July 30, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Getting to a national-level wrestling tournament is one thing; doing something while you’re there is another. You can say it’s all about the experience, but when it’s Junior Nationals and you’re a senior that thinking doesn’t work. You are there to win something. So is everyone else.
The one person you want to avoid at the tournament is the wrestler competing for his life, for his future in the sport. He might be coming off an injury that cooled his college prospects. He might be peaking for the first time in his life on the mat and ready to beat anyone. You avoid that guy by being that guy.
Stewart Abbe and I convinced each other we were that guy. We hitchhiked to Junior Nationals in Iowa City. It was part of the training routine. If Rick Sanders from Oregon could hitch around the world and win world championships and two Olympic silver medals, then it’s the right thing to do. That he died in a car accident while hitchhiking the year before gave our trip added meaning.
It meant getting into a car with a twenty two year old man in Idaho taking his underage girlfriend to Indiana to get married. Kidnappers are apparently aware of state marriage laws? It meant riding through the Nebraska night in a hotrod Ford. The driver pulled off the interstate for gas and drag racing. He didn’t lose. We hoped it was an omen.
The road gave Stewart and I a vision that we carried forward. If we survived the maniacs behind the wheel, we could do anything. Besides that, we were North Bend Bulldogs, or Rhinos.
Who picks up two shirtless guys practicing wrestling footwork on the side of the road? The loaded guy who needs us to buy him another bottle of hopped up cough syrup; the salesman traveling a long stretch between stops; the sailor on his way to the Great Lakes Training Center.
Our final ride in Iowa left us at on off-ramp. We stepped into a glowing world of fireflies. In the night the bugs took on a certain menace. We’d never seen fireflies and didn’t know if killing them left a burn. They didn’t bite so it didn’t matter.
The legend of Rick Sanders explains the chunky necklaces he wore. He said he made them himself; when he felt the urge to smoke he worked on a necklace. Therapy jewelry, like our therapy road trip.
Our teammates on the Oregon All-Star team came out the usual way. Dependable cars and adult supervision got them to Iowa. New haircuts and determination took some of them all the way. Stewart and I were on the ratty side, the sunburned faces of future vagabonds riding their thumbs cross-country. It was the only way for us.
The difference between traveling in team vans and taking your chances on the open road was obvious. We were seasoned for one, the sort of seasoning lack of showers and laundry gives you. We were used to the rhythms of uncertainty; nothing had to be perfect to work, just like a match.
After wrestling through Illinois the team settled into University of Iowa dorms for the tournament. I’d forgotten my 33-2 loss after wins on the road. I didn’t care if I saw the guy, but I remembered the feeling he left me with and vowed to bring it to whoever stepped on the mat.
During one of our practices in the big gym, Dan Gable stopped by in his workout gear. This is after his ’72 Olympic tournament where no one took him down. He invited us to step out and work takedowns. My 33-2 fueled hostility didn’t matter, as if anyone is taking anything out on Dan Gable. But you have to wrestle the best to be the best. That’s what the smart guys say. They probably didn’t step out with Gable.
He gave us all two chances and countered everything. We were high school, but he treated us like equals, like wrestlers. Instead of breaking out his own personal kick-ass, he gave pointers on how to improve technique. One Oregon guy had a special move. He faked a double, popped up into double under hooks, and threw in one fluid motion. He launched Gable over the top.
For a second I had a new hero, another Oregon guy besides Canby’s Larry Owings working the greatest ever. It was a long second watching Gable relax over the arch and touch his head for the instant it takes to feel which way the thrower will turn. He sat to the side our triple crown teammate turned and held him like he saw it coming from the start.
I felt relief that it worked out the way it did. No one wanted to see Gable struggle; it would get ugly fast. That was my plan for the tournament all along, get ugly fast and hang on.
1973 brought a non-traditional approach to sports. Steve Prefontaine re-invented the track star. Joe Namath already won his Super Bowl and his party-guy reputation. Curt Flood had changed baseball. Title IX was a year old. Brian Oldfield competed in kilts and lady’s swimsuits.
It was new world, one that still defines what we see now. Hip means more than hippie. Long hair, beards, and beads don’t exclude anyone from the top rungs of the wrestling ladder. Rick Sanders shined a light for anyone troubled by rigorous conformity. His ways might not work for the majority, but he showed you don’t have to ride the big bus to get where you’re headed.
Stewart and I left Iowa with more than we came with. We met Mark Johnson, watched Chris Campbell. Lorenzo Jones broke out his foot sweep. Kevin Kramer smiled his way to the top. Roy Palm nearly threw Dan Gable. Larry Bielenberg took a double crown and left right afterward for a trip to Poland. We tucked our share of all-American hardware into our packs and looked west.
Wrestle for yourself, for the future of the sport. Make your effort count when it matters most. Do that much and you’ll join the long line of athletes with one thought in mind: My kid will be than me. But that was along way away for the top wrestlers at the 1973 Junior National. They would go to college, win more national championships, then train for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.