When people from Iowa want to pay the highest compliment to an athlete, more often than not they declare that individual as the Dan Gable of their sport.
It’s about the highest praise they can give and, when you consider the source, especially now that the summer Olympics are upon us, any parallel to Dan Gable that an athlete enjoys is not only hopeful, it’s perhaps the best kind of affirmation that athlete can get.
The Olympics are a special thing, not only because of the unity found in international competition but because, once every great while, we get to see someone be the very best they can be. And while there is no such thing as perfect people, there are perfect moments.
Those moments, when seen at the exact time of their realization—on the greatest of the worlds stages—become the property of all. Like air and sunshine, they’re free to all those who have a heart that beats and a mind that dreams of exceeding all limitations.
At the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, Dan Gable had such a perfect moment—he won the gold medal in freestyle wrestling. Without surrendering a single point.
On the biggest stage in the world, against the very best competition the world could offer, Dan Gable was perfect.
It was quite a staggering accomplishment for a small town young man from Iowa, who only wanted to do the highest honor for the memory of his deceased sister that he could.
He committed himself totally to the service of something bigger than himself and it, in turn, carried him to the highest honor his chosen sport affords its very best—a place on the Olympic team.
His journey to get to Munich was much harder and entailed more dedication and sacrifice than can be guessed at with simple words. Perhaps the best way to acknowledge it is that, for Dan Gable, all was training and competition, and training and competition was all.
For Gable, it was the beginning and the end, and the ends justified the means. The means secured the end.
In today’s athletic world, one of the more popular philosophies of hard training is to avoid overtraining. Perhaps that it true for most, but when you look at the life and regimen of Gable, overtraining was clearly something he didn’t believe in.
Once he had fully committed to purging his sorrow by mastering his sport and his body, Gable never seemed to stop training. Winning one competition would lead to immediate training to win the next—usually on the same day—and there was no good reason for failing that schedule.
For most people, dedication to a single thing comes from very deep and personal places in the heart. All are allowed to have their own private motivations and, for Gable, the passing of his sister clearly and understandably affected and, in its own way, inspired him.
And while we can never really understand what made Gable so relentless in his desire to ease his broken heart—tragedy is unique for all of us—we can recognize the fire that burned in his breast from afar. Even now, 40 years later, that fire warms our pride and inspires the next in line.
Gable was a purist at heart, and the purity of his motive and the clarity of his intent still remains as a benchmark for Olympic athletes. When America’s wrestling teams take the stage in London, just days away, in many ways he will be with them.
While the Olympic Games may be about many things—lofty ideals, to be sure—they are still primarily about making memories; about capturing that moment in time when they were the best they could be.
And we would do well to remember that, as they compete, their efforts may be presented by and representative of a nation. They are more than just men and women in a uniform, they are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. These are their stories.
These are their memories, and we have the privilege of sharing them.