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It was late last Saturday morning and Mack Gable was lounging in his suite at the Orrington Hotel in Evanston, Ill. This was the day he had been looking forward to for a long time, for later that night his son Dan would have a chance to win his third NCAA wrestling title. It was also the night Dan would conclude the most distinguished career in the history of wrestling and perhaps in all collegiate sport. In three years of high school in Waterloo, Iowa and four at Iowa State he had won all of his 181 matches.
"Dan came to me last night and said, 'Are you worried about Owings?' " Mack Gable recalled. (Larry Owings of Washington was to be Dan's opponent in the finals of the 142-pound division.) "I told him, 'I worry about all of 'em.' Dan said, 'Don't. I know I can beat him.' I told him, "O.K., but remember that anything can happen.' "
The buildup for this match began on Wednesday when Owings registered to compete at 142 pounds. People snickered. Gable, on the other hand, came to the championships at Northwestern with the biggest advance billing any college wrestler has ever had. He was going to be the first to be undefeated in both high school and college. His celebrity was such that he had been constantly accepting awards, giving speeches, posing for pictures, signing autographs and enduring interviews. And during the past year he had been replying to more than 20 letters a week.
"Kids want to know my 'secret,' " Gable said. "I don't have a secret, but I tell them about the way I do things, and to train hard. One girl wrote that her boyfriend was a state high school champ and she wanted me to encourage him in wrestling. She also wanted me to tell him that she really loves him, because she felt he'd believe it if I told him so. I was glad to write the letter."
This, then, was Dan Gable, hero. Owings was not cast as the villain, but that was mainly because hardly anyone felt he had a chance to be the first to beat Gable. Several fine wrestlers had deliberately avoided the 142-pound class—and Gable—by going up to 150 or down to 134. Not Owings. He went out of his way to face Gable, cutting his weight from 173 pounds to do so.
"I want to face Gable for the championship," Owings said on the first day of the tournament. "I faced him at the Olympic Trials in '68 and he beat me. I was a high school senior, and he was already a national champ. I made up my mind back then that I wanted to meet him again and beat him.
"I weighed 173 last fall, and during the season I wrestled three times in the 177-pound class and won all three. Then I really cut down. I got to 155 easy. I had to work harder and eat less to get to 148, and then I almost had to stop eating completely to make 142.
"I think 142 is right for me. Last year I made a mistake at the Nationals by cutting too much weight. I had decided to avoid Gable [Dan competed at 137 pounds], so I cut down to 130. I won three matches. Then I lost 14-12 because my stamina was low. Right then I decided to go after Gable this year.
"My favorite pastime is eating, especially shrimp. After the Nationals last year, I must have gained 25 pounds in a week. My stomach hurt so much I couldn't sleep. I had to lie in bed with my belly hanging over the side."