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American Wrestler Dan Gable’s Never-Ending Faith

Iowa City, IA

One of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Dan Gable has forged a legacy of success for more than half a century. A champion as an athlete and a coach, his achievements include numerous national and international titles including Olympic Gold. Dan has pushed through setbacks and brought others along in his rise to success. 

“I feel like every day I need to make accomplishments in my life. And every day I need to help people that are associated with me or my sport or my profession or my family,” says Dan. “I always look forward to something all the time.”

Dan grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. Early on, it was clear he was a gifted athlete who loved to compete, and win. By junior high he’d picked up wrestling among other sports. He often came out on top, always making his parents proud.

“My dad was at wrestling practice, at football games, practice. I don’t mean just the games. My dad came to every practice! I didn’t really know other people didn’t have that stuff,” says Dan.

As proud as his parents were, they made sure he and his sister knew that the most important things in life are family and faith in Jesus Christ.

“I don’t ever remember not having a strong faith,” says Dan. “And what that does for you is it gives you hope, it gives you more discipline.”

As a sophomore in high school, Dan’s faith would be bolstered when he heard Bob Richards, famed Olympic gold medalist and minister, speak at his school. Later, he started reading Reverend Richard’s book, Heart of a Champion.

“He said, ‘It may sound strange, but many champions are made champions by setbacks.’ He said, ‘They are champions because they’ve been hurt,’” reads Dan from Richard’s book.

Dan had no idea the “hurt” that would push him to greatness was weeks away. Dan and his parents were away for the weekend. His dad, standing in a phone booth, had just gotten news that Dan’s 19-year-old sister, Diane, was brutally raped and murdered in the family’s home.

“My dad lets go of that phone and it just dangles. And he looked over to my mom and he just said, ‘She’s not alive,’” says Dan.

Determined not to let his sister’s loss define him, Dan turned to his faith, again inspired by Reverend Richard’s book.

“When I went back to this book, it wasn’t just about, you know, performance and athletics, it was all about faith, you know. And, ‘Whoa, this is helping me. This is really helping me,’” says Dan. Quoting a passage, Dan says: "'Sometimes in life, God gives us a difficulty in order to bring out the fighting spirit.’”

And fight, Dan would. After that, wrestling became more than a sport—it was an escape from his pain and a rallying point for his family. He won the state championship that year. Even then, he kept pushing himself.

“Our high school team is playing basketball in the state finals. All of a sudden about half-way through the basketball game, I looked at the guys and says, ‘Guys, I’m gonna go work out,’” says Dan. “They looked at me like, ‘Whoa, you just won the state championship a week ago. Can’t you take time off, a little bit?’ And I said, ‘I’m getting ready for next year,’” says Dan.

Dan would go on to a 7-year winning streak that included 181 wins, zero losses, three high school state championships and three NCAA titles, wrestling for Iowa State. His streak came to an end his senior year in the final meet for the NCAA championship, and his college career, when he lost to Larry Owings.

“You fall into this sense of wellbeing, and you’re not quite as hungry, you’re more confident, you’re over-confident,” says Dan.

Dan would take that lesson with him into the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. He won all six of his matches without surrendering a single point, winning the gold for his country. At the medal ceremony...

“All of a sudden my head filled full of dreams, filled full of uh my past. And my sister just jumped right in there. She was right there. And uh it was like whoa there she is,” says Dan. “And I don’t really remember the anthem because of that. I was more focused on her and her smile I guess, so that was...that was big.”

After his Olympic win, Dan poured his energy and passion into others as head coach at the University of Iowa, where he led the Hawkeyes to fifteen NCAA titles. He also got the nod in three Olympics, helping his wrestlers to win thirteen medals including eight gold. By his retirement at age 49 in 1997, he’d become one of the most respected and beloved figures in the wrestling world, for teaching athletes not just how to win, but how to live.

“Anybody in the world who has the ability to give something to somebody, which everybody does, don’t wait around,” says Dan. “You know, get out there, utilize your talents, and help other people to be good.”

Dan still plays a prominent role in the world of wrestling. He’s also written three books and played himself in the 2020 feature film, The Last Champion.
Then later that year in December, Dan joined a distinguished list of Americans as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to Americans who’ve made outstanding contributions to society and culture.

“The success one has with others is more important than the success you have as yourself,” says Dan at the medal ceremony.

Dan’s encouragement to others is to make the best use of the time and talents God has given them, no matter what life throws at them.

“It starts with faith, and it never ends with faith,” says Dan. “The more you can be successful in every great area of your life, the more likely you’re gonna be successful in everything.”

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