August 3, 2009 by David Gillaspie
Lincoln High sits one block off the 405 Freeway in Portland, a red brick fortress of knowledge. If it was under a flight pattern you’d think it was LA. Rick Sanders wrestled at Lincoln; a Portland guy in a downtown school.
I looked for a Rick Sanders Wrestling Room. I didn’t see one, but I didn’t find a Don Schollander Pool at Lake Oswego high school either. If these guys can’t get the “Home of…” sign at their high schools then the rest of us don’t have to sweat it.
Rick Sanders crossed the freeway from Lincoln to Portland State, then on to two Olympic silver medals with a world championship in between. He’s deeply embedded into the mythology of American sport, an archetype for the guy who does things his way and still prevails.
The early ‘70’s saw the triumph of the ‘counter-culture’ in sport. The high-sided crew cuts made room for the long hairs. And the freaks knew how to win. If a wrestler can look like Rick Sanders and win, then why not do what he does and win too. You eventually realize that no one does what anyone else does. You do what you can. There’s one of you and one of everyone else, then Rick Sanders.
He died in a car accident my junior year in high school. The news said he was hitchhiking to Russia to do clinics. Maybe they wanted him to explain how he lost his last match in two Olympic meets. If there’s one wrestler in the universe you can’t beat, you want to meet him in the Olympic finals.
Rick Sanders got there twice.
The lesson I take is you can be the best and still get second. Why not expand on it and say you can be the best and get third? Because that’s too far. I wish it wasn’t so.
A wrestling championship was a fluke in my family. One brother played all-state football, the other a baseball phenom. I started wrestling after a shoulder injury finished my sophomore football season.
The choice was toughen up, or quit sports. I was on the verge of bagging it. Hurt in baseball. Hurt in football. No speed. Minimum strength. Likes to read. But I wanted to win in sports. The wrestling team always won so it was wrestling or the reading club. Or both.
I’m in the Marshfield gym three years later with my dad watching the greco state finals. I wasn’t in the round robin for my weight because I’d already beat everyone. I pinned the guy who took second in folkstyle state. The first place guy went heavy, dropping back down for nationals where we met in the finals.
I pulled warm-ups over my regular clothes for the championship podium. Slightly lumpy but well showered. Greg Strobel handed out the medals.
I took third at junior nationals that summer and still say I was the best on the mats at 191.5. I tied the first guy in the championship round robin after he decisioned the other guy. I needed to pin the next guy for first, decision him for second, or just lose for third. I needed my best match of a lifetime at the right time. Right now.
I throw the guy three times for three pins if the ref had gone to the mat. It was his first greco tournament and the idea of a touch fall hadn’t sunk in. Three throws for three non-calls and I kept winging. He countered a few times on the mat for reversal points. Make that he countered every time. He was up by one at the final whistle.
Larry Bielenberg got the big plaque. He won titles at Oregon State. Greg Stevens took second. He won titles as a Hawkeye. They were the best and proved it a several times. I like to think junior nationals was a big step for them.
All wrestlers struggle with their feelings after a loss, even when they lose to tremendous competition. That’s the secret of Fargo. Chances are good that you’ll be on the mat with a future national champion, you’ll see them wrestle close-up. There’s a reason they win and you’ll learn it.
Remember their names. Follow them through their college and open tournaments. Buy Mike Chapman’s Encyclopedia of American Wrestling. Their names pop up at college tournaments, national championships, world teams, Olympics. Some of them will do it all like Rick Sanders. Don’t bother looking for another Chris Campbell, you’ll be disappointed.
A colleague said he was a catcher in the Dodger farm system. I called b-s. We went to the sports section in Powell City of Books. I pretended he was in every sports book. History of Auto Racing. Kentucky Derby: A history of horseracing. NFL: The Early Days.
My pal thumbed through baseball books looking for his name. I found the Encyclopedia of American Wrestling. I pretended I was in it. I didn’t know I was on page 398. The Dodger took a look. They even spelled my name right.
In the record book or not, the names from Fargo 2009 are the future of wrestling. They are the new blood for national teams. They are the coaches and the teachers, the businessmen who do what the other guys won’t do to succeed. When you go to Fargo you join them.
Rick Sanders didn’t win everything, but he showed how to win. You can be different and win.
I tracked names from 1973 Iowa City the same way you’ll track names from Fargo 2009. If you’re not happy with the way the tournament went for you, give it a few years. If you’re lucky the guys you lost to will go on to be four-time all-Americans.