And then there's Dan Gable. Before he became the largest legend his state and his sport have ever produced, he was a 15-year-old who returned to his Easley Street home one morning to find his 19-year-old sister raped and murdered.
Gable endured to become wrestling's mythic hero and its most vocal advocate. And when the NCAA Championships begin Thursday in Philadelphia, he will be a sought-after presence. Painfully shy, he will make himself do interviews, schmooze with coaches and competitors, and then find a corner of the Wells Fargo Center where he can watch the matches and suffer and rejoice with the athletes.
For those unfamiliar with Gable's remarkable story, it's difficult to match the accomplishments of the bespectacled, cauliflower-eared 62-year-old whose lifelong mania for working out destroyed his hips and knees.
Gable won all 64 of his matches at Waterloo West High, just across Baltimore Street from the little white rancher where he grew up and where he made himself move into his slain sister's room. At Iowa State, he won his first 118 bouts, losing only in his last match, a 1970 NCAA championship defeat that still ranks as the sport's greatest match.
He rebounded to capture gold at the 1971 world championships and a year later in Munich where, in one of the most jaw-dropping Olympic performances ever, he took all six matches without surrendering a point, the wrestling equivalent of a pitcher throwing three no-hitters in the same World Series.
Not long afterward, in a move that shook wrestling-crazed Iowa to its corn-flavored core, the University of Iowa hired the Iowa State alum as a coach. Gable's Hawkeyes would win nine consecutive NCAA titles, 15 overall in a 22-year career. It was as if Michael Jordan - whom many Iowans still call "the Dan Gable of basketball" - had gone on to coach the Bulls to 15 more NBA titles.
"There's never been anyone like him," said Phil Haddy, a friend and longtime Iowa sports information director. "You could make a case that he is, along with Bear Bryant and John Wooden, the greatest coach in college history. But when you consider what he did as a wrestler, there's no one else like him. There's never been a greater combination of coach and athlete."
He reached that level by outworking everyone, a passion he illustrates with a favorite two-sentence phrase. "Practice makes perfect. And I love practice."
It went beyond love. He ran, lifted and wrestled with a ferocity of purpose. Eight hours a day, for years on end, he allowed himself no breaks. He turned down a White House invitation because it disrupted his workouts. His ultimate goal, he said, was to weary himself to a point where he couldn't walk out of the room. Now, as a result of that obsession, he can barely walk at all.
No one but Gable can say what kindled those inner fires. But there's little doubt they were ignited here in this old factory town along the Cedar River.
"I was born into it," Gable said of wrestling. "It really wasn't a choice."
His father, a tough, gruff real estate salesman, had wrestled. Mack Gable's best friend had two sons who were top-flight wrestlers and Dan's early idols. Mother Katie's brother had been a state runner-up.
With Waterloo West High barely a 100-yard dash away, the pre-adolescent Gable became a fixture in its wrestling room, where coach Bob Siddens built an Iowa dynasty.
"I've always had some good direction," Gable said during a recent interview in Iowa's Field House. "My coaches were great. My mom and dad. My dad never missed a wrestling meet. The only major event he missed was the world championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. He sat at the teletype machine in our Waterloo Daily Courier waiting for the results."
Since Gable's father once described his only son as "the orneriest kid ever," he sought an outlet for that impish energy. "I was going to get in trouble," Gable said. "So my folks threw me into the YMCA right away."
He became a top-notch swimmer, winning a state YMCA title. But eventually he focused on wrestling. At Waterloo West, he persuaded the football coach to let him on the team just so he could go through the workouts.
Freshmen were ineligible, but as a sophomore Gable went undefeated and won a state title. It was after that season that the first of two life-altering events took place.
On May 30, 1964, he and his family left for a fishing weekend at a Mississippi River cabin 100 miles northeast of here. His sister, Diane, stayed behind but promised to join them the next day.
When she didn't show up, a concerned Mack telephoned a neighbor. The girl's car was in the driveway and he could hear music inside the house, he said, but no one responded when he knocked on the locked door. Mack told him to break a rear window.
Minutes later he found the girl's stabbed and partially clothed body in the living room. When Gable heard the news he told his father that, walking home from school recently, a neighborhood boy had spoken suggestively to him about his sister.
Eventually, that boy, John Kyle, the 16-year-old son of a bank president, was arrested and convicted. He remains in prison.
"Dan used to tell me that if [Kyle] ever got out, Mack had a loaded rifle in the trunk of his car," said Haddy.
While others might have retreated, Gable pushed himself harder. When his shaken parents wanted to move, he persuaded them to stay. While others wondered if he could get past the event, he confronted it head-on.
"It made me even more of a horse with blinders," he said. "I proved I could handle it. I moved into her room."
Rededicated, he won the remainder of his high school matches and earned a scholarship to Iowa State, then the state's premier program.
"Mentally, he's an extremely strong person," said Haddy. "And a lot of that mental toughness comes from his sister's murder."
As a sophomore, he went unbeaten and won the NCAA title. He did the same as a junior. When he cruised though another undefeated season as a senior, running his college winning streak to 118, the whole world expected a third title.
"After a while, I'd never even lose a practice. Nobody in the room could beat me. Not even the heavyweights," said Gable who wrestled at 142. "So when you go to a competition, you automatically expect to win. When something happens and you don't, you get hit pretty hard."
On March 28, 1970, in what remains the most famous college match ever, a Washington sophomore named Larry Owings defeated him, 13-11. "GABLE FALLS!" screamed the banner headline in the next day's Des Moines Register. The match spawned a book, a documentary, countless magazine articles, and decades of reflection.
A photo shows a devastated Gable on the podium that day, the runner-up's silver medal draped around his neck like an albatross as 9,000 fans stood and cheered him.
"If you talk to him about it, he'll still tell you there were some questionable decisions that went against him," Haddy said.
Gable admitted he was "still mad about it."
"The pain's still there," he said. "But after about 37 years I finally figured out how to close the book. . . . Here's the difference between me and Larry Owings: That match made me. And he's told me that if he had to do it over again, he'd lose. He couldn't ever get beyond it. No one would let him. Everywhere he went, it was, 'Hey, you're the guy that beat the guy.' "
Gable attacked training in his post-loss life with even more fierceness. He took aim at the world championships and then the 1972 Olympics. By the time he reached Munich, he would overwhelm the greatest wrestlers in the world, shutting out every opponent.
"Losing that match in '70 pretty much sealed the deal for me winning at worlds and the Olympics," he said. "If I had won that match, I might have been vulnerable. Most people thought I already was the cat's meow. Not really. It was unbelievable how much better I got after I lost. There was no comparison. I wondered how I'd won before."
His legend assured, Gable returned to Iowa before the terrorist massacre in Munich. Soon, officials at Iowa, where wrestling had long been in Iowa State's shadow, hatched a plan to lure him.
Wrestling was permitted one full-time assistant then and at Iowa State, the legendary Harold Nichols had recently hired one of his former all-Americans, Les Anderson. At Iowa, multimillionaire booster Roy Carver sensed an opening.
He and school officials met clandestinely with Gable. They told him that coach Gary Kurdelmeier didn't want to stay long and that Carver planned to make a sizable financial commitment. Gable bit.
"It all happened under the cover of night," Haddy said. "Before Iowa State knew what hit them, we were calling a press conference to introduce Dan Gable as our new assistant."
The move triggered a seismic shift. Kurdelmeier stayed another four years. Gable took over in 1976 and the program was launched to another level.
Starting in 1978, Iowa won a record nine straight NCAA titles. Before he retired after the '97 season, his Hawkeyes would add six more.
"When I became a coach I realized you couldn't expect everyone to do it the way I did - first guy there, last to leave, discipline all day," he said. "I saw people could be good in different ways. Each guy needed something a little different."
As he continued to train and wrestle with his athletes, he wondered how he would deal with a lack of individual competition. To his delight, he discovered that coaching gave him an outlet.
"When I got my hand raised [after his individual victories] it felt great," he said. "But I never jumped for joy. When my wrestlers got their hands raised, I jumped for joy. I was more excited about somebody else."
Along the way, Gable married and raised four daughters. When he left coaching, he became one of Iowa's associate athletic directors, though wrestling remained his focus.
He is officially retired now, although his responsibilities won't end until a fund-raising effort ends in a month or so. Whatever he does beyond that, he said, it will involve promoting wrestling.
Until recently, Gable continued to shadow Iowa's team in its workouts. But several hip-replacement surgeries and two knees that time and toil tore up forced him to stop.
"I'm tired of being injured so I've started to clean up my act," he said.
It's doubtful, though, that he'll ever finish the job. The sport means too much to him. And besides, he's Dan Gable.
"I've never changed my life since I was 4 and went to the YMCA with a gym bag," he said. "I still have that philosophy. In fact, I still have that gym bag."
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-313-3486 or