The people of Greene County, deep in the coal country of southwest Pennsylvania, have seen it all—times when a man could work double shifts every day until his strength gave out, and times when the mines closed down and it was a struggle to find any work at all. But they have never seen a wrestler like Cary Kolat.
Three years ago, when Kolat was a freshman at Jefferson-Morgan High, his teammates began calling him Son of Gable, and since then he has proved himself worthy of comparison to Dan Gable, the renowned Iowa wrestler and 72 Olympic gold medalist. Last month Kolat completed his high school career with a 137-0 record. He won four Pennsylvania AA titles—at 119, 125, 130 and 135 pounds—and four times he was named Outstanding Wrestler at the state meet, an honor no one else had won even twice. He was reversed only five times and was never turned.
"Now they wrestle his name," says Jefferson-Morgan coach Ron Headlee. "They're beaten before they go out."
"It used to be exciting," says Cary's father, Joe. "It's not really exciting anymore."
April 5, 1992
It does get exciting when Kolat wrestles against open competition. Unlike gymnastics, swimming and tennis—sports in which it is not unusual for teens to be among the world's best—wrestling rewards the kind of strength that is built over years. Most wrestlers reach their peak in their mid-to-late 20's. Jim Carr of Erie, Pa., made the 1972 Olympic team at age 16, but precocity of that order is extremely rare.
Kolat, on the other hand, has been holding his own with the world's top wrestlers for the past three years. As a sophomore he became the first high school underclassman to wrestle in the prestigious Midlands Open, in Evanston, Ill., in which he finished third. Last spring, as a junior, he competed at the U.S. nationals, placing fourth in the 125.5-pound weight class. In November, Kolat traveled to France and won all four of his matches at the Henri Deglane Challenge, a major international meet.
Kolat's roots run deep in Greene County. His grandfathers were coal miners. Joe Kolat Sr. worked at Gateway, Wilbur Christopher at Crucible. All that's left of Gateway, which once employed 250 men, is a huge gray slag heap. Towering over the tiny wood-frame houses, it dominates this winter landscape of bare trees and dreary hollows.
"When Gateway went down last year, it really hit everybody hard," says Cary's mother, Judy.
The state broke ground recently for a maximum-security prison five miles south, near Waynesburg. "A lot of people fought that prison," says Judy.
"But it's jobs," says Joe.
In these hardscrabble times Cary's wrestling is a community treasure, diverting and delighting people when they need it most. Even practices draw spectators to Central Garde School, the tiny redbrick schoolhouse that has been converted into Jefferson-Morgan's wrestling room. Grown men stand quietly on the edge of the mat in work boots and flannel shirts, sneaking out now and then for a quick smoke. "People around here realize they may never see his like again," says John Sacco, who covers wrestling for the Greene County Observer-Reporter:
"Most matches are really noisy, but when Cary wrestles, everything gets quiet," says Headlee. "They're in awe. [At a state tournament] they gave a kid a standing ovation for riding Cary the whole period, even though the kid got no points."
On a January Saturday night 2.000 people packed into the Trinity High gym, 20 miles north in Washington, to get a look at this prodigy. When Trinity coach John Abajace opted to forfeit the 135-pound match rather than let Kolat inspire his teammates, the crowd erupted with boos and jeers. Somebody lobbed a program down at Abajace. Later that night, as the Kolats ate in a Washington restaurant, strangers came up to tell them how disappointed they had been with the forfeit. One man said he had driven four hours to watch Cary wrestle. "This is why Cary is a little tired of high school wrestling," says Judy.
"He's suffering right now," says Joe, who clearly is suffering too. "He gives up his leg sometimes just to get some excitement out of a match. There's nothing else he can do, really."
Cary does not look all that intimidating. His face is a scrubbed pink, and his dark-blond hair, which he wears spikily short, seems to be permanently damp. At 5' 5", he is shorter than almost all of his opponents. The distance from Kolat's knee to his ankle is unusually short, an anatomical quirk that makes it more difficult for an opponent to get to his legs. For that reason Kolat prefers freestyle, or Olympic-style, wrestling to folk-style, or collegiate, wrestling. His specialty is takedowns. "I do my wrestling with my feet," he says. In his 137 high school matches Kolat escaped 24 times but allowed 364 escapes. Anything to prolong a match.
"I worry about my image," says Kolat. "I used to take people down and let them up. Nobody booed me then. But now I'd look silly doing that. So I train all week to go out and pin somebody."
College has come to look a lot like paradise to Kolat, 18. He has narrowed his choices to Penn State and Minnesota. For now he frets that while he trains with boys, his rivals for the single berth per weight class on the '92 U.S. Olympic team are honing their technique against equals. "I got too far ahead," he says. "I've been at this level for a while. I think about that a lot, and I get paranoid."
In a sense Joe is to blame for his son's predicament. He created this monster. A quiet man who is proud of his impressive, iron-gray walrus moustache, Joe grew up in Chartiers Bottom, four miles from Rices Landing, where the Kolats now live. Hard work was a way of life for Joe and his six younger sisters. Their family vegetable garden covered two acres. Joe is an independent building contractor, and around Greene County his work ethic is the stuff of legend.
Joe works 14-hour days and doesn't believe in a lunch hour. One of Joe's projects was the Econo Lodge near Harris-burg. He completed it a month ahead of schedule, working seven days a week. Some nights he worked until 4 a.m. and slept on the site. "He makes me nervous sometimes, he's such a perfectionist," says his daughter Kim, 24.
For Joe it's not enough to do the work. He must lay obstacles in his own path. So he chain-smokes Lucky Strikes and drinks three or four pots of coffee a day. His arms are scarred from long ago, when he played the game in which two men hold their forearms together and place a lighted cigarette between them, with the first to pull away losing.
"What would it take to kill my father?" Cary asks teammate Jim Howard.
"Take away his cigarettes and coffee," says Howard. "That, or shave off his moustache."
The youngest of the three Kolat children, Cary inherited much of his dad's tenacity. "He shook two cribs apart," says Judy. "We used to call him Bam Bam."
He seemed fearless. As a 10-month-old, recalls Judy, "he would crawl out along the diving board of a swimming pool, drop off and then swim to the side. We had people jump in [to save him]. One guy jumped in twice and got mad. He told us, 'You people have to be crazy.' " It was not the last time the Kolats would hear that.
When Cary was four and the family was living in a trailer park in La Grange, Texas, a 500-pound dumpster fell on him. "It cut his liver in two," says Judy. "The doctor said he should have died instantly. He went into cardiac arrest twice. His face turned coal black, and his eyes rolled up into his head."
"It takes more pain than normal to hurt him," says Joe, who has tested that belief in a variety of imaginative ways. When Joe decided to build a wrestler, he went at it with his usual quiet fanaticism. Cary started wrestling at five, but the omens were not good. "He used to fail down before he'd get to the center of the mat to shake the kid's hand," says Judy. "His feet were too big for him."
Cary was seven when he won his first national championship, an AAU age-group competition in Lincoln, Neb. He came home and used a little cassette recorder to lay out his future in the sport: seven straight Junior Olympic titles, four consecutive Pennsylvania high school titles, four straight NCAA crowns and an Olympic gold medal. "Basically," says Cary today, "to do everything Gable did and do it better. And to have my own [brand of wrestling] shoes someday."
His other sister, Tracy, now 22, found the tape and played it for her parents. It was all Joe needed to hear. "Once I got hold of that tape, I put him on a six-week program," says Joe. "I knew what he wanted, and I knew the way to get it was pushing."
Joe had wrestled at Jefferson-Morgan, but his career had been short and mediocre. To the best of his recollection, his record was 1-2. So he bought wrestling books and videotapes of wrestlers like Gable and watched them over and over with his son.
Intensity, Joe knew. He would get his son up at 5 a.m. for a workout at Central school, and then after Cary had practiced with a local youth team in the afternoon, Joe would put him through a third session at Central in the evening. "He was on a weight program when he was seven," says Joe. "The books say not to do that until they've gone through puberty, but I proved them wrong."
By the time Cary was 11 and weighed 90 pounds, he could leg-press 500 pounds. "He trained me to be the toughest kid out there," says Cary. "I was in so much better shape than any other kid."
If Cary did not show the proper toughness, Joe made his son get down on his bedroom floor and do 10,000 push-ups, with 30 seconds of rest after each set of 100. "For mental discipline," says Joe. Some nights these sessions went to 2 a.m.
"It was sort of a private competition between us," says Joe. "He used to scare me sometimes, because as hard as I pushed him, he was doing it all. I don't think he's got a shut-off point."
The rest of the community looked on with a combination of astonishment and horror. "Sometimes I worried that Cary was not playing with other kids," says Judy. "He had tournaments or practice every weekend. He didn't know anything else; he didn't think of anything else. You'd ask him what he wanted for Christmas or his birthday. It was always a new pair of wrestling shoes."
Joe and Judy chauffeured their tiny gladiator to tournaments all over the country. One year, Joe reckons, the Kolats spent 32 weekends in motels and most of the others traveling to local meets. "Anybody who beat Cary, we always chased him down," recalls Joe. "It took us a year and a half to catch one boy." The boy was three years older than Cary, but to Joe that made no difference.
Still, Joe worried. When Cary was in the eighth grade, his parents decided that repeating a year of school might help him in terms of overall maturity. "I told Cary to go to school and pay attention but to fail, so it would be legal," says Joe. "We didn't want someone down the road to say he cheated."
Cary did everything in his power to follow orders. He got four F's but earned one A, that single blemish coming from reading teacher Alan Rafail, who was then the Jefferson-Morgan wrestling coach. The report card still sits upstairs in Joe's safe, ready if anyone challenges Cary's high school eligibility.
"People in the community raised hell about Joe," says Ernie Benedict, Jefferson-Morgan's 72-year-old assistant coach. "They got mad at him. They didn't want him spending all that time with Cary."
When Cary won his first state high school title, in 1989, Benedict stood up at a school assembly packed with parents and stared them down. "If you call that child abuse," he said, "let me have more of it."
Cary's feelings about all this were mixed. In his sophomore year he was asked by a newspaper reporter what advice he had for young wrestlers. "Don't make it a job," he answered. "Nobody knows what I've been through to get where I'm at. It hasn't always been fun. Wrestle if you're having fun. If it becomes too much like a job, get out of it. It's like a job to me, but I plan on making my living out of my wrestling."
These days father and son have struck a balance, which allows Cary more independence in his training regimen. "I was going too hard," he says. "I do all my training now in three hours instead of dragging it out all day." That, of course, doesn't include the sessions he puts in most mornings and nights on the Stair-master in his bedroom.
His immediate goal is to make the Olympic team as a 125.5-pounder this summer, though he rates his chances of doing so as "slim." But the prospect of four more years of intense competition is the source of some internal conflict. Asked if making the Olympic team and winning a medal in Barcelona would mean the end of his career, Cary says, "In a way, I'd hope so. There's more to life than wrestling."
Then, as if he has realized the heresy he has uttered, his voice hardens: "But to work my butt off for 14 years and come home with a bronze—that would be disappointing."