Olympic memories

Phillip Brents

Fri April 24, 2015 11:11am

Otay Ranch High School wrestling coach Gabe Ruz is obviously elated that wrestling has been reinstated as an Olympic sport. “At first it sounded like a bad joke, you thought it can’t be true, it must be a mistake,” said Ruz in regard to the International Olympic Committee’s announcement in February 2013 that wrestling had been dropped from the Summer Games schedule. “As the Olympic committee came forward, then you knew they were serious.”
Ruz competed in wrestling in both the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games and the 1972 Munich Olympic Games — two of the most controversial Summer Games on record — so he knew firsthand the international backlash the IOC would receive after demoting not only one of the first Olympic sports but one of the oldest sports in history.
“There was outrage throughout the world,” Ruz recounted. “There are countries that only send wrestlers to the Olympics. There are countries where wrestling is their national sport.”
The IOC has since rescinded its original decision and returned wrestling, with a few rules tweaks, to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Ruz noted that many countries put aside their political differences to come to the sport’s rescue.
“The United States joined in support with Russia, Japan and all the former Iron Curtain countries on this,” the ORHS wrestling coach said. “Even in the United States, where wrestling is not one of the most popular sports, it still has a fantastic following.”
Olympic memories
Ruz participated in football, wrestling and track and field while attending Costa Mesa High School in Orange County. A three-time league wresting champion, he finished third in the Southern Section championships his junior year and won the Southern Section championship title as a senior.
But in 1968 there was no state wrestling championship tournament. Instead he competed in the open nationals where he placed fourth in Greco-Roman wrestling. That place-finish qualified him for the U.S. Olympic team trials.However, Ruz promptly ran into international red tape.
“Since I came to the United States when I was 9 years old as a legal resident, I was still a Mexican citizen and could not compete for the U.S.,” Ruz said.
But Ruz could compete for Mexico. He attended the 1968 Mexican Olympic training camp and earned a berth by defeating the incumbent wrestler in the 138.5-pound weight class.
“Once I was in the Olympic camp there was a lot of heavy politics going on,” Ruz said in regard to the tense atmosphere in the Mexico City camp. “One side wanted one guy to go (the incumbent); I had to beat him three times to make the team. The third time we had international officials present because they were already in Mexico City (in preparation for the start of the Olympics).
“It was very politically divided because I was U.S. trained. I was the one who broke the ice on that. Since then, several wrestlers who are U.S.-trained have gone on to wrestle for Mexico.” The impact of competing in the Olympics was not lost on the young Ruz.
“It was big — it was just an experience as an 18-year-old; you never forget that in your life,” he said. “I had just graduated high school and I was wrestling the best in the world. That dream came true.”
The 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games were full of political intrigue — not just for the Black Power salute on the awards stand by American track and field Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
“Before that there were political tensions between students and the Mexican government,” Ruz said. “The students wanted to protest on the Olympic stage believing they could be heard. To this day, there are people still searching for their loved ones.”
On the mat Ruz went 0-2 in freestyle competition, losing by pin to the eventual gold medalist Masaaki Kaneko from Japan in his first match and then by fall to Korean Choi Jeon-Hyoek in his second match.
Ruz retains vivid memories of the match against Keneko. “We were having a real good match,” Ruz recalled. “In freestyle, you roll and you pin. I tried to do a gut-wrench and when I rolled, I pinned myself.”
Ruz was a two-time All-American while competing for USIU at the NAIA collegiate level, recording a second-place finish as a senior at the national championships. He represented Mexico again in the controversial 1972 Munich Summer Games. The 1972 Summer Games are most remembered for the murder of athletes and coaches from the Israeli Olympic team by the Palestinian Black September terrorist group.
Ruz said he heard the gunfire from the infamous incident that took place in the Olympic village.
“Whenever someone or a country won a medal, there was a lot of celebrating in the Olympic village that night,” Ruz explained. “We heard the actual gunfire but we thought it was just fireworks.”
The next morning, however, told a far different story.
“For our morning run, as we left the hall, there were German soldiers everywhere with machine guns and full equipment,” Ruz said. “Instantly the whole atmosphere changed. That’s when we found out what had happened, but not much more. The Olympic officials did their best to keep a lot of what was going on away from the athletes. In fact, the outside world knew more than we did.”
On the mat Ruz lost by a decision to Cuban Eduardo Quintero and by a pin to Romanian Petre Poalelungi.
Ruz, now 65, said his Olympic experience has left him with a flood of positive memories — ones that have helped him etch his name over a 28-year coaching period as one of the most successful wrestling coaches in the history of the Sweetwater school district.
“The experience that I had participating in both Olympics is incredible,” he said. “The exposure I had to different types of training was invaluable — Romanian, Mongolian and American.
“And staying in the Olympic village gave me a perspective on humanity. You did not speak the language of many of your fellow Olympic athletes but you still communicated. My advantage was that I spoke both Spanish and English. With those two languages, I could communicate with half of the world. Other times, we did it by pointing and laughing and exchanging national pins.”
Growing all the while as human beings.
Otay Ranch High School wrestling coach Gabe Ruz participated in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Summer Games. Photo / Phillip Brents