Dan Gable – Just how good was he?

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By GordanaV

Dan Gable, while wrestling in the US Freestyle Olympic Team Trials and the Munich Olympics in 1972, put together a string of 20 victories while giving up a single point (a 7-1 win over Larry Owings in the trials). It was an amazing gold medal performance. But Gable’s legendary status as a wrestler comes just as much from the dominance he displayed when practicing with other outstanding, world-class, elite, wrestlers – including those who had a 30 to 60 pound weight advantage over him.

Russ Hellickson, prior to his Big Ten head coaching career where he guided his wrestlers to more than 50 NCAA All-American finishes and nine NCAA Individual Championships, compiled an outstanding international freestyle career: 3rd and 4th in the World at 198 lbs. in 1971 and 1975, 2nd in the 1976 Olympics 220 lbs., and 2nd in the World at 220 lbs. in 1979.  John Peterson collected Olympic Freestyle silver and gold medals at 180.5 lbs. in 1972 and 1976 respectively, as well as a bronze and silver in the 1978 and 1979 World Championships.  Ed Banach was coached by Gable to three NCAA Championships before winning the 1984 Olympics in Freestyle at 198 lbs. These three men trained with and were trained by Dan Gable, they all had a significant size advantage over the 160 lbs. Gable, and they were all awestruck by what Gable could do on the mat.

The first time Hellickson wrestled with Gable was at the 1971 Pan American Games. He volunteered when Gable stated he was looking for a partner to get in some extra work.  Hellickson was a little concerned about his 50 pound weight advantage over Gable. “I asked him how long he wanted to wrestle – ‘awhile’ Dan said. We just kept going, and going, and going until we had wrestled just under an hour. I was so absolutely fatigued. I could hardly move my arms because of those arm bars,” said Hellickson.

Perhaps the person who put the most hours on the mat preparing with Gable for a freestyle career was John Peterson. After taking 5th in the 1971 National Athletic Intercollegiate Association Tournament, John tagged along with his brother Ben who had been invited to the US Pan American Games team training camp. It was there John started working with Gable.  “Whenever we needed to do an extra workout we would go with Dan,” John said.  How did John determine he needed an extra workout? “Well it was Dan who decided we needed an extra workout,” laughed John but he and brother Ben believed that Gable knew how to get them to where they wanted to be. After a month of working with Gable, John Peterson made the 1971 World Team at 180.5 lbs. and also wrestled more bouts traveling in Europe.  “I lost every match,” he said.

But Gable apparently saw something in John. “I guess Dan liked how I worked and he invited me to Ames, Iowa to train with him,” John said. In November, John started down a path that ten months later would lead to an Olympic silver medal, and four years after that, Olympic gold.  It was a pretty steep path. One of John’s vivid memories is when Gable walked into the wrestling room for a monster practice session saying, “’Peterson can you believe we get to do this again?!’ and rubbing his hands together gleefully, Gable exclaimed, ‘Man I wish I could work so hard I would just faint!’”

According to John, he spent a lot of time fighting off getting pinned.  “I found myself getting discouraged. I had this 149 pounder just beating on me.”  But Gable was doing the same thing to brother Ben Peterson who would win the 198 lbs. Olympic Gold Medal at Munich, and he was even beating and turning 430 lbs. Chris Taylor who would take the Bronze.

Twelve years later Ed Banach was preparing for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  By this time, the way Gable mercilessly drove himself was taking its toll on his body. Banach who was weighing around 210 lbs. suggested instead of going takedowns, that Gable take the top position and attempt to turn Banach. “Gable kind of smiled and agreed and for the next 45 minutes he turned me every which way…” says Banach, “I decided I would never wrestle from the down position with Dan again, if I could avoid it. He was just beating the living snot out of me from top.”  Banach could not have been too surprised, because during his red-shirt freshman year at the University of Iowa (the year before he won his first of three individual NCAA Championships) Gable “cleaned my clock,” said Banach, “I was asking – what did I get myself into?”

How did Gable achieve such dominance? Most believe he possessed a phenomenal – perhaps even physiologically freakish – endurance coupled with a relentless drive. Banach said Gable would never be the one to stop wrestling first, “He would never be the first to ask for a break.”  John Peterson said if you were lucky enough to take him down he was like a “caged wild animal” and trying to ride Gable just meant you would get exhausted and he dominated you that much sooner. Hellickson claimed that he never saw any wrestler of any size that could stay with Gable’s wrestling pace in a workout.

But the strongest words coming from Hellickson, Peterson, and Banach had to do with how fortunate they were to have had Dan Gable in their lives. Beginning when Gable was a 24 year-old aspiring Olympian, he was always inspiring, always convincing them that they could do more. “Ben and I owe a lot to Dan,” said John Peterson, not only for the two gold and two silver Olympic Medals in 1972 and 1976 but also because “he was the head coach when we beat the Russians in the World cup, and he coached me to Bronze and Silver Medals in the World Championships with a bum knee and a bad ankle when I was 30 and 31 years old.” Hellickson saw Gable as “the true measure of the potential of a human being,” in wrestling, and Banach simply calls him “a great mentor.” This testimony from just three of the hundreds of elite athletes whose lives Dan Gable has personally impacted. Hearing from many more could only be good for wrestling.


This article is the first publised by the Dan Gable Legacy Project.  This project is dedicated to collecting and preserving pictures and stories of Dan Gable

Contributed by Leo Kocher (NU 1973), Head Wrestling Coach at the University of Chicago