It's late June in a leap year, which means my second-favorite quadrennial sporting event (behind the World Cup) is just around the corner: the Summer Olympics. It's a time when it's perfectly acceptable -- if not strongly encouraged -- to be hyper-patriotic. It's a time to get deeply invested in athletes and sports that you haven't seen or paid attention to for four years -- and that you won't again for another four years. It's a time to see some of the world's finest athletes shine (or falter, as the case may be). And occasionally it's a time for Iowa athletes to showcase their skills on the biggest stage.
We hoped that we would have a former Hawkeye to invest in this year, to cheer for, and root on to a gold medal. Brent Metcalf had been a leader and standard-bearer for the Iowa wrestling program for three years, had helped guide Iowa to three consecutive national titles, had won the hearts and minds of Iowa fans as well as any athlete in recent memory. Alas, at the final challenge, the U.S. Olympic Trials in Iowa City in April, he came up short, losing to former Oklahoma wrestler Jared Frayer. It was bitterly disappointing, and while we'll still have plenty of worthy athletes and heartwarming stories to cheer on, it won't be quite the same as it would have been if Metcalf had been among the U.S. representatives in London. It also means Iowa's gold medal drought will continue for another four years.
Iowa's last Olympic gold medalist? You've probably heard of him -- Tom Brands, former three-time NCAA champion and current Iowa wrestling coach. He wasn't too shabby in his day. The pinnacle of his post-Iowa career was undoubtedly the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where Brands claimed a gold medal. Take a gander at his gold medal match:
His win was "only" 7-0 and it was "only" a decision... but I think you'd be hard-pressed to watch that match and not see an utterly dominating performance from Brands. He seems to take his opponent, South Korea's Jang Jae-Sung, down almost at will. Moreover, the style Brands wants to instill in his wrestlers at Iowa is on full display in this match: attack, attack, attack... and then attack some more. Brands pushes the pace for pretty much the entire match and even after he's amassed a comfortable lead, he declines to simply sit back and protect that lead -- he keeps attacking, keeps looking to score, keeps locking to make his lead even bigger. What this match lacks in drama (Brands controls it from it practically the opening whistle) it makes up for in dominance (Brands puts on a masterful performance). Way to go, Tommy.
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Of course, there's another gold medalist with Iowa ties who's worth mentioning here. You've probably heard of him, too. Dan Gable? He's kind of a big deal.
Gable's competitive days are more closely linked to Iowa State than Iowa, but hey: he's an Iowa legend and, Cyclone blood or not, we're happy to give him some much-deserved respect here, especially because there's such a great anecdote tied to his gold medal victory. As described in the clip above, in the February prior to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Gable was named the Outstanding Wrestler at a big tournament in Russia. The top wrestling officials in Russia vowed to hunt throughout the Soviet Union to find a man to beat Dan Gable. They failed.
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BONUS! The Gable and Brands victories are special because of their Iowa ties, but there's another Olympic moment that's stuck with me a decade and a half now, a moment that has nothing to do with Iowa or wrestling. It was a moment where I was simply awed by an athletic performance unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was Michael Johnson's performance in the finals of the 200-meter dash at the 1996 Olympics.
The 1996 Olympics probably hit me at the perfect moment: I was just old enough to truly appreciate a superlative athletic performance, to recognize greatness when I saw it... but not yet old enough to have witnessed greatness often enough to have become slightly jaded by it or to be slightly numb to outstanding performances. So I was in a good state of mind to be properly amazed -- and Michael Johnson did not disappoint.
Johnson wasn't really the most graceful runner to watch -- he had a very upright style and his movement tended to look somewhat mechanical, like a piston pumping in an engine, rather than graceful, like a paintbrush gliding across a canvas. Maybe a part of my subconscious liked the fact that he looked like the Terminator out there, relentlessly and efficiently mowing down all the competition. But mainly I just liked watching him because he seemed better than everyone else -- noticeably, dramatically, significantly better -- and watching him run felt like watching something special.
"Something special" is a good way to describe his performance in the 200-meter dash finals in '96: he gets off to a good (but not really outstanding) start, picks up speed as he hits the turn, and then, as he hits the stretch, he just seems to find another gear (maybe he flipped his internal NOS switch) and he keeps picking up speed, leaving a bunch of really fast guys (the second-place finisher in that race finished with a time of 19.68 seconds, .02 seconds off the previous world record) in his dust. He ran a 19.32. 19.32! 0.34 seconds faster than the previous world record. World records get broken and rebroken fairly often in track and field, but usually only by a few fractions of a second. To break a world record by a full third of a second... well, that was astounding. I was in awe. I knew I'd witnessed something special, something truly remarkable, something I would never forget. And I never have.