The 1930s were tough times, with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl being among the challenges Americans faced. However, four tough college wrestling champs overcame the odds to win gold medals at the Olympics in that decade.
The 1932 Olympics were held in Los Angeles, the first Summer Games to feature a number of aspects we now take for granted, including an Olympic Village to house the athletes, the three-step awards podium, the playing of the gold medalist’s national anthem, and the use of electronic timing and photo-finish technology.
Bobby Pearce brought home gold at 123 pounds in freestyle competition, the first wrestler from the state of Oklahoma to achieve this honor. Pearce, a three-time Oklahoma high school state champ, wrestled at Oklahoma State for the legendary coach Ed Gallagher, winning an NCAA title in 1931. After college and the Olympics, Pearce was a long-time high school and college wrestling coach. He was welcomed as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1981.
Winning the gold medal at 158.5 was Jack VanBebber, also an Oklahoma State Cowboy who defeated a three-time Olympic medalist from Finland in the championship match after barely making it to the arena in time because of a scheduling mix-up. Overcoming a near-fatal accident as a child, VanBebber won two state titles as a high schooler in the Sooner State, then compiled a perfect record at Oklahoma State, winning three NCAA titles from 1929-1931. VanBebber’s inspiring life is the subject of a book he wrote with his wife titled A Distant Flame. VanBebber was a member of the 1976 inaugural class inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
The third gold medal-winning matman at the L.A. Olympics was Pete Mehringer, who was crowned champ in 192-pound freestyle competition. A native of Kansas, Mehringer learned how to wrestle from the famous correspondence course written by early 1900s pro wrestling legends Frank Gotch and Martin “Farmer” Burns. The lessons worked; Mehringer was a two-time Kansas high school state champ who went on to wrestle at the University of Kansas, where he was a three-time Missouri Valley Conference champ, and 1932 NCAA runner-up at heavyweight. While at KU, Mehringer was also an All-American defensive tackle for the Jayhawks. The National Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted Pete Mehringer in 1983.
Only one U.S. wrestler won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin: Frank Lewis, at 158.5 pounds in freestyle. Lewis was an Oklahoma high school state mat champ who stepped away from wrestling when he first entered Oklahoma State. However, to earn credit hours, Lewis enrolled in a wrestling class that required him to enter a collegiate tournament. After winning the tourney title, he decided to wrestle for the Cowboys, where he won a championship at the 1935 NCAAs. Lewis was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1979.
Meet the U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning matmen... From 1904 through 2008, U.S. wrestlers have garnered a total of 47 Olympic gold medals, including four from the 1930s, six in the 1920s, and nine in the first two decades of the 20th century. College Wrestling Examiner will introduce you to all the Olympic greats in a series of College Wrestling 101 features.
Want to know more? InterMat Rewind has written about the 1932 Olympics, and about Jack VanBebber's book, A Distant Flame. For photos and more info on the U.S. Olympic gold-medal-winning grapplers, you'll want to read the brand-new book The Gold Standard, featured in a College Wrestling Examiner article from April 2012.
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