Dan Gable sees growth opportunities for the sport

LEWISBURG – On his flight to Harrisburg on Thursday, wrestling legend Dan Gable couldn’t help but overhear the conversation going on in the row behind him. A man was speaking to a woman about the effect wrestling had on his life.

It was a sport he was brought into because his dad had been a wrestler. But some 15 years after wrestling his last match, Gable heard the man say how much the sport has taught him about life and how to deal with life.

It brought a smile to the face of the former Olympic champion and coach of 15 NCAA championship teams at Iowa. So when the plane landed in Harrisburg, Gable waited outside of the gate for the man.

“I told him I heard him talking about wrestling and I shook his hand. I said ‘you said some good things because that’s my sport,'” Gable said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you wrestled, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah, a little.’ I talked to him a little more and then told him my name and he went crazy.”

The chance meeting ended with Gable taking photos with the man. He turned around to walk away and saw people at another gate waiting to talk with him.

“This is Harrisburg. They were big wrestling people, too. I felt real at home,” Gable said with a smile. “We want to keep it that way here.”

Gable was at Bucknell University on Thursday for the dedication of the new Graham Building recently opened on campus. Built, in part, through a donation to the school from Bucknell graduate and former Bison wrestling team captain Bill Graham, the building houses a state-of-the-art wrestling training facility, as well as a health and wellness center for all students on campus.

It was Gable’s second visit to Bucknell since the University reinstated wrestling as a varsity sport some 11 years ago. Gable remembers coming to Bucknell as the program began varsity competition once again, but head coach Dan Wirnsberger reminded him Thursday just how much time Gable had taken to speak with the people of Bucknell. During that initial visit, Gable went from table to table during the gala to speak to as many people as possible.

The Bucknell program has grown leaps and bounds since Gable’s first visit to Lewisburg. The Bison have four All-American finishes at the NCAA tournament since that last visit, and they’ve become a team to be reckoned with in the always-tough EIWA. Gable said the investment of money and facilities in a program like Bucknell’s is a big reason why collegiate wrestling is trending upward.

“I think we have a lot of people working for college wrestling to make sure it’s getting enhanced,” Gable said. “The other thing is you have a lot of people who are wrestling in college, or even have wrestled at all, and they’re in positions to want to help. And the reason they want to help is because they give a lot of credit to wrestling for where they are in life.

“We have a group of people who went through a sport that they really believe in and they believe in it beyond wrestling. They believe in it for life. It’s not perfect by any means, but we’re working on it.”

According to Mike Moyer, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, collegiate wrestling has added 160 programs since 2001. Most of those additions have been in the lower collegiate levels. But Fresno State announced earlier this year it was reinstating its Division I program beginning with the 2017-18 season.

“We have seen lots of schools invest because it’s a chance to get a lot more kids in the school,” Gable said. “There’s a lot of kids that want to go and wrestle at that level.”

On an international level, Gable also sees a trend upward for the United States. Kyle Snyder became the youngest Olympic champion in the history of USA wrestling at just 20 years old. Helen Maroulis became the first female Olympic wrestling champion. And the United States was represented by a pair of collegiate wrestlers: Snyder was coming off a 285-pound NCAA title before winning Olympic gold, and J’Den Cox was an NCAA 197-pound champion before taking Olympic bronze.

“Now, three medals out of 18 weight classes, we’re not satisfied there at all,” Gable said. “But two out of those three came out of men’s freestyle, which is great. Our leaders in our sport need to focus a lot on that so we become stronger there, and we need to focus on females wrestling.”

Gable is a big supporter of women’s wrestling, and there are now 31 intercollegiate wrestling programs. Seven states are offering girls high school state championship tournaments.

Hughesville graduate Marissa Gregoire will wrestle for Oklahoma City College this winter as women’s wrestling continues to grow.

“Wrestling is a sport that can help with a person’s confidence,” Gable said. “So why just help for one gender when you can do it to help confidence in both genders?”