Mettle on the Mat
The Iowa Style Builds Our Wrestling Heroes
Story by Jim Duncan, Photography by David Peterson
From the top-tier seats of the Wells Fargo Arena, it looks like an eight-ring circus. The action in each circle spirals kinetically to its own clock as hundreds of pairs of young men in brightly colored singlets grapple with one another. Young girls dressed in matching school spirit cheer frantically and rhythmically, pounding the edge of each mat.
Outside the rings, wrestlers prepare for impending battles. Some meditate. Some practice yoga, calisthenics, and visualization. Some vomit. Coaches give last-minute instructions, often as mantras. Winners rejoice, losers retire from their mats in rage or despondence, and cheer squads and coaches scurry to whichever ring will star their next wrestler, assigned on a “first mat available” basis.
In the stands at the 92nd annual Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) wrestling tournament, large congregations from every county in Iowa root for their boys. Even those fans, from 245 high schools across the state and filling the arena’s 17,000 seats on championship night, dress in uniforms and repeat mantras. The Tri-County-Montezuma followers wear theirs on matching t-shirts: “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” This is serious business.
Sport and Spectacle
Business is just as serious outside the arena. The January 2011 event poured $1.5 million into the Des Moines metro economy. Hotelier Bob Conley says it’s the most important sports event of the year, particularly for downtown’s hospitality industry. “As far as economic impact goes, March Madness is a myth of the past. Basketball tournaments haven’t done much for us in decades. Those fans just drive in for their games and leave. Wrestling fans feel a need to be here, near the event, day and night, all week long.”
Owner Stacey Fox of Stacey’s Prom in the northwest suburb of Urbandale has been able to capitalize on the tournament’s widely cast economic net. “It is our busiest week of the year, and nothing else is close. It seems like it was designed just for us. You have to understand, for the boys it’s about wrestling, but for the girls it’s about prom dresses,” says Fox, who provides a shuttle bus to and from Wells Fargo Arena. “Even if only one boy qualifies from a school, that means every girl in the school comes to cheer for him. And to shop for prom.”
Another suburban prom shop, Glam in West Des Moines, goes even further. The business helped sponsor last year’s tournament and maintained a concession stand in the corridors of the arena, with dresses and accessories on display. Some browsing cheerleaders, on condition of anonymity, revealed that modern girls shop for something else during the tournament.
“We already bought our prom dresses, but we’re all getting tattoos today,” explained the group’s spokesperson. “In places our parents won’t see them.”
There’s nothing like the spectacle of the Iowa high school wrestlingtourney. USA Today proclaimed it the state’s top sports attraction. Over 400 credentialed members of the media and 77,000 plus fans pack Wells Fargo each year, selling out Saturday night’s final session for 22 years in row. That’s the largest high school wrestling crowd in the nation. Ohio set a personal record last year with 66,000 and Pennsylvania drew 53,000. Both those states have nearly four times Iowa’s population.
Our History with Victory
Why do Iowans embrace this sport more than others? Olympic Gold Medalist and University of Iowa Wrestling Coach Tom Brands thinks the answer lies in the state’s heroic tradition.
“People crave a winner. Throughout the decades, in the state of Iowa there has always been a winner in the sport of wrestling,” he says. “Frank Gotch started it, and it continued with Dan Gable, and it’s carried on to this day. Since the early 1900s little boys, and sometimes girls, grow up wanting to stamp their name on the wrestling world.”
Gotch and Gable are quite arguably the two greatest sports heroes instate history. Gotch grew up on a farm south of Humboldt to dominate professional wrestling in an era when it was both brutal and honest. In 1908 he defeated Georg Hackenschmidt, “The Russian Lion,” for the world championship. (The shoes he wore in the match are today part of the Frank Gotch collection in the Dan Gable Wrestling Museum in Waterloo.) He kept that title until he retired to Humboldt in 1913, becoming one of America’s first great sports celebrities and a favorite guest at Teddy Roosevelt’s White House.
In 100 Greatest Sports Heroes, Mac Davis wrote: “As the idol of millions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Gotch made wrestling a big-time sport in his day. He drew larger audiences than did the heavyweight champion of boxing.”
Gable overcame psychological scars, left after his sister was murdered in the family home, to become the first Iowa high school wrestler to complete his career undefeated. He won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics without giving up a single point, an unprecedented feat that made him as famous in Russia as he was in Iowa. As coach at the University of Iowa from 1976 to 1997, his teams won 15 national championships, including an unprecedented nine in a row, while inventing a mystique of dominance that became known worldwide as “The Iowa Style.”
Victory hooked millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iowans, explains Coach Brands. “That lure to a very tough but very rewarding sport has never left the roots of the working class in the state of Iowa. It is loved and appreciated by spectators and participants alike. It is very personal and never leaves the fiber of who Iowans are.”
IHSAA’s tournament today is designed to create heroes. While other high school sports in Iowa are divided into as many as six classes, wrestling uses just three, refusing to dilute the significance of championships with volume. Contrary to myth, smaller schools do just fine. Since 2000, Council Bluffs Lewis Central (the 45th largest school last year) has won the big-school class three times, Oskaloosa (51st) once, and Waverly-Shell Rock (52nd) four times.
The tournament also creates unlikely rivals. Logan-Magnolia, in western Iowa’s Loess Hills, won the small-school title in 2005 and again last year. Don Bosco, from Gilbertville in northeast Iowa, won all four years in between and finished second to Logan-Magnolia last year. Only in wrestling, where championships are determined without regional elimination, would high school rivalries be so geographically inconvenient.
Former Don Bosco coach Tom Kettman said last year that the Logan-Magnolia rivalry must never become a distraction. “We simply teach taking care of our own business and the rest will fall into place,” he explained. As Stacey’s Prom’s Fox points out, whole towns might follow a single potential hero to Des Moines.
This year, a 43rd annual Grand March will introduce medal winners with great pageantry. A handful or so will be inducted into the IHSAA Hall of Fame. Four current Iowa high school wrestlers could well be going for something much rarer.
Only five Iowa wrestlers have ever completed their high school careers undefeated — none since Eric Juergens of Maquoketa in 1996. Gable was the first. Jeff Kerber of Emmetsburg, Dan Knight of Clinton, and Jeff McGinness of Iowa City West High did it between 1979 and 1993.
As this season began, Cory Clark of Southeast Polk and John Meeks of Des Moines Roosevelt were on pace to complete their fourth years in Iowa with unblemished records. Two other Iowa wrestlers were also on the verge of a similar accomplishment, though not entirely in Iowa. Topher Carton of Davenport Assumption did it twice in Illinois before transferring last year. Thomas Gilman of Council Bluffs, who attends school in Omaha, could also pull off the unbeaten career feat competing in Nebraska.
Iowa spotlights will glare on Clark and Meeks as they try to include their names among the Iowa Hall of Pride’s 19 other four-time winners while completing perfect careers. They will do it rather differently. The muscular Meeks looks like a Greek statue and intimidates opponents. He’s sensitive about that. In last year’s finals, he taped his head as precaution against illegal head butting, something that tends to happen to him.
“I’m not a mean guy. I just love to win,” he explains.
Clark looks like the proverbial boy next door. Several opponents last year appeared to be so much bigger that one could assume Clark was an underdog. He compensates with relentless scrambling. Both young men personify Iowa wrestling, a subject for which the last word must be given to its living legend.
“The state of Iowa, given that it’s an agricultural state and involves a lot of independently hardworking people, fits wrestling’s mentality,” says Dan Gable, underscoring the discipline the sport demands. “The more one is known throughout the world for productive action, the better off you can be. Both farming and wrestling take this state to all corners of the world.”
Sage words offered from a perspective no one else has ever attained. Yet.
The 2012 IHSAA State Wrestling Tournament comes to Wells Fargo Arena February 16-18 (Thursday–Saturday). This year’s event will follow the State Dual Team Tournament, formerly held in Cedar Rapids but moving to Des Moines this year to be held Wednesday, February 15. View complete schedules and ticket information online at iahsaa.org.