Ben Peterson always knows what the second question is going to be.
“When people ask me to come speak to a group, the first thing they ask is whether I’m available on that particular date,” Peterson said. “The second question is always whether I can bring my gold medal for them to see. (Former Maranatha wrestler) Mike Houck once told me, ‘I think more people have seen your medal than any other medal in Olympic history.’ It sure has made for some interesting conversations when I go through airport security.”
Peterson’s Olympic medals are likely to accompany him to Iowa City on April 20, when the former Maranatha coach attends a special 40th anniversary reunion of the 1972 Olympic wrestling team during the 2012 Olympic Trials. The reunion is taking place in conjunction with the Trials as well as USA Wrestling’s annual awards banquet.
The 1972 gold medalist and 1976 silver medalist in the freestyle light heavyweight division coached Maranatha’s wrestling teams for more than 27 years and has directed Camp of Champs for 36 years. He will be joined at the reunion by his brother, John, who also won Olympic gold and silver. The Peterson brothers have devoted their lives to Christian service, as have three other members of the 1972 team—Jim and Doug Hazewinkel and Gene Davis.
“I remember thinking, ‘This medal is going to change my life,’ ” Ben Peterson said. “It did, but I found out that kind of success wasn’t enough. The only thing that brings true happiness is following God’s plan.”
Although it has been 40 years since the Munich Games, Peterson exhibits remarkable recall of those events. He also has the benefit of historical perspective when assessing what made Munich especially memorable—the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists and the tension inherent with competition against Soviet bloc athletes during some of the coldest days of the Cold War.
Two NCAA titles at Iowa State didn’t make Peterson the favorite in the 1972 Olympic Trials. Even after Ben and John had won all of their Trials matches, but the brothers from the small farm town of Comstock, WI, still weren’t sure of their places on the Olympic roster.
“Some of the AAU (officials) thought we were going to embarrass them,” Ben Peterson said.
Those officials were rebuffed, and the Petersons became part of a unique blend of personalities that made the 1972 team a magnet for media attention. The underdog farm boys from Wisconsin were joined by one of the greatest wrestlers of all time (Dan Gable), a future lawyer studying for his bar exam (team captain Wayne Wells), a high school student (Jimmy Carr), an avowed hippie (Rick Sanders), and the biggest wrestler in Olympic history (6-foot-5-inch, 400-pound Chris Taylor).
They were colorful—and they were good. The 10 U.S. wrestlers won six medals (three golds, two silver, one bronze). Wrestling columnist Kyle Klingman wrote in a 2005 article that the 1972 and 1992 teams were probably the best ever fielded by the U.S. Klingman then mapped out a mock dual meet pitting those two teams against each other (Klingman had the ’92 team winning, 22-20; John Peterson later wrote a rebuttal, with the imaginary match ending in a 20-20 tie).
The Road to Gold
“I didn’t find the Olympics intimidating at all; I enjoyed it,” Ben Peterson said. “I wasn’t there to be a tourist; I was there to win.”
Peterson won convincingly, with two pins, two decisions, and a draw in his five matches. The draw was with Russia’s Gennady Strahkov, the silver medalist.
“Strahkov was very solemn, very aloof, a true Soviet,” Peterson said. “Honestly, it took me a while to become civil to the Russians. I looked at them all as dirty communists … until I found out most of them hated the system more than I did.”
Tragedy and a New Perspective
Peterson’s views changed due to his experiences competing in a tournament in Soviet Georgia (“There were people rooting for me to beat the Russians, because they hated Russians so much”) and because of his friendship with Levan Tediashvili, perhaps the greatest Soviet wrestler of all. Many years later, Tediashvili would visit Wisconsin as Peterson’s guest.
The farm boy’s other exposure to international politics came with the deaths of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches three days after Peterson had been awarded his gold medal. The Israeli team headquarters was in an Olympic Village building about 100 yards away from where the U.S. wrestlers were staying.
“I had spent that entire day touring Munich with my parents,” Peterson said. “Frankly, I didn’t see much. The German army vehicles took them (the athletes and terrorists) to the airport from the parking area underneath the buildings. But, the whole episode woke me up to reality. It was the beginning of international terrorism.”
Peterson admitted he had duped himself by believing a gold medal would bring enduring happiness. He found satisfaction, but only through his personal faith and in serving God and others. His years as coach (and part-time Bible Department professor) resulted in hundreds of young men engaging in full-time vocational ministry. Some of those men were also outstanding wrestlers, including two-time Olympian Jim Gruenwald and Houck, a Greco-Roman world champion.
“Probably the most important lesson I learned from wrestling was that achievement, whether it is a gold medal or anything else, will never be able to satisfy a person in the way God can,” Peterson said.
Click here to read Ben Peterson’s Olympic biography and statistics
Click here to watch video of Ben Peterson in the 1972 Olympics