Abraham Lincoln, who was born on this day in 1809, was a tremendously skilled wrestler. And, it seems, a prodigious trash talker.
The rugged frontiersman once beat a man with a single toss and challenged the mob that had gathered with a shout: "Any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns!"
No one stepped forward.
A story from a 1995 issue of Sports Illustrated reveals a side of the 16th president that Steven Spielberg's Oscar-bait biopic ignores completely. Historians can find only one recorded defeat of Lincoln in 12 years, a regimental championship match against Hank Thompson while serving with the Illinois Volunteers during the Black Hawk Indian uprising of 1832. "He was a proud competitor but a humble sportsman," David Fleming wrote of the 6-foot-4, 180-pound hard man. "And when his wrestling skills diminished, Lincoln's leadership qualities emerged."
Lincoln was neither the first nor last president to enjoy success in the wrestling arena. George Washington was an accomplished grappler and master of the British style known as collar and elbow, while William Taft was a two-time undergraduate champ at Yale. Fleming also recounts the exploits of Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt.
Which makes the International Olympic Committee's vote to drop wrestling from the program for the 2020 Games that much more disappointing. Not simply because it is one of the world's oldest sports -- first held at the ancient Olympics in 708 BC and at the inaugural modern Games in 1896 -- but for its unique place in the folklore of the frontier and thus the American consciousness.
The initial backlash has been harsh -- "2020 Olympics" was trending nationally this morning and a petition is already in circulation -- but will it last? What impact will the decision have on the 78 Division I wrestling programs that remain, the most decorated of which -- Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State -- are squarely in the heartland? Only time will tell. Yet within a purely domestic context, wrestling's role in the formation of our great leaders is beyond assail.