Alan Rice: Greco-Roman wrestling legend recalls historic Olympics

Alan Rice

Even at 83, Alan Rice still looks like he could throw somebody across a wrestling ring. His forearms bulge like a construction worker’s, yet he shakes hands gently and shows off his dexterity on the brown, weathered baby-grand piano in his St. Paul living room. Built by the Schaff Bros. Co., the piano might be even older than Rice. The company went out of business during World War II.

“I enjoy the music of my youth,” said Rice, the godfather of Greco-Roman wrestling in Minnesota. “It means I play things that nobody knows – George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen. They were the good ones.”

With that, Rice pulled out a book of sheet music and played a few bars of something from his adulthood – “What I Did for Love,” from the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line,” with lyrics by Edward Kleban and music by Marvin Hamlisch. It sounded wonderful, yet Rice quickly stopped. “That’s terrible,” he said. “But I get to hear the music of my youth.”

Rice’s youth also included a fascination with Greco-Roman wrestling. That took him to Melbourne to compete in the 1956 Olympics, and later to Munich as coach of the 1972 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman team. Rice passed on his passion to generations of Minnesota wrestlers, fostering a tradition that exists to this day.

The wrestling club Rice helped found, now called the Minnesota Storm, has placed someone on every U.S. Olympic team since 1968 – a run unequalled by any club in the United States. Jake Deitchler, who recently retired because of recurring concussions, kept the streak going in Beijing four years ago. 

Can it continue? Fifteen of the 19 Minnesotans who qualified for this weekend’s Olympic Trials in Iowa City, Iowa, compete in Greco-Roman. Three arrive as U.S. Open champions: C.P. Schlatter of Minneapolis at 66 kg/145.5 lbs., the weight class Deitchler won four years ago; Chas Betts of St. Michael (84 kg/185 lbs); and R.C. Johnson of Robbinsdale (96 kg/211.5 lbs.). Johnson faces the toughest task since the United States still hasn’t qualified his weight class for the Games; seven-time U.S. Open champion Justin Ruiz hopes to do that at one of two overseas Olympic qualifiers. If Ruiz succeeds, he’ll face the Trials winner at a future date.

Look to 84 kg for Minnesota’s best chance to send someone to London. Zac Nielsen of Zimmerman and Jordan Holm of Northfield finished second and third, respectively, to Betts at the U.S. Open, leaving the possibility of an all-Minnesota final. Holm, ranked No. 1 nationally, is back wrestling after 61/2 years in prison.

Among the four freestylers, the one to watch is New Ulm’s Ali Bernard, a 2008 Olympian who returns to defend her spot in women’s 72 kg/158.5 lbs. 

Reunion of 1972 Olympic team

Rice will be in Iowa City, too, for a reunion of the 1972 Olympic team. (Also on the guest list: Minnesota Coach J Robinson, who wrestled Greco at 180.5 lbs.) Rice no longer coaches the Storm, leaving that task to two-time Olympian Dan Chandler and his staff.

“I tell the guys, I don’t do anything anymore that hurts,” Rice said. “Consequently, I don’t get on the mat any more. If you show a kid a hold, if it doesn’t hurt, he’s not going to think is a very good hold.”

But Rice’s legacy is all over the wrestling community, and not just here. The Greco-Roman Hall of Champions at the Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, is named for Rice and his late wife, Gloria. Rice donated $1 million in her memory to build the wrestling center at Augsburg College. (Rice worked in investment securities.) A wrestling leadership award is named for Rice, who was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2001, the same year Gloria died.

This is how long Rice has been around: He and Verne Gagne wrestled together at the University of Minnesota in the late 1940s. A two-time Big Ten freestyle champion and an All-American, Rice said he never considered following Gagne into professional wrestling, calling it “vaudeville” with more than a hint of disgust.

Instead, after graduating in 1950 he moved to New York, where he learned the Greco-Roman style at the New York Athletic Club. “I started working on it, and found I liked it a lot,” he said.

In 1956, Rice and Dan Hodge won national AAU titles in freestyle and Greco-Roman titles in the same year. No one else has done it since. (The collegiate wrestler of the year award is named for Hodge, a two-time Olympian and the ‘56 freestyle middleweight silver-medalist.) Rice qualified for the Olympics at 134.5 lbs but did not win a medal, losing both his bouts. He returned to Minnesota in 1959.

The Melbourne Games were the first held outside Europe or North America, and it required the U.S. team to travel by airplane instead of steamship. This predated the era of long-range commercial jets, and Rice remembers flying on a big propeller plane that stopped in Hawaii and Fiji.  Pan Am, he said, took the whole team and charged $1 per athlete.

Once there, he said, “We are all surprised they didn’t have central heating in Australia. Not all the homes had indoor plumbing. It was kind of an interesting time for Americans to see a part of the world that not many see again.”

That Olympics also began the tradition of athletes intermingling in the closing ceremonies, at the then-anonymous suggestion of an Australian teenager named John Ian Wing. “That’s the thing everyone remembers — everybody parades, rather than by country, in an informal way in an expression of international affection and respect among the athletes,” he said. “It was a moving experience.”

Terror attack

His experience 16 years later in Munich proved memorable for different reasons. The U.S. team bunked on the sixth floor of a high rise in the Olympic Village overlooking the building where the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took nine hostages and killed two members of the Israeli Olympic delegation. The crisis concluded that night with a bloody shootout at a NATO airbase that left all the hostages dead.

Competition had begun at the wrestling hall, Rice said, when news broke about the terrorists.

“We were transported back to the Olympic Village after half a day,” Rice said. “The Germans had driven up a couple of military vehicles with machine guns on the top, and the terrorists were kind of walking around. They’d stick their heads out and walk around on the outside of the terrace they were on. There was no outside fighting.

“We didn’t know much afterwards because there was a news blackout over Munich. We didn’t have much understanding of the negotiations, things that were on the television. It was like watching television without any sound. And then 24 hours later, we were told, get back on your bus at noon and we’ll resume where we left off.”

The reaction to the massacre outside the U.S delegation troubled Rice as much as the act itself.

“One of the most interesting things to me was how little human life is valued by most of the rest of the world,” he said.

“I went back and was talking with the other wrestling coaches, from India and some of the African countries, and they would say: ‘Why are you guys so upset about a few people getting killed? What’s the big deal? In my country, they sweep people up off the streets every morning who have gotten killed the night before. Somebody starved to death, somebody murdered, what’s the big deal? It’s nothing.’ They couldn’t understand why a few people getting killed was of any import whatsoever, and why we shouldn’t expect that.”

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/21/2012 - 11:34 am.

    “Night and the City”

    This interesting article reminds of an interesting film noir I saw recently called “Night and the City”. This film was about an American con-man living in London promoting a return to Greco-Roman wrestling against the prevailing fixed, fake wrestling matches that were portrayed as real wrestling. The film featured real Greco-Roman wrestling champion named Stanislaus Zbyszko in his film acting debut as Gregorius, a Greco-Roman wrestling legend. Gregorius was the father of the London underworld kingpin who ran the fake wrestling matches. The drama is the battle between the con-man who tries to promote Gregorius against his son and his wrestlers after the son refuses to honor his father’s request to restore wrestling to its true heritage as Greco-Roman wrestling.

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