What do you get for the man who has everything? Or, more specifically, what do you do for the man who has won everything? Well, a Presidential Medal of Freedom is not a bad way to honor someone whose accomplishments and achievements are staggering to comprehend. And on Monday at the White House Dan Gable became the first wrestler, as a competitor or coach, to receive that prestigious honor.
The purpose of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is to be the highest honor bestowed on civilians by the United States, to celebrate individuals "who have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." In the 20th century, it's hard to argue that anyone meant more to the sport of wrestling than Dan Gable. His feats as a competitor and coach are legendary and his role as an ambassador and spokesman for the sport have been essential for its survival and transformation.
You can make a compelling case for Dan Gable being the greatest amateur wrestler of all-time. He went 181-1 across his high school and college careers, winning multiple Iowa state championships out of Waterloo and then dominating the college ranks at Iowa State, where he won two national championships and lost a third in the final match of his collegiate career, in what's still one of the greatest upsets in wrestling history. That loss fueled one of the all-time great Olympic runs, though, as Gable won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where he famously didn't give up a single point to an opponent. Other wrestlers have won more NCAA championships and gold medals, but few have dominated the way that Gable did on the mat.
You can make an even more compelling case for Dan Gable being the greatest wrestling coach of all-time. He transformed the University of Iowa wrestling program into a dynastic powerhouse that towered atop the sport for two decades. They won 21 consecutive Big Ten championships under Gable and 15 NCAA championships between 1976 and 1997, setting countless scoring records along the way, many of which still stand today. Iowa had 152 All-Americans and 46 national champions under Gable's leadership. As a coach, his only peers are the likes of John Wooden, Geno Auriemma, Phil Jackson, and Bill Belichick.
And in his post-coaching life, the space he's been for the last 23-plus years, Gable has been arguably the greatest ambassador for wrestling of all-time. He's helped countless fights to save embattled wrestling programs from athletic department chopping blocks and, more importantly, helped save wrestling itself from expulsion from the Olympics in 2013. His advocacy and influence helped transform the rules for freestyle wrestling, which had become overly technical and punishingly arbitrary in many ways, to something more exciting and fan-friendly. More recently, he's also lent his powerful voice to the cause of women's wrestling and encouraged the creation of more programs to provide more opportunities for female wrestlers.
Several athletes have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom over the years, from legendary trailblazers like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King to flat-out legends like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Hank Aaron. Incomparable coaches like John Wooden and Pat Summitt have also been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Gable straddles both worlds, a legendary competitor and an even more successful coach. Few individuals have meant more to their sport over the last 80 years than Dan Gable has to the sport of wrestling. There aren't many ways left to recognize a man like that -- but a Presidential Medal of Freedom is one of them.
So a hearty congratulations to Dan Gable for receiving an honor that's richly deserved after a lifetime of excellence on and around the mat. Someday another wrestler may receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But there will never be another Dan Gable.