The NBC TV show Friday Night Lights has shown us how much the sport of high school football means to their community. The sport of high school amateur wrestling means just as much to many small cities in Iowa. ESPN writer Mark Kreidler shares his experiences in his new book Four Days To Glory about where the heartland of wrestling is in America.
Listen to the Mark Kreidler interview:
Chris Yandek: How does a man that writes in California for the Sacramento Bee and San Diego Union Tribune end up in Iowa writing a book about wrestling, and how long were you there doing all the research?
Mark Kreidler: “It took me awhile to figure out that was the book I was going to write. To make a long story short, I read an article, it was actually in Sports Illustrated I believe a couple years ago about the Iowa high school wrestling tournament. This thing is a circus. It’s just an amazing event, hundreds of wrestlers all in one event center. The tournament occurs on eight mats simultaneously. The crowd is full of people that came from tiny towns because Iowa is a state full of small towns all cheering down on the mat as their kid does something good. It just sounded like this place where all this incredible emotional stuff was going on at the same time. That was the germ of the idea, but it wasn’t my idea. It took someone else to convince me it was a book. I just felt it was a great magazine piece and someone else suggested it was a book.
We lucked into these two wrestlers who I ended up featuring and we were able to use their story arch to really describe how sacred the sport is in Iowa. The only way in my mind to do the story was to go there. I actually left my family for two months and relocated to Iowa in winter of 2005 and spent January and February of 05. The two coldest months of my life by the way in Iowa just kinda hanging out and learning what was going on.”
CY: The book Four Days To Glory is set in the state of Iowa where wrestling stories were made. What is it about Iowa that produces such great amateur wrestling champions?
MK: “I think it’s honestly because it’s what they do. You could apply the same theory to football in Florida or Texas or California, basketball in Indiana. There are certain places in the country that pride themselves on producing a certain kind of athlete. In Iowa it just so happens that the sport over the years became wrestling. They do the same thing we do in other states with our kids in other sports. If you live out here on the West Coast and let’s say you are a pretty good swimmer or golfer, well you are going to be put in the pipeline at a pretty early age.
You are going to be taken to elevated competitions and driven around not just your area, but even maybe your region, you get better competition. It’s the exact same thing they do in Iowa. It’s really jarring the first time you a see a five or six year old kid out there in a little kid tournament wrestling because it’s a combat sport. It’s a jarring thing to see, but they basically grow wrestlers just like we grow things in other states.”
CY: The book follows two young men Dan LeClere and Jay Borschel who could be on pace to win four state tiles in their respected divisions in their high school careers. How much time did you spend with both these young men, their families, and what were your conclusions about these small towns in Iowa?
MK: “I spent virtually all my time with these guys and with their families and also with their teams and their coaches. Wrestling is one of those sports where almost all of it is sight unseen. They come out for one match or two matches a week each of which might last four or five minutes. All of the rest of that time is just work. Its just practice time in dingy under budgeted wrestling rooms where the equipment doesn’t always work right and it’s either too hot or too cold. That actually was the fun part for me. Hanging around these teams and just seeing the incredible lengths they go to just to get in shape. That’s just to get to the mat. You never know what will happen when you get there. It’s just like in any other sport. These guys are elite athletes.
They are not run of the mill athletes. I think this is true across the board in sports. As you go higher up the food chain with great athletes, most of the truly great ones hate to talk about what they do they just like to do it. A lot of them are superstitious about talking too much about what they do. They think it will either demystify it or somehow cloud it up in their own minds. Knowing their families was really critical. The thing that you find as you go through Iowa and especially with its love affair with this particular sport is that it becomes a conversation piece. It connects small towns. The sport itself is generational and in a sense it keeps a lot of the small towns going because for lots of months of the year Chris that is their focus. It becomes a great conversation piece and great connector, fathers to sons, brothers to brothers, families to families, and communities to communities, and that is a very cool thing.”
CY: Quoting from the book, “Wrestlers are better than other athletes because their drive is so pure, because their pursuit is so solitary. So few people outside their circle of fellow wrestlers could ever begin to understand the sacrifices they make in order to simply get on the mat, much less compete and win.” Why is it more pure than individual sports like golf, tennis, or even boxing at the amateur level where nothing is guaranteed also in the future or at the professional level?
MK: “I think that passage you read is very reflective of how wrestlers view their sport and especially how coaches motivate their wrestlers. That aspect of it is something that coaches constantly drill into these guys’ heads. You are better because they don’t appreciate you out there. You are better because you are all alone. It takes a certain level of self confidence or absence of fear, for example to be an amateur golfer trying to go pro and you know at the end of the day there is no one that can help you. That’s eminently true for wrestling, but it’s true for the other sports. Where wrestling differs from those sports in my opinion is the training.
We are talking about kids who are not that old. A lot of the kids in the wrestling rooms where I spend my time are 15, 16, 17, and it isn’t just grueling workouts. The workouts are certainly beyond anything I have ever seen in any practice situation. I have covered sports for 20 years from the low levels to the World Series to the Olympics, Super Bowls, and everything else. I have never seen training like this, but how it really differs Chris is when it’s all over, they go home for the night and don’t eat or they eat very little or eat controlled portions not like other athletes. All great athletes probably manage their weight, but in wrestling you not only have to manage weight you have to actively handle it every single day of your life as a wrestler. It truly takes it to the level other sports don’t need to go thank goodness.”
CY: Before there was Dan Gable there was Frank Gotch who was America’s first legitimate world champion in the early 1900s. How much credit is due to Frank for starting how popular wrestling has become in Iowa?
MK: “There is no question that it really started with him. In the modern history of the state there is no one that casts a larger shadow than Dan Gable. Frank Gotch was a wrestler back in the early of the 1900s when wrestling was still a legitimate sport worldwide and you could actually travel the world and be a wrestler sort of like being a boxer. He sat with kings and queens and went to perform in New York. He was sort of the first person to take this sport that Iowa loved and put it on a national scale.
With Dan Gable coming along decades later, but achieving a national renown that’s never been met since. I think that sort of cemented the sport as something Iowa does. Gable told me one time if you have ask anybody around the world they would only know two things about Iowa it produces corn and it produces wrestlers. That’s how Iowans view themselves. Those are their exports.”
CY: It seems as though wrestling programs at the college level are decreasing as time goes on. What are the main reasons universities are getting rid of this sport?
MK: “One is Title 9. The factors that are at play are wrestling like most college sports loses money. At most programs in the country wrestling is a money loser just like golf, swimming, tennis, and many other sports. The difference between it and other sports is there is not a ready female equivalency and if you are under a Title 9 guideline, which mandates that you bring scholarships essentially in balance, equal numbers being given to men and women. Lets assume you are not gonna cut your football program because that puts most schools out of balance, but lets just assume you are not going to cut football, that being the case you look for other sports you don’t have a ready match for.
Since there is not really at this point any female equivalency in wrestling it becomes an easy cut. It’s already losing money and it puts you further out of Title 9 balance. There is no question wrestling nationally certainly at the collegiate level is under siege and has been for a long time. I would expect wrestling to continue to struggle. At one time Chris there was almost 400 wrestling programs at colleges in the country. That number is down 230 and only about 70 of those offer scholarships. That’s one other way in which wrestling differs from other sports at the high school level is that there really isn’t any pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for these kids. Most of them wrestling in high school know that’s it for them. They are doing it purely for the love of the sport and connection to their state in their small town because there is really nowhere to go with it.”
CY: Finally, what do you want readers to take away from your book and do you have any other projects coming up?
MK: “We have gotten such great response on the book so far. I am totally humbled by it. It’s clear people are connecting with the larger message of the book which is that it is still possible for a sport to be a connector among small towns, among communities. That is clearly what wrestling does in Iowa. Other sports do it in other states. It is not a phenomenon, but it’s really neat to step back and be uncynical for a little while and enjoy the fact something can still matter that much. It’s a pretty high function of sport in my opinion when it’s able to connect communities. That’s what wrestling does in Iowa. It’s a really nice undertone of that entire book. I am excited about my next project.
I am taking a lot of these same ideas down to an even younger level where these kids really do get put in a pipeline very early in their lives by adults who may or may not have their best interest at heart and that’s again something we do in America. We get little kids in a pipeline along the road to what we think will be athletic glory. It’s a very interesting sort of adult driven thing instead of a kid driven thing.”
You can find more information about Mark Kreidler and his upcoming projects at www.markkreidler.com.