Alan Rice: Greco-Roman wrestling legend remembers historic Olympics


Even at 83, Alan Rice still looks like he can throw someone through a wrestling ring. His forearms are bulging like those of a construction worker, but he gently squeezes his hand and shows his dexterity on the brown, weathered grand piano in his Saint-Paul salon. Built by Schaff Bros. Co., the piano could be even older than Rice. The company went bankrupt during World War II.

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

With it, Rice pulled out a sheet music book and played a few bars of something from her 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, but Rice quickly stopped. “It’s terrible,” he said. “But I hear the music of my youth.”

Rice’s youth also included a fascination with Greco-Roman wrestling. This brought him to Melbourne to compete in the 1956 Olympics, then to Munich as the coach of the 1972 US Greco-Roman Olympic team. Rice passed his passion down to generations of wrestlers in Minnesota, promoting a tradition that still exists to this day.

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The wrestling club Rice helped found, now called the Minnesota Storm, has placed someone on every American Olympic team since 1968 – a race unmatched by any club in the United States. Jake Deitchler, who recently retired with recurring concussions, continued the streak 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, are competing in Greco-Roman. Three arrive as US Open champions: CP 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 RC Johnson of Robbinsdale (96 kg / 211.5 lb). Johnson faces the most difficult task as the United States has yet to qualify her weight class for the Games; Seven-time US Open champion Justin Ruiz hopes to do so in one of two Olympic qualifiers away from home. If Ruiz is successful, he will face the Trials winner at a later date.

Look at 84kg for Minnesota’s best chance of sending someone to London. Zac Nielsen of Zimmerman and Jordan Holm of Northfield were second and third respectively behind Betts at the US Open, leaving the possibility of a final entirely in Minnesota. Nationally ranked No.1 Holm is back in the fight after 6.5 years in prison.

Of the four freestylers, the one to watch is Ali Bernard of New Ulm, a 2008 Olympian who returns to defend her place in the 72 kg / 158.5 lb women.

1972 Olympic team reunion

Rice will also be in Iowa City for a 1972 Olympic team reunion. (Also on the guest list: Minnesota coach J Robinson, who wrestled Greco at 180.5 lbs.) Rice does coach plus the Storm, leaving that task to two-time Olympian Dan Chandler and his staff.

“I tell guys, I don’t do anything that hurts anymore,” Rice said. “Therefore, I no longer step on the mat. If you show a kid a hold, if it doesn’t hurt, they won’t think it’s a very good hold.

But Rice’s legacy is everywhere in the wrestling community, and not just here. The Greco-Roman Temple of Champions at the Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa, is named after 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 passed away.

That’s how long Rice has been around: he and Verne Gagné wrestled together at the University of Minnesota in the late 1940s. A two-time Big Ten freestyle and All-American champion Rice said he didn’t. never considered following Gagné into professional wrestling, calling him “vaudeville” with more than a hint of disgust.

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

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

The Melbourne Games were the first to be held outside of Europe or North America, and the American team had to travel by air rather than by steamboat. This predates the era of long-range commercial jets, and Rice remembers flying on a large 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 that there is no central heating in Australia. Not all houses had interior plumbing. It was an interesting time for Americans to see a part of the world that few people would see again. “

These Olympics also began the tradition of athletes mingling in the closing ceremonies, at the then anonymous suggestion of an Australian teenager named John Ian Wing. “That’s what everyone remembers – everyone walks, rather than by country, informally in an expression of international affection and respect among the athletes,” he said. “It was a moving experience.”

Terrorist attack

His experience 16 years later in Munich was memorable for a number of reasons. The US team stayed on the sixth floor of a skyscraper 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 ended that night with a bloody shootout at a NATO air base that left all the hostages dead.

The competition had started in the wrestling hall, Rice said, when news of the terrorists broke.

“We were taken back to the Olympic Village after half a day,” Rice said. “The Germans had driven a few military vehicles with machine guns on top, and the terrorists were sort of walking around. They stuck their heads out and walked outside the terrace they were on. There was no external fight.

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

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

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“One of the most interesting things for me was how little human life values ​​most of the rest of the world,” he said.

“I went back and I was talking with the other wrestling coaches, from India and some African countries, and they were like, ‘Why are you so upset that a few people are getting killed? What’s the problem ? In my country they sweep the streets every morning of people who were killed the night before. Someone has starved to death, someone has been murdered, what’s the matter? It’s nothing.’ They couldn’t understand why a few people killed were of any importance, and why we shouldn’t expect this. “


Robert J. King