a long line of stepping-stones. They had met two years earlier in the 1968 Olympic trials, when Owings was a high school senior, and Gable, then an Iowa State sophomore, had beaten him 13-4. Since then, Owings had grown into an excellent college wrestler. Gable had grown into a legend.
With 28 seconds left in the third period of their 1970 bout, Owings led 9-8 on the scoreboard but was in fact trailing 10-9 because Gable had accumulated two points of as-yet-uncredited riding time. The wrestlers were in a neutral position when Owings snapped Gable's head down and tried for a near-cradle takedown move. He wasn't in the right position to pull it off, so he took a step back, yanked up on Gable's right leg and sent him to the mat on his right shoulder for a takedown. Owings then fell on top of Gable and scored a near-fall, the four-point move proving decisive in Owings' 13-11 victory. "It was a move that I never used before or since," he say's. "Dan didn't react with anger, resentment or hurt," remembers Owings. " 'Stunned' would be the only word to describe him, I guess." And stunning would be the only word to describe the magnitude of Owings' victory. It would become, however, something of an albatross for him. At worst, he was branded as a one-shot fluke; at best, he was the spoiler, the guy who spilled the ink on a masterpiece.
"The pressure was pretty intense on me after the victory over Dan," says Owings. "There was simply no way I would allow myself not to get to the finals the next two years. I had to." He did, but he lost to Oklahoma State's Darrell Keller 16-12 as a junior—Gable presented the trophies that year—and to Michigan State's Tom Milkovich 8-4 as a senior. Few wrestling fans remember that Owings finished his college career with an 87-4 record and a 52-1 mark in dual meets; they just recall that he was the man who beat Dan Gable and that he never won a national title after that.
After he graduated from Washington in 1972, Owings was sick of wrestling, but he decided to go to the Olympic trials in Anoka, Minn., anyway. And though he weighed only about 138 pounds, he elected not to cut down to the next lower weight, 136.5, but to wrestle in the 149.5-pound division, Gable's class.
"I was tired of cutting weight, tired of being top dog, tired of the pressure and tired of wrestling," says Owings. "Besides, it was no secret that Dan wanted me. I wasn't prepared mentally for it, but I went up and wrestled him anyway." Upon being asked if he more or less offered himself up to Gable, Owings says, "Well, it might not be quite that simple, but basically, I guess I did." And Gable took the offering, beating Owings 7-1 to gain the Olympic berth that helped spread his fame worldwide.
Owings, meanwhile, entered a world of active anonymity. He's a practical man, devoted to his family, his church and his many and varied vocations and avocations. But last year he surrendered to a dream and began working out in-earnest for the first time since college. He was just starting to get into competitive shape when he was hampered by persistent shoulder pain, a condition that was eventually diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. It ended his hopes of a comeback.
"What was my goal?" says Owings. "Well, a lot of people would laugh, but in the back of my mind I was thinking about the Olympics. I know at my age it sounds ridiculous. And I hadn't been at a national tournament in 11 years. But that's what I was thinking about." Who knows? Maybe he had a shot. After all, the coach knows what he can do.