A son-in-law's letter to a senator leads to president awarding wrestling icon Dan Gable the Medal of Freedom

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

Dan Gable spent his Tuesday evening in Monticello, Iowa, where cellphone service isn't exactly crystal clear. On the drive back to Iowa City, his phone lit up with missed calls and messages.

One text came from a son-in-law, Danny Olszta.

"Check your voicemail when you get a minute," Olszta advised.

One came from an unknown number with a Washington, D.C., area code.

It was the White House, Gable recalled, with the news that a significant award will soon be added to his already-crowded trophy case. President Donald J. Trump plans to honor Gable with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest honor for a civilian. 

Dan Gable will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald J. Trump.

"To get an award like this, it's a lifetime achievement award, not only for what you did, but for what you continue to do," Gable told the Register Wednesday morning. "People are texting me and calling me, and they're just like off the wall."

Gable was notified through that missed call and a letter. The Register obtained a copy of the letter, dated Oct. 13, which says Gable will be "the first athlete and coach from the sport of wrestling to receive this distinguished honor." 

"It will be my great privilege to welcome you and your guests to the White House to present you the Presidential Medal of Freedom," says the letter, signed by President Trump. "I look forward to seeing you soon."

Gable, 71, said he had been in contact with Trump administration officials throughout Tuesday and Wednesday to line up his visit. Gable appeared on stage with Trump on Wednesday during a rally in Des Moines, where Trump announced the presidential honor.

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The modern iteration of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 to recognize extraordinary individuals who have made exceptional contributions to America's national interests, society and culture.

Many prominent sports figures have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom over the years, including golf great Tiger Woods, basketball legend Michael Jordan and two college basketball coaching icons, women's coach Pat Summitt and men's coach John Wooden, among others. Gable will be the 17th honoree of the Trump presidency.

Dan Gable was informed in a letter from the White House and President Donald J. Trump that he will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Most of Gable's notable accomplishments, of course, came through wrestling. 

Gable won three state championships for Waterloo West and two NCAA titles for Iowa State. Between his prep and collegiate careers, Gable went a combined 181-1, losing only in the 1970 NCAA finals. He then won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics, where he won six matches at 68 kilograms (150 pounds) and didn't allow a single point along the way.

After his stellar competitive career, Gable led the University of Iowa wrestling program to 21 straight Big Ten titles and 15 NCAA team championships from 1976 through 1997. During his tenure, he coached 152 All-Americans, 46 national champions and 12 Olympians who combined to win eight Olympic medals — four gold, one silver and three bronze.

"Gable has left me a lifetime philosophy that I do not deviate from," said Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands, who wrestled under Gable. "My brother (associate head coach Terry Brands) and I are keen on the lessons we learned from him. That will never change. This award is awesome because it puts Dan Gable in context and brings him back front and center.

"Gable was a winner. He did not lose. He won nine straight national championships, as many as John Wooden. The stratosphere that those two guys co-exist in is unheard of, and I am reminded every day when I see his statue," which stands outside the main entrance to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"Those memories are strong with me. The bedrock of Hawkeye wrestling will always be Dan Gable, and especially when Tom and Terry Brands are running the program, because we cut our teeth right here."

Gable has been inducted into USA Wrestling's Hall of Fame, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. He has spent the greater part of the past decade helping build wrestling's profile in the United States. He played an integral role in saving the sport after it was put on the Olympic chopping block in 2013.

"This honor is earned over a lifetime of doing the right things and persevering through tremendous adversity," Terry Brands said. "Gable earned it by coaching up people as individuals and paying attention to what makes people tick and really caring about moving humanity forward. It is well-earned."

The efforts to recognize Gable have been in process for more than a year.

Olszta, the son-in-law, first thought of the idea after researching the award last summer. A longtime New York Yankees fan, he found that Yogi Berra and Babe Ruth were among those honored.

Olszta drafted a letter in July 2019 to formally nominate Gable for the award, which he then sent to the office of Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. That letter was the first of what became a wide-ranging effort to recognize one of wrestling's icons.

"There's not many people that have done what Dan Gable has done for a sport," Olszta said. "Ask anybody who's 35 or 40 years old that's wrestled, and I'll bet one of the reasons they got into it was because they saw the 1972 Olympics or they saw his Hawkeye teams dominate for years.

"He brought so many people to the sport — not just in Iowa, but worldwide. We thought it was a slam dunk."

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Grassley's office forwarded the letter to the White House, whose occupant knows Gable. He stood on stage with then-candidate Donald Trump in 2015 during a campaign rally in Waterloo. Gable, who planned to be in Des Moines on Wednesday, said then that he was "very happy to be kind of neutral" when it came to his political leanings.

"While he’s famous for winning awards both as a wrestler and as a wrestling coach, he’s also well-known and respected for his focus on family and giving back to his community and state," Grassley said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon.

"Mr. Gable is so deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Congratulations to Dan on receiving the highest honor for any civilian; keep making Iowa proud!” added Iowa's other U.S. Senator, Republican Joni Ernst, in the same statement.

Olszta said one idea was to potentially surprise Gable with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the 2020 NCAA Championships in March at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but the event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, which was beginning to scuttle events nationwide.

But the letter also reached the offices of both U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who's a former college wrestler and assistant coach, and U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat whose district includes Iowa City. Both are members of the Congressional Wrestling Caucus, a group of members of Congress who were wrestlers, have a strong interest and involvement in the sport, or both.

The wrestling caucus penned a letter to the president in August requesting that Gable be honored with the award, writing: "Your selection of Coach Gable would cement his stature and cap his career in a way no one else in the sport has previously achieved."

The letter continued: "Our entire wrestling community, young and old, athlete and fans, would embrace his recognition across our great nation."

Gable hasn't yet set a date for his White House visit, but he was quick to point out what this honor means for wrestling.

 "A lot of people are telling me this is the highest award I'll ever receive, which is cool," he said. "But it's good that wrestling can join some of the other sports. That's really cool."

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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