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To understand the legend of Larry Owings, you must first understand the legend of Dan Gable.
Dan Gable was — and is — a god among men in the world of amateur wrestling. He was, perhaps, the most superbly conditioned athlete the sport had ever seen. He was known to wake up in the middle of night, just to do push-ups while his opponents slept.
His conditioning was so legendary that the Russians — whom he would face in an international career that included two world championships and a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich — nicknamed him “The Machine.”
His results were extraordinary. In his international career, undefeated. In the Olympics, he not only won every match, he did so without giving up a single point. In his high school career, undefeated. 64-0. In his first 117 college matches, undefeated, including two national championships.
And he was famous. Not, like “he-was-on-a-Wheaties-box-one-time” famous (though he was). No, with his movie star looks and charisma, and a physique that would make Chris Hemsworth jealous, he was legitimately world famous. A household name, and a hero to kids all over the country.
“Michael Jordan is the Dan Gable of basketball,” a sportswriter once said.
He lost only once, in the final match of his final season at Iowa State. Only one man who ever lived can say he beat Dan Gable, and that man is 1968 Canby Union High School grad Larry Owings.
The two met in the finals of the 1970 NCAA wrestling championship. Owings was a sophomore at the University of Washington, who had dropped two weight classes (from 158 to 142) just to get a shot at the legend.
It was a decision the Chicago Daily News writer Bill Jauss said made him “either the bravest or dumbest guy in amateur wrestling.” Gable’s reputation was such that guys generally piled on weight to avoid facing him on the mat; not the other way around.
To say Owings was the underdog would be, well, an understatement. Before the match, Gable had recorded a promo for ABC saying, “Hi, I’m Dan Gable. Come watch me as I finish my career 182-0.”
Owings grew up in the Ninety-One School district, the youngest of five brothers who were all high school wrestling state champions. It was quite the pedigree, but no one expected the same from Larry, for one simple reason.
“They said I’d never be a wrestler because I was too fat,” he recalled, much later. “And when I was younger, I really was pretty fat. My nickname was ‘Porky.’ Everyone called me that, even my teachers at school. They made up songs about me and teased me unmercifully.”
As painful as the experience was, looking back, he believes it may have helped toughen him up. As did one summer before high school, where he went to work for a Norwegian dairy farmer who had him hauling hay bales from dawn to dusk.
He lost 20 pounds, while simultaneously growing several inches, and all of a sudden no one was saying he’d never be a wrestler anymore.
Indeed, from a family of state champion wrestlers, Larry wound up as the best of the bunch, winning the 136-pound crown in 1967 and 141 in 1968. He even had the honor of facing Dan Gable, then a sophomore at the University of Iowa and already a national champion.
Gable won, easily, but Owings scored some points and even put the champ on his back one time. It made him want another crack at the legend, but he wouldn’t have a chance until that final round of the 1970 national championship at the Northwestern University fieldhouse in Evanston, Ill.
In that stadium full of 9,000 screaming fans, the only one who thought Owings had a shot at taking down Gable might have been Owings himself (and, as he would later admit, “probably” his brother, and “maybe” his coach).
But Owings honestly believed he could beat him. He may have been the only opponent Gable had faced in years who saw him as anything other than invincible. But he was right.
Owings didn’t wipe the floor with Gable; that would have been impossible. But he squeaked out an early lead and manage to barely hang onto it through a close, hard-fought, furious match that exhausted both men.
“My strategy was to throw everything I could at him, keep him so busy he wouldn’t be able to get into a rhythm in the match,” Owings later said. “I gave it everything I had.”
The most dramatic moment came in the final 30 seconds, with Gable technically in the lead although the scoreboard showed otherwise, when Owings slipped underneath his arms for a brilliantly executed leg sweep that dropped Gable to the mat for the winning points. It was done out of utter desperation, but hey — it worked.
When the 13-11 decision was announced in Owings’ favor, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation. It still stands as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Gable made numerous attempts to explain the only defeat he would ever know.
“He tired me out more than I thought he would,” he said. “Owings was very squirmy and hard to control.”
But Owings’ recollection, recorded immediately after his great victory, is probably still true to this day: “When it was over, I looked at Dan, and he looked like he didn’t know what had happened.”
Gable recovered from the defeat and would later say it made him a much better wrestler. He went on to the sensational international and Olympic career that has already been described.
After retiring as the virtually undisputed greatest wrestler in the history of the sport, he decided to go ahead and become its greatest coach. (I mean, why not, right?)
From 1976 to 1997, Gable was the head wrestling coach at the University of Iowa, where his teams compiled a dual meet record of 355–21–5 and won 15 NCAA Division I titles. He coached 152 all-Americans, 45 national champions, 106 Big Ten Champions and 12 Olympians, including eight medalists.
Larry Owings, on the other hand, returned to Oregon, and faded into obscurity, at least as far as the wrestling world was concerned. A natural introvert, he struggled for decades against his reputation as “The Man Who Beat Dan Gable.” He didn’t want his whole life to be defined by something that transpired over a period of nine minutes when he was a teenager.
Then, one night about 10 years ago, he had an epiphany, which he believes came from God. The message was that his talent at wrestling, and his improbable victory over Dan Gable, had happened for a reason. And if he could use them to help somebody else, he should.
He became an assistant wrestling coach at Woodburn High School, and today strives to serve as a positive role model and mentor to local youth. Now nearly 70 but still strong as an ox, Owings is not one to use a blackboard to teach his wrestlers how to do a takedown. He prefers to show them, firsthand.
“I think I’ll wrestle till I’m at least 80,” he said during a recent interview. “Anything that I can do to help keep these kids away from the video games, and the drugs, the violence and the gangs, I’m going to do it.”
Next, we’ll bring you the story of the Canby cowboy who became the best bronc rider in the country at the age of 23. But it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.
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