It seemed all Duane Goldman had to do on the center stage of the Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City last Saturday was seize the moment, as if it were the leg of an off-balance opponent. The team he co-captains, the Iowa Hawkeyes, had already won its ninth consecutive NCAA wrestling championship, and 13,700 spectators, the vast majority of them happy hometown rooters, were primed to lift the 190-pound Goldman through his final college match against Dan Chaid of Oklahoma.
But as Goldman sat in the tunnel awaiting his match, the storybook setting only made the prospect of defeat more terrifying. Before Saturday, Goldman had been the loser in three consecutive NCAA finals. In 56 years, no wrestler had lost four. Worse, in losing 5-3 to Chaid (rhymes with shade) in Oklahoma City last year, Goldman's usual self-control had cracked. He had stormed off the mat and had thrown a garbage can through a window in the concourse of the Myriad Convention Center. That had cost him $65.45 and a letter of apology. He came back to go undefeated this season, but on Saturday the specter of losing the big one loomed once again. "What if I go out there and blow it?" said Goldman. "What then? I've already got enough silver to open my own shop."
Goldman, 23, has a way of applying a light touch to the process of being too hard on himself. Just by reaching the finals, he already had contributed to the gold reserves of coach Dan Gable. The Hawkeyes were on their way to setting alltime records for most points scored in the NCAAs (158) and for the biggest margin of victory (73.25 over Oklahoma). They had already tied the mark for most wrestlers qualified for the finals (six), and the ninth straight title had tied the NCAA record for consecutive team championships—shared by Southern California (track and field, 1935-43) and Yale (golf, 1905-13). "This is the best team I've ever had, the closest to perfect so far," said Gable afterward, rubbing his first-place plaque as though it contained a genie.
The Hawkeyes' luck appeared to have run out during the last month. First, Iowa State ended their 36-match winning streak on Feb. 23 by a score of 19-16. Five days later Iowa's talented 118-pounder, Matt Egeland, quit the team on the eve of the Big Ten championship after struggling to make the weight. Then heavyweight Mark Sindlinger finished fifth at the conference meet; that meant Iowa would defend its NCAA title with eight wrestlers, not 10.
"This team has to work harder than some others," Gable said as the three-day single-elimination tournament got under way. "There's not much room for errors."
The Hawkeyes solved that by not making errors. By the time Goldman took the mat on Saturday, four Hawkeyes—sophomore Brad Penrith at 126 pounds, senior Kevin Dresser at 142, junior Jim Heffernan at 150 and senior Marty Kistler (the tournament's outstanding wrestler) at 167—were already national champions.
"They came in with eight people that were better than anybody else's 10," said coach Stan Abel of Oklahoma. "Let's face it, they are better than we are."
One way Iowa stays better is with the assistance of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, a gathering of past champions who are in training for the 1988 Olympics. Making regular guest appearances in the 90° heat of the Iowa wrestling room are the likes of Barry Davis (a three-time NCAA champion at 118 and 126 pounds), Jim Zalesky (a three-time national champ at 158 pounds) and Mark Johnson (a two-time All-America at Michigan at 190 pounds). And at age 37 and 150 pounds, Gable can beat them all. "Gable is still the King of the Room," says Davis. "And he's the greatest motivator ever born."
Goldman, obviously, could have used a little motivation Saturday afternoon. "Duane is just a complete worry-aholic," says teammate Dresser. "He gets so nervous, he can't stop talking. We just tell him to shut up, that he's the toughest and the greatest." Goldman is also superstitious. He always wears the same shirt to weigh-ins, and last week he reluctantly admitted to sleeping with a Care Bear doll his girlfriend had given him. Not exactly what you would expect from a guy who entered his final match with a 131-10-0 collegiate record.
"Duane almost never gets in bad position on the mat," says Gable. "He's quick, can shoot in from long range, and is very slippery. He just knows how to win."
Says Penrith, "He's a stud."
The pressure has been on Goldman since the fourth grade, when his father. Hank, an all-Skyline Conference 167-pounder at Wyoming, started him wrestling. "I told him that there was no use getting into it if he wasn't prepared to train like an Olympic—not high school or college—wrestler," said the elder Goldman, an investment counselor in Colorado Springs. "There was a certain amount of pushing, but never as much as Duane pushes himself."
Goldman questioned the pressure he was putting on himself after he lost in the '85 final to Chaid. "It took me a while to want to wrestle again," Duane says. "I just wasn't sure if it was worth it." Even the ultimate winner, Gable, agrees. "Winning is important, but it's not a life-and-death thing. It's not worth it if it's not fun."
After taking the summer off, Goldman won 31 straight, including a 7-2 victory over Chaid in a dual meet. But clearly he was again grappling with his self-confidence last week. At times he became withdrawn—"No comment; I'm not wrestling well enough right now to talk to anybody"—but mostly he just looked distracted.
Indeed, in the tunnel before this match, Goldman bore a discernible pallor. In vivid contrast Chaid's face and legs were glowing red where he had slapped himself while psyching up.
After a scoreless first period, Goldman opened the second with an escape and then scored a takedown near the edge of the mat to build a 3-0 lead. When Chaid was penalized for peeling back one of Goldman's fingers, it went to 4-0, but before the period ended he scored an escape for his first point. In the final period Chaid picked up one more point on another escape, but both wrestlers were called for stalling—5-3. Goldman then fought off Chaid's desperate attempts at a takedown that would have tied the score, and, with five seconds left in the match, he danced away. The penalty point he was charged with for "skipping out" made the final 5-4.
"I figured it was better to play it safe than to play it courageous," said Goldman. "No doubt the idea of losing four in a row was in the back of my mind, probably closer to the front. I didn't want to be the answer to a trivia question."
Goldman's victory made him Iowa's fifth national champion—another NCAA record achievement—and was a major triumph of mind over matter. "Last year I thought I should win, but I couldn't see myself on that top pedestal," he said. "This time, I was kind of neutral. It's an improvement, but just think what I could have done if I had thought I was going to win."