Sunday, June 27, 2010

What is it about sports? Part 2

In an earlier blog, I talked about the "life lessons" associated with sports. To illustrate that, I want to use the amazing story of the National Championship wrestling match between Dan Gable (wrestling for Iowa State) and Larry Owings (wrestling for the University of Washington). Some information about it can be found here.

Achieving a national championship in any competition (athletic or otherwise) is a truly outstanding achievement. National championships aren't the result of an accident - they come from many, many hours of unseen hard work and the development of the mental toughness to work through pain and the boredom of practice, the discipline to do what it takes, and so on. Participation in sports is mostly for young persons, and most young people simply don't have the commitment and mental toughness to perform at the national championship level. But there are a few elite athletes who form a pool of those at or near the very pinnacle of their sport.

Dan Gable came into the NCAA final match in 1970 as an undefeated senior in college at 181-0. He already had won two NCAA championships - in his sophomore and junior years (he didn't wrestle on the varsity as a freshman) and was considered unbeatable going into the tournament. He wrestled in the 142 pound class. Potential opponents of comparable weight either went up or down a weight to avoid him in the tournament, he was such a heavy favorite.

But Larry Owings cut weight specifically to wrestle Gable and beat him! Clearly, Larry Owings was a reasonably good collegiate wrestler, but his record gave little hint of what he was about to accomplish in this legendary match. Rather than trying to avoid the "unbeatable" Dan Gable, Larry Owings had confidence that he could beat him and set out specifically to do so. It turned out in such a way that the two met in the 1969-70 NCAA finals. Gable was the heavy favorite, of course. This was to be the last match of Dan Gable's storied collegiate wrestling career, so he could be expected to give it his best effort. As it turned out, however, Larry Owings did beat Gable in that match to become that year's national champion, in what has to be the biggest upset in collegiate wrestling history.

So it demonstrates that if you set your mind on an achievement and work to accomplish your goal, seemingly impossible objectives can, in fact, be achieved. Larry Owings had achieved what virtually no one else expected he could do.

But the story doesn't end there. Essentially, that match was the final achievement of Larry Owings as a wrestler. But Dan Gable went on to win a World freestyle wrestling championship in 1971 and became an Olympic freestyle wrestling champion in 1972. It should be noted that the history of American wrestlers in the World and Olympic freestyle wrestling tournaments has never been one of dominance - generally, the best freestyle wrestlers in the world are not Americans.

Rather than continuing to dwell on a very bitter defeat at the end of his collegiate competition, Dan Gable re-dedicated himself to his sport, achieving at the highest possible level (the world) before retiring from participation as a wrestler. Then, he went on to coach the Iowa wrestling team to several national championships and national dominance. Thus, he didn't allow what had to be a devastating setback prevent him from going on to even greater accomplishments. He didn't give up on his dreams beyond college, just because he was upset in that famous match.

If you can't find useful life lessons in this (abbreviated) story, then I give up!

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