On October 25, 1948, wrestling legend Don Gable is born in the tiny town of Waterloo, Iowa. His father was a real-estate salesman and former high-school wrestling star; his mother was a homemaker. In high school, Gable ran track, swam and played football and baseball. He didn’t devote himself to wrestling with his trademark single-minded ferocity until he was 16, when his older sister was raped and murdered in the family’s living room. After that, he told an interviewer, he became “a horse with blinders as far as wrestling was concerned” because he wanted to give his parents something positive.
And it was indeed positive. At Waterloo West High School, Gable was undefeated, winning 64 matches and earning 25 pins. At Iowa State, he won 117 matches in a row, along with two NCAA championships and three All-America titles. He lost for the first time ever at the NCAA final his senior year, when Larry Owings, a sophomore from the University of Washington who usually wrestled in a heavier weight class, beat him 13-11. Gable cried when he lost– “I couldn’t face my parents,” he said–but in the end he concluded that the painful loss had been good for him. “I needed to get beat,” he remembered, “because it not just helped me win the Olympics, but it helped me dominate the Olympics. But more than that, it helped me be a better coach. I would have a hundred times rather not have that happened, but I used it.”
After he graduated from Iowa State, Gable began to enter international competitions. There, he was as intimidating as he’d been in the NCAA. He won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics–an accomplishment he was especially proud of, because the Soviet wrestling team had promised that they would scour the Eastern bloc to find a wrestler who could take down Dan Gable. They were unsuccessful: He won all six of his Olympic matches easily, and pinned three of his opponents.
Gable became the head wrestling coach at the University of Iowa in 1976, and he’s been just as dominant as a coach. His team won 15 NCAA titles in 21 seasons, including a record nine in a row–the most in any sport–from 1978 to 1986. The Hawkeyes were the Big Ten champs for every one of those 21 seasons, and were undefeated seven times. Gable coached 152 All-Americans, 45 national champions, 106 Big Ten champions and 10 Olympians (they won four gold medals, one silver and one bronze).
In 1997, after chronic knee and back injuries made it impossible for him to coach as actively as he liked, Gable retired from the Hawkeye squad. He didn’t disappear from wrestling altogether–he coached the 1999 World Cup team and the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, for example–and in 2007 he rejoined the coaching staff at Iowa. He is also a wrestling analyst for Iowa public television.