InterMat Rewind: Shelby Wilson

Mark Palmer

10/4/2007
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Take a look at the wrestling resumes of most Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers from the US, and just about all of them had considerable international experience, built on a foundation from being state champs back in high school, and NCAA champions in college.

Shelby Wilson is a notable exception to that rule.

Wilson, who, along with Terry McCann and Doug Blubaugh, won the gold medal for the US in freestyle at the 1960 Olympics, never wrestled in international competition before going to Rome. In fact, he never won an Oklahoma state title while at Ponca City High School… nor did he claim a national collegiate crown as an Oklahoma State Cowboy.

Which makes Shelby Wilson winning the Olympic gold medal all the more special.

An introduction to the mat

Shelby Wilson grew up on a farm outside Ponca City, a community of 25,000 in northern Oklahoma, just south of the Kansas border. He was the oldest of four children, with a sister and two brothers, both becoming Oklahoma high school state champs.

Shelby Wilson
"In junior high, my P.E. teacher Don Smith taught us wrestling," says Wilson. "He told me I should go out for wrestling. He was assistant wrestling coach to his brother Loren, the head wrestling coach."

"My junior high coach was a good teacher of basics."

Shelby Wilson had a challenging introduction to the sport in more ways than one. "In seventh grade, it was an especially rough winter. It was hard to get to and from practice from where we lived on the farm. I ended up turning in my gear."

"In eighth grade, I kept getting beat out in the practice room. But then my team rival moved away, and, suddenly, I went from not making the team to pinning every opponent the rest of the way through eighth and ninth grades."

"I lived on the chinning bar," says Shelby Wilson. "My junior high coach Grady Peninger got me started on chinning and push-ups … During the summer in high school I did 200 chin-ups each day on my mom's clothesline pole. My arms would never tire out during a match."

"Both my junior high and high school coaches were Oklahoma State grads. They focused on the basics, and instilled a winning philosophy in us."

"Loren Smith turned the junior high over to Grady Peninger my ninth grade year, and then Grady moved up to the high school my tenth grade year."

High school highs … and lows

Ponca City High was a wrestling powerhouse in the 1950s. In addition to Wilson, the school can also claim eventual Oklahoma State stars such as Gene Nicks (two-time NCAA heavyweight champ 1952 and 1954), Ned Blass (two-time 177-pound champ at the 1953 and 1954 NCAAs), Doug Blubaugh (157 pound champ at the 1957 NCAAs), and Dick Beattie (two-time NCAA champ at 157 pounds in 1958 and 1959).

"I learned two lessons right away," says Wilson. "First, never argue with a coach. Second, don't wait around to be told what to do. I never had to be pushed. I was self-motivated."

"My parents said, 'Do as I say' and I did. I always obeyed them, and my teachers and coaches … I understood later that it was God's plan to teach me respect for authority."

Shelby Wilson had a stellar high school mat career at Ponca City, losing only three matches … all in the Oklahoma high school state tournament.

In fact, obedience and respect for authority may have cost Wilson his chance at a state title. In a fall 2003 interview with wrestling writer Matt Krumrie, Wilson said, "When I was a sophomore, I won all duals by fall. I weighed about 120 but the coaches dropped me down to 105 for the state tournament. I was a farm kid, I had no fat to begin with, and I was sucking weight. It was horrible. I lost one match and placed third. My junior year, I moved up to 120, went undefeated, cut down again, and placed third. My senior year, I wrestled at 135, coming down from 142, which was a good weight for me, but I lost fair and square to Paul Aubrey."

In the interview for this profile, Wilson tells a story of perseverance in high school: "I was sick with the flu before districts. I missed school except for wrestling practice … Thank goodness I was a pinner, and could end most of my matches quickly. My last match (at districts) I was up against an undefeated Greco technician. I was so tired, but had to go the full six minutes to get the win. Then, the following week, I lost in the finals at the state tournament to Paul."

"When I lost (at the finals), it really hit me. It meant more to me than anything. It made me think that life was more than wrestling."

"I was NOT a religious person up to that point. I went to church but I wasn't really 'there.' I didn't smoke, drink or chase around. But something was missing."

"After a few months of searching, I found that what was missing was a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. In August of 1955 I committed my life to Christ and follow Him to this day."

And that laid a strong foundation for the rest of Shelby Wilson's life.

Shelby becomes a Cowboy

Shelby Wilson went to Oklahoma State University in nearby Stillwater on a full-ride scholarship -- the first member of his family to go to college. "I changed my major five times," Wilson discloses. "I accordingly got a degree in education."

"I was a very average student," Wilson adds. "I only really understood school towards the end of my college career. Wrestling was so consuming."

Shelby Wilson
"I made the dean's list the year I paid my own way. This was after the Olympics, and I was finishing my last year. I had dropped out to try for the Olympics."

How did Wilson choose Oklahoma State? "(Head wrestling coach) Art Griffith called, asking if he could visit me," recalls the 1960 Olympic gold medalist. "He asked, 'Would you like to wrestle at A&M?' (Back then, the school was called Oklahoma A&M, for Agricultural and Mechanical) and handed me an application."

"He didn't wine and dine you. He wanted you because your blood had already started to turn orange."

"I was recruited by (the University of) Oklahoma but didn't really ever have a thought of going to school there," says Wilson. "I was just born to be a Cowboy,".

What was it like wrestling for long-time Cowboy coach Art Griffith as he concluded his coaching career? "I learned more in that year-and-a-half than at any other time of my wrestling career," according to Wilson. "He taught principles, focusing on the reason you did something, the mechanics of wrestling. He refined some of (Ed) Gallagher's methods."

"One of Griffith's favorite sayings was, 'If muscles were everything, a bull could catch a rabbit.'"

"Proper positioning was everything, not bull strength."

Change at the top

While Shelby Wilson was at Stillwater, his college changed names -- from Oklahoma A&M to Oklahoma State … and the head coach that recruited him, Art Griffith, retired, replaced by one of Wilson's teammates, 23-year-old Myron Roderick.

"I had wrestled behind Roderick my first year," recalls Wilson. "We wrestled each other every day. To be behind a three-time NCAA champion, I took my lumps."

"Myron was a little powerhouse. He perfected the fireman's carry… He took the coaching job seriously, and stood up for his teams."

"(Roderick) wasn't necessarily the same mindset as Griffith," says Wilson when asked about his second college coach.

"He was an innovator, a visionary. He started the practice of wrestlers wearing three-quarter-length workout shorts that functioned as kneepads for practice sessions."

"He was an innovator in recruiting," continues Wilson. "Before Myron, most wrestlers (at Oklahoma State) were from the state of Oklahoma. For years, (college) coaches didn't have to do much recruiting. The school had turned out so many wrestlers that became high school coaches within the state, so they automatically sent their guys to Oklahoma State. That pretty much kept the program filled with talent."

"There had been some exceptions over the years but very few. A fellow named Elias George transferred from Indiana (University) to Oklahoma A&M years ago. His brothers came to OSU while I was there. Elias was not recruited but went on his own."

"Myron reached out even further. He recruited from Japan. Masaaki Hatta was on the team while I was there, and, not long after, (Yojiro) Uetake (three-time NCAA champ in the mid 1960s, and two-time Olympic gold medalist for Japan in 1964 and 1968)."

When asked about another Cowboy of the late 1950s who was from far beyond Oklahoma -- Adnan Kaisy of Iraq -- Shelby Wilson immediately had a story: "He lived with me in a little one-car garage with bunkbeds, a desk and a bathroom … We had a tab at the local Dairy Queen, and at the grocery store."

Cowboy career

While at Oklahoma State, Shelby Wilson claimed the distinction of being the school's first-ever Big Eight champion, winning the 137-pound title in the conference's inaugural season in 1958. At the 1958 NCAAs held at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wilson was the top seed in the 137-pound class. He earned decisive wins over wrestlers from Cornell College of Iowa, Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa), and Lock Haven … and, in the semifinals, shut out fifth-seeded Dean Corner of Iowa State 5-0. However, in the finals, Wilson lost to cross-state rival Paul Aubrey of the Oklahoma Sooners 11-9 … who he had defeated in the Big Eight finals 17-10 just one week earlier.

In 1959, Wilson avenged that finals loss by defeating Oklahoma's Aubrey in the 137-pound finals at the Big Eight championships, winning his second straight conference title. At the 1959 NCAAs at the University of Iowa, Wilson was seeded second behind Aubrey. At Iowa City, the Cowboy from Ponca City got clear-cut victories over grapplers from Bloomsburg, Colorado Mines, Minnesota, and Indiana before facing Iowa State's Larry Hayes in the finals. The fifth-seeded Cyclone got a 10-3 win over Wilson.

In fact, those two NCAA finals losses were Shelby Wilson's only defeats in his entire college career. (Two of Shelby Wilson's early college opponents are names InterMat Rewind readers may recognize. In his second college match, Wilson defeated Iowa State's Ron Gray; in his third college bout, Wilson beat the 1957 NCAA 147-pound defending champ, Simon Roberts of Iowa.) During the regular season, Wilson wrestled at 147 … then "Myron put me down to 137 for the NCAAs." It was history repeating itself. The same tactic of wrestling one weight class during the season in high school, then dropping down a class for the championships didn't work in high school… and it failed in college as well.

It was just one lesson that Shelby Wilson learned for the 1960 Olympics.

Another lesson learned came from going up against Paul Aubrey a number of times (first time was in high school, where Wilson pinned the future Sooner). "When I beat him, I 'outslicked' him. When he beat me, he circled around the edge of the mat and I chased him."

"At the Olympics, I used that same strategy. Rather than go after a guy who was playing the edge, I would go to the center of the mat, and the ref made him come to the middle, where I could take him down. This happened in my second match against Finland and I won with no problem."

"Coach Griffith said, 'You make a mistake, you correct it.' By the time of the Olympics, I got my mistakes worked out."

First steps toward the Olympics

"That fall (after the 1959 NCAAs), I came back to school, thinking I had a redshirt year due to injury that kept me out of my sophomore year, but the decision was ruled against me. I was eligible to compete for everything -- duals, Big Eight -- but not the NCAAs."

After the start of the 1960 season, Myron Roderick urged Shelby Wilson to try out for the US Olympic wrestling team competing in Rome in late summer of 1960. "My heart wasn't really in freestyle at the time," Wilson confesses. "My only experience was at the 1959 AAUs … I had no 'Olympic dream.'"

"I started praying on it."

"I started training, and continued to ask for God's help. I was confident that I should wrestle at 147.5 pounds, especially after having to cut down in high school and college."

"I really didn't have anyone to teach me. Even Myron who was on the '56 Olympic team knew very little freestyle, so I asked God for a plan, and I developed a very good one."

"Right after the 1960 NCAAs, the Olympic Trials started," according to Wilson. "There were twelve qualifiers around the country. If you placed first or second in one of those events, you were eligible for the national tourney."

"I entered at a local (Oklahoma) event and another in Colorado. I ended up being double-qualified (for the national Olympic Trials in Ames, Iowa) and it was valuable experience -- my only international experience."

"At the national tournament, in my first match, at the end of six minutes, I was dying… There was a move I used only once, a whizzer, then stuck my head into his body and dumped him for the fall."

"I was totally discouraged. Completely gassed. Ready to go home."

"However, in an hour, I was totally recovered. In fact, the more I wrestled, the better I felt. I got into competitive shape during the tournament. Since I had not wrestled my senior year, I had only the two previous tournaments for competition which was not a high level of competition. At the Trials it was time to get rolling."

In the semifinals at Ames, Shelby Wilson faced future NCAA champ Greg Ruth. "He came down from 160 to 147.5. Big, tough guy. We battled to a draw, which meant I was in the top three."

"In the finals I had to beat (Frank) Bettucci (1956 US Olympic team member). He really didn't want to tangle since he was assured first place even with a tie, which is what happened." according to Wilson. "However, I was in second, and the top three placers went to Olympic training camp." (The Olympic training camp in Norman, Oklahoma was the final event to determine who would be wrestling for the US in Rome.)

"Back then, a wrestler could try out for both the freestyle and Greco-Roman teams. I figured, 'Why not double your chances?' and immediately after the freestyle trials, went into the Greco competition too."

Shelby Wilson then told a story with a bit of political intrigue. The top two men in Greco at his weight were Ben Northrup and Mike Rodriguez. The 'powers that be' in Greco wrestling, preferring that Rodriguez be the one to advance to the Olympic training camp, told Wilson to make sure to beat Northrup in their match. However, Wilson realized that if he beat Northrup at the Olympic Trials in Ames, he would face Rodriguez -- a 1957 NCAA champ at Michigan who Wilson considered to be the tougher of the two men -- at the Olympic training camp. With that in mind, Wilson wrestled to a draw with Northrup, assuring Northup a place at the camp in Norman.

Wilson had doubled his chances of competing in Rome. However, he had to prepare for the last gauntlet of the winnowing process -- the Olympic training camp.

Shelby Wilson wanted to set the record straight on how he got to the training camp. "For some reason, it has been written -- and it's still being written -- that I got to the camp on a hardship case because of injury," says the Ponca City native. "One of my opponents, Jim Burk of Colorado, was allowed in on hardship, and also Terry McCann, but I went through all that was required to be at the camp and wrestled those below me and above me to make the team."

Surviving Norman

"That summer, I linked up with Phil Kinyon (three-time NCAA finalist and 1961 champ for Oklahoma State at 157 pounds)," says Wilson. "I owe him a lot. We went at each other every day. We worked out, ran, worked his farm, then would wrestle two twelve-minute matches. That's where I perfected my moves."

"Phil was a very important part of my Olympic victory and without him, I'm not sure what would have happened."

From reports of some of the participants in the Olympic training camp -- held at the University of Oklahoma in Norman -- it sounds more like a military boot camp, or perhaps even a prisoner-of-war camp. Rigorous workout schedules, coupled with extreme late summer heat and humidity -- took its toll on a number of the wrestlers … yet, arguably, prepared the US team for the battle that was to come in Rome, where matches were wrestled outdoors in the Mediterranean sun.

Phil Kinyon
At the Olympic training camp, Shelby Wilson made the Greco team with two victories over Ben Northrup. Some coaches raised objections to Wilson trying out for the freestyle team -- in essence, saying, 'He's already on the Greco team.' However, as Wilson tells the story, "Port Robertson (long-time Oklahoma coach and 1960 Olympic freestyle coach) stuck up for me, saying it was allowed by the rules … He was a man of great honor, and I am thankful he was our coach or I might have been on the Greco team, and I'm not a Greco wrestler."

To be the US freestyle wrestler at 147.5 pounds in Rome, Shelby Wilson would have to defeat in two straight matches the wrestler who came out of Ames in first place. "I had to chase him for eleven minutes 20 seconds, with no points scored. Towards the end of the match, I started to increase the pressure, and got a takedown at the edge of the mat, which the ref gave me." (Wilson won the match 1-0.)

"We were scheduled to wrestle the second match the next day, but then I found out the opponent went home."

"I was completely prepared for the second match. I don't think there's any way he could have won it."

When in Rome …

"It was an incredible experience to get to Rome," Shelby Wilson says of his Olympic adventure forty-seven summers later. "It was the easiest tournament I was ever in."

Shelby Wilson
Asked to clarify that seemingly bold statement, Wilson immediately responded: "It was only one match a day for five days. It wasn't hard because I was totally prepared -- physically, mentally, spiritually … I was in the best shape I'd ever been in. Everything in the plan was coming in line. Perfect preparation."

"I was able to use the (Olympic) rules to my advantage," Wilson continues. "I perfected my takedowns, so I could do them in any situation … I put in all my training effort on the bottom, so no one could turn me."

"My first three matches were all on my feet, which worked to my advantage, since I had two bad knees, and tried to stay off them as much as possible."

"Before my match with the Japanese wrestler, the Russian (Vladimir Sinyavsky) signaled to me, 'Watch for his high crotch.'"

"I was able to take the wrestler from Japan down eight times, and score a two-point tilt. He eventually got a two-point tilt, making the final score 10-2."

1960 Olympic gold medalists (from left): Shelby Wilson, Terry McCann, and Doug Blubaugh
"That night, (Doug) Blubaugh and (Terry) McCann talked to me. They told me about the Russian, a two-time world champ, saying 'You've got him worried; (in beating the Japanese wrestler) you destroyed the guy who beat him."

"While getting ready for the match, I tried for some psych-out moves -- something I normally would not do. Must have worked -- he did not want to wrestle, constantly shying away from me. I got two takedowns in the first period, which forced us into the par terre position. I had a couple of reversals then finished the last two minutes on my feet for the victory."

In his fifth and final match, the farm boy from Oklahoma defeated the Iranian, while the Bulgarian beat the Korean … making Shelby Wilson the automatic Olympic champion, and gold medal winner in freestyle at 67 kg/147.5 lbs. Wilson was joined by freestyle teammates Terry McCann and Doug Blubaugh as Olympic gold medalists.

From the mat … to a mission

After earning his Olympic gold medal, Shelby Wilson became a wrestling coach at both the college and high school level, including seven years as head coach at the University of Colorado. More recently -- from 1985-2005 -- Wilson served as an assistant coach at Owen Valley High School at Spencer, Indiana, not far from his home in Bloomington.

It wasn't all wrestling after Rome. Wilson went to Texas to earn a graduate degree … and in the process, met Gretchen, the woman who became his wife in 1962. The two of them raised three daughters, who blessed them with nine grandchildren.

While in Colorado in the early 1970s, Shelby and Gretchen Wilson established The Stronghold Youth Foundation, a Christian-based service organization that continues in Bloomington.

"I've always felt a need to help people," says Wilson. "Helping stranded motorists, hitchhikers, the down-and-out."

"God also blessed me with the ability to repair just about anything. I had a repair business to fix cars, appliances, you name it. Those who could pay, did. Those who couldn't, there was no charge."

"Stronghold uses space donated by a local company. If there's a need and we have the means to help, then we help," Wilson explains. "Much of this work is aimed at international students but not exclusively."

"Some kids come to school with nothing. We ask them to provide us with a list of what they need - furniture, linens, dishes, appliances -- and we provide them with what they need while they're here at school. Once they finish, they return the items for the next student to use."

"It's a form of ministry. I tell them that God is seeing to their needs."

While in the Wilsons' home, it was interesting to see Stronghold Youth Foundation in action. During the interview, Shelby took a number of phone calls from incoming Indiana University students who needed furnishings for their college homes as they arrived for fall semester. Shelby handled each of the calls with warmth, patience and grace, almost as if he were the father of each of the callers.

Interestingly, there are few outward signs in Shelby and Gretchen Wilson's home that an Olympic gold medal-winner resides there. In a hallway there are a handful of framed photos of Shelby as a wrestler, including a dramatic action shot of him throwing Ben Northrup, and a familiar image of Wilson, Blubaugh and McCann wearing their gold medals -- and their eyeglasses.

Wilson weighs in on college wrestling

Along with the discussion of his own wrestling career and his work for Stronghold Youth Foundation, Shelby Wilson spoke passionately how his wrestling style at Oklahoma State in the late 1950s measures up to that used by other schools of that era … and how it compares to today's collegiate wrestling.

"Wearing the orange and black was the greatest privilege," says the two-time NCAA All-American.

"Back then, there was what we at OSU called 'the eastern style', which tended to rely more on brawn," according to Wilson. "Our style was sometimes labeled 'Run Aggie Run' -- they would accuse us of running when we were actually more mobile, more active on the mat. Others referred to it as 'take 'em down and let 'em up' which I think accurately describes my own wrestling style." (Looking at the 1958 and 1959 NCAA brackets, Wilson scored in the double digits in most of his matches.)

Harkening back to what his coach Art Griffith had said about strength -- "If muscles were everything, a bull could catch a rabbit" -- Wilson says, "I think more and more wrestlers of today rely on brawn, muscle, rather than movement. I think of past wrestlers as moving around, being active, while today's wrestlers tend to want to 'slug it out' more, and rely on power moves."

"In the past, coaches stressed that positioning was important, and emphasized technique. You used to see more duck unders, drags, high crotches. And you'd see more defense."

Shelby Wilson and friend with gold medal
"Today's fans haven't seen the scientific aspect of the sport."

"Take any good caliber wrestler, teach him good technique, and he'll win an NCAA title."

While comparing the past to the present, Shelby Wilson is also passionate about the state of officiating. "Refs do not seem to have the courage when it comes to stalling. Too many are afraid to call it. Application is inconsistent."

"The first time you go off the mat, it should be a warning, then call stalling. A wrestler should not be given the chance to go off the mat."

Nearly fifty years after winning wrestling's ultimate prize, 1960 Olympic gold medalist Shelby Wilson still demonstrates considerable passion for fixing the sport he loves … but channels his considerable fix-it skills and spiritual gifts to making life better for others in the area he now calls home.

"I started wrestling at age twelve in grade seven, and, in my eleventh year of wrestling, I won the Olympics," says Wilson. "From junior high until I won the Olympics, I never lost a dual-meet match. I lost three times in high school, and twice in college. I never lost at 147 pounds in any style."

"If I have any regrets in my wrestling career, it would be to have been able to wrestle at my normal wrestling weight for all my matches and see what might have happened. The first time I did that was at the Olympics."

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