Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Russians were here, the Russians were here

If you wanted to learn how to hold a wrestling event, you should have been at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA last night. The USA vs. Russia dual meet had everything a gala should have – pageantry, history, star power, mystery, excitement and a “standing room only” house.

Here are some random observations.

The kids

It was heartening to see so many youngsters at the meet. There must have been at least 40 kids from the North Cedar Wrestling Club seated near me – and what a great job their coach did! He took them on a tour of the facility including taking them to Cornell’s outstanding wrestling room.

As is always the case, dozens of kids had to get Dan Gable’s autograph. However, it was especially encouraging to see some of them – especially the younger ones – getting the autographs of the Russian athletes and coaches. There’s one young man from Linn-Mar who better hang on to that shirt.

The history

Cornell College is one of the most unique places in American wrestling history. It’s the smallest school (620 students at the time) and the only private school ever to win the NCAA Division I championship. It was my good fortune to get to meet, and sit next to, Bob Majors. Bob wrestled at Cornell in the ‘50s and was a team mate of Cornell greats like Warren DePrenger and Lloyd Corwin (who defeated 1960 Olympic champion, Doug Blubaugh in the 1955 NCAA semi-finals). It was a treat for me to listen to Bob talk about wrestling.

Master of ceremonies, Scott Casber, did an excellent job of emphasizing the historical aspects of the evening. He introduced former Cornell wrestlers Richard Small and Lynn Stiles and pointed out American wrestling legends Randy Lewis, Tom and Terry Brands and Zeke Jones.

One of my favorite memories from the event will be the looks on the faces of those young Russian wrestlers when Gable walked over and introduced himself and shook their hands. They have the same respect for him that we do.

I left the event with a distinct feeling of the links between the past of wrestling to the present of wrestling to the future of wrestling.

The crowd

I imagine that fans in other parts of the country resent hearing that “Iowa wrestling fans are the best in America”. Well – we only say it because it’s true. Last night was a prime example. It wasn’t just the size of the crowd – it was the respectful and welcoming applause for the Russian team, it was the ovation for Mike Zadick when he was introduced and the roar when Doug Schwab won his match.

Kudos go out to everyone involved in the evening, starting with the Cornell staff. Athletic director, John Cochrane, and wrestling coach, Mike Duroe, worked diligently to make the night a success. The only potential hiccup on the evening was when the sound system failed for the playing of the Russian national anthem. Assistant AD, Dick Simmons, who seems to be Cornell’s go-to problem solver, fixed it and the rest of the event went off without a hitch.

Tom Lepic and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club also deserve recognition. In case after case we’ve seen how hard it can be to raise money to support wrestling. Tom and the club recruited sponsors for the $2,000 prizes that were awarded to the winners of each match.

We also need to thank USA Wrestling for their support and encouragement.

I’ve already mentioned Scott Casber, but I can’t emphasize enough the role he played in making the event enjoyable.

When it was all over I walked to my car with only one question – “If these folks can create an event like this, why aren’t the Olympic Trials in eastern Iowa?”

(to be continued)