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Olympic gold medalist visits Newton

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 10:50 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 11:18 a.m. CDT
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(Ben Schuff/Daily News)
Bill Smith is America’s oldest living wrestling gold medalist. Smith, who was in Newton at John’s Barber Shop on Monday, won a gold medal at the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland.

Before America’s only wrestling gold medal from the 1952 Olympics was placed in a museum for admiration, its champion kept it in a coffee can.

Bill Smith won the gold medal in the 160.5 pound weight class at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland. He said he didn’t realize at the time how significant winning a gold medal was, which might explain his method of preservation.

“I had all my medals, including my gold medal, in a can at home,” Smith said and laughed.

Smith, who is the oldest living United States Olympic wrestling gold medalist, was in Newton on Monday visiting a friend and spoke to the Daily News about his career achievements and well being. The 86-year-old said he’s “not too far away from having a cane,” noting his vision and balance are deteriorating and that he gave up working out about eight years ago. He lives in Bode and enjoys the time he has with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

His gold medal is no longer among past inhabitants of coffee grounds but instead on display at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo; the museum was in Newton from 1998-2008.

Smith had a decorated wrestling career that took off while at Iowa State Teacher’s College (now known as the University of Northern Iowa). He won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1949 and 1950 while compiling a career record of 52-0-1. He also won three National AAU Freestyle national championships at 165 pounds and was named the “Outstanding Wrestler” at the 1951 AAU tournament. 

During his time in Cedar Falls, Smith had three teammates — Bill Nelson, Bill Koll and Gerald Leeman — compete in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Their traveling experience made Smith eager and ultimately disappointed when it came time for the Games in Finland.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go to the Olympic games to begin with was because we already had three of my teammates when I was a freshman in college qualify to go in 1948, so UNI had three wrestlers on the Olympic team going to London and they went over on a boat,” he said. “Well, being an Iowa boy, I’d never got on a boat very often. I might be on a tractor or something like that, but not a boat. So I thought, man, that’s what I want to do, go in ‘52, get on a boat and go to the Olympic Games. So here comes ‘52, I make the team, I’m going to go to the Olympics Games in Finland and what do we do? Get on an airplane and fly over. I didn’t get to go on a boat.”

Smith unknowingly won the gold medal in Finland by beating Iranian wrestler Abdollah Mojtabavi. He had also lost in the finals to Sweden’s Per Berlin, creating uncertainty as he approached the medal podium.

“I didn’t figure I’d won because I didn’t pin him,” Smith said. “As soon as the match is over, we go to the podium and they pass out the medals for first, second and third. So I’m going to the podium and I’m really down on myself. We’re going to the podium and these guys are pushing me, ‘Go ahead, go ahead.’ I’m saying, ‘No, no, no.’ The guy kept pushing me and I got to thinking, ‘Well, heck, if they want me to get on that stand, I’ll take it. They don’t know any different.’ I went up and stood on the stand and got the gold medal and I didn’t even realize I was going to get the gold medal.

“At that time, in 1952 with the sport of wrestling, the biggest thing you could do in the sport of wrestling was be NCAA champion. Anything outside of that wasn’t a big deal to wrestlers. I didn’t get that feeling about how big it was until I was over there. Then once you’re there, seeing the whole world doing the Olympic games, that put extra pressure on me because then all of a sudden I decided, well, wait a minute. Being NCAA champion in the United States, that wasn’t that big of a deal. Being an Olympic champion is way bigger, but I didn’t realize that until I was over there.”

Smith continued his career in wrestling as a coach following the ‘52 Games. He coached at several high schools and colleges, including the University of Nebraska, San Jose State and San Francisco State. He also coached the San Francisco Olympic Club to several AAU national team championships. 

Last winter, UNI honored the school’s only Olympic gold medalist by naming the mat after Smith prior to the team’s dual meet against Oklahoma on Jan. 18

“I was shook up, I really was,” Smith said. “I don’t get shook up too often, but that was a choke time there. I don’t shed too many tears, but that was close.”

Contact Sports Writer Ben Schuff at (641) 792-3121 Ext. 6536 or at bschuff@newtondailynews.com.

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