Dan Gable details Munich 1972 Olympic tragedy in book excerpt

Dan Gable
Courtesy Dan Gable
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Dan Gable is best known for his wrestling success.

* Compiling a 181-1 record in his Iowa State and high school career.

* Capturing Olympic gold in 1972 without giving up a point.

* Guiding the University of Iowa to 15 national titles as a coach from 1976 through 1997.

But Gable also experienced great loss.

The American freestyle wrestling legend detailed that in the pages of his recently released book, “A Wrestling Life: The Inspiring Stories of Dan Gable.”

Gable, now 66, looked back on his Munich 1972 Olympic experience in this excerpt:

I have dealt with both losses and tragedy on more occasions than I care to remember. I experienced them twice at the 1972 Olympics.

The day I won my Olympic gold medal and was carried triumphantly off the mat, my Olympic teammate, Rick Sanders, lost his own gold medal match and walked away unsatisfied with silver. Sanders was a great guy and a great wrestler, but he also liked to party a lot. He often teased me because I was all work and very little play. That was definitely not Sanders. He wasn’t mean about things, but I was the butt of many of his wisecracks.

He and I first met in April 1967 at the prestigious AAU National Championships. Sanders was three years older than me, and I had just wrapped up my freshman year at Iowa State. This competition was my first time wrestling freestyle, so I was learning as I was competing. The rules and scoring in freestyle wrestling are different from folkstyle, which is what is wrestled in high school and college. In addition, back in the 1960s, freshmen were not allowed by the NCAA to compete as varsity athletes, so I had battled my way into the semifinals of the tournament. Sanders, on the other hand, was already a multi-NCAA champion and knew his way around freestyle wrestling.

Our first encounter was indicative of how our relationship would play out for years to come. I was standing off by myself getting ready for the semifinals, when all of a sudden I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and there stood the older Sanders.

“Hey Gable,” Sanders said.

“Yeah?”

“You got a baseball bat?”

The odd question threw me off. I was never the kind of wrestler who did much talking, especially with the competition.

“Why?” I asked cautiously.

Sanders quipped, “You better find one and bring it to the semis. You got me next.”

This was my introduction to Rick Sanders and freestyle wrestling. Sanders won the match 6 to 0. I gave up four of those points because I exposed my own shoulders. I learned a lot from him that night and started an ever-building relationship.

After the 1972 Olympic freestyle wrestling event was over, the entire team went out for dinner that night. Over the meal, I had a long talk with a disappointed Sanders. He had seen how I had trained and that it ultimately led to gold. Now he wanted to shadow me and prepare for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He wanted the gold medal he felt he had missed out on.

A major reason for Sanders’s interest in working with me had to do with my leadership of the entire Olympic team. I always tried to lead by example through hard work and my ability to remain at a high level of intensity for extended periods of time. Sanders saw the influence my work ethic had on the team, but it wasn’t until after the Olympic freestyle wrestling event was over that he admitted it.

I liked Sanders’s idea of shadowing me, as I knew it would give me a chance to further develop my leadership skills as much as my wrestling prowess. I was going on to coaching and could direct and guide him for the next four years. I would have been in a position where I could have really helped him prepare for the 1976 games. I wanted him to win the Olympics, too.

Early one morning soon after the competition, I awoke in my room at the Olympic Village to what I thought were firecrackers. Not giving the banging much thought, I rolled over in my dorm bed and went back to sleep. When I awoke again later, it was time to get back to work. The United States Greco-Roman Wrestling Team was scheduled for an early morning training session, and I was going to attend. Taking time off was not an option, even after a major victory. I kept my word to Sanders and went to his room to have him join me.

I knocked on the door, and it took Sanders a little while to answer. It was obvious he had been up late partying. He’d clearly been drinking, and there was a girl in his room. I told him to get dressed, that we were going to train with the Greco team.

Sanders’s response set in motion a series of events that changed both our lives. “I’ll start tomorrow,” he told me.

I was disappointed. I went off alone for two hours of wrestling, while Sanders went back into his room.

Meanwhile, away from the Olympic Village, my parents’ eyes were fixed on their television with their phone in hand trying to reach me. As that morning progressed, the world’s eyes were on the Munich Olympic Games, but rather than focusing on athletes and sporting events, longtime ABC sportscaster Jim McKay was covering a hard news story.

What I thought were firecrackers going off in the early morning turned out to actually be gunfire, as a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September stormed the dorm next to where the American athletes were staying. The terrorists demanded the release of 234 Palestinians being held hostage in Israel. The Israeli government was unwilling to negotiate with terrorists, so people around the world held their collective breath over the next few days. When it finally ended, a total of eleven Israeli coaches and athletes were killed between the initial attack and a foiled rescue attempt.

When they first heard about the terrorist attack, my parents were frantic. Thanks to the television news, they knew what was going on inside the Olympic Village, but I was so focused on wrestling that I had no idea, and it was going on in the dorm right next to where we were staying. My parents had already lost one of their children to violence, and they were terrified of having that happen again. When my parents were finally able to get a hold of me, that’s when I found out about the situation.

I also learned that one of the Israeli athletes who was killed in the attack was the wrestler Eliezer Halfin, in my same weight class of 68 kg. We weren’t friends, but I knew him. He was a very good wrestler and a great person. I had a lot of respect for him.

Suddenly, the entire sad situation hit too close to home. With all that was going on, my entire family headed home to Iowa as soon as we were able. I never saw Rick Sanders again.

After Munich, Sanders chose to stick to his earlier plan to hitchhike around Europe for a while. During his trek, Sanders and a driver who picked him up were in a car crash. Sanders, the first American to ever win a gold medal at the Wrestling World Championships, was killed.

Looking back, maybe I should have used a baseball bat that morning in Munich to get Rick to come with me to the Greco practice. Who knows? It may have set in motion a string of events that could have saved his life.

The terrorist attack at the Olympic Games and Sanders’s death shortly thereafter have always haunted me. Having experienced real tragedy like that taught me about perspective. Losing my last college match to Larry Owings was devastating. Losing what would have been Iowa’s tenth NCAA Championship in 1987 was devastating. But neither was even close to being as devastating as the murder of my sister, the loss of my friend in a car crash, or the murder of Halfin and all of those athletes and coaches that I respected.

From A WRESTLING LIFE: THE INSPIRING STORIES OF DAN GABLE, by Dan Gable with Scott Schulte. Published by the University of Iowa Press (http://www.uiowapress.org/). Copyright © by the University of Iowa Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.