Walking up to the athletic facility at Penn Charter, Dan Gable saw a bunch of kids peeking in the ground-level windows that overlook a big, bright room known as "The Pit."
"I said to myself, 'I hope that's the wrestling room,' " Gable said. "When I saw that it was, it made my day."
Gable, perhaps the most famous figure in American wrestling, was in town yesterday to promote the sport and help Penn Charter celebrate the wrestling tradition at the preparatory school in the East Falls section of Philadelphia.
It was Wrestling Appreciation Day at Penn Charter, and the Quakers honored nine former national champions as well as former wrestler Bill Graham IV (Class of 1958).
Graham is a local businessman whose largesse helped his alma mater recently renovate the athletic center, including "The Pit." Graham also was instrumental in revitalizing the wrestling program at Bucknell University.
"I'm here to honor Bill Graham," Gable said. "He's a man who learned a lot from wrestling and who has given back to the sport. That's what I'm hoping more and more people who have been associated with our sport will do."
Wrestling was alive and well yesterday in the Quakers' below-ground wrestling room, with its massive blue-plastic HVAC tubes suspended from the ceiling and its double-stacked windows along three walls.
A capacity-plus crowd filled the little section of bleachers and spilled onto the edges of the mat to watch ceremonies honoring the program's most-accomplished wrestlers, as well as Penn Charter's match against Conwell-Egan.
Bill Stuart (Penn Charter Class of 1961) won an NCAA title for Lehigh at 137 pounds in 1965. Stuart said wrestlers share a special bond.
"You suffer together; you stay together," said Stuart, who recently retired as an emergency-room physician in Lowell, Mass. "Everything that you go through - making weight, getting banged around on the mat, winning or losing - you share those experiences. It builds camaraderie."
The rest of the special guests included the eight wrestlers who won prep-school national championships for Penn Charter: Bob Jones (Class of 1963), David Icenhower (1967), Rich White (1971), Bob Barretta (1970), Steve Shaifer (1979), Pete Shaifer (1982), Rob Hitschler (2003) and Colin Hitschler (2005).
"We wanted the kids that are wrestling today to get a sense of the legacy," said Steve Shaifer, who helped organize the event.
The highlight of the day was the appearance by Gable, a legendary figure whom Steve Shaifer calls "the Babe Ruth of wrestling."
The 60-year-old Gable was undefeated in his high school wrestling career and went 118-1 at Iowa State. He won the Olympic gold medal in 1972.
Gable was even more successful as a coach. He led Iowa to 15 NCAA titles, including nine in a row, and was 355-21-5 in dual meets. He was the three-time coach of the U.S. Olympic team.
"It's amazing to see somebody like that walk in here," Barretta said. "When I was wrestling, he was everything."
Gable arrived after the match started, but sat with Graham and other honorees and watched the rest of the event, including four junior-varsity bouts. Afterward, Gable spoke with each team and signed everything from head gear to wrestling shoes to T-shirts.
"It was intimidating," said Ben Fries, the Quakers' 140-pound senior, of competing in front of Gable and the school's former national champions. "But it was great, because you get a sense of the history of the sport."
Fries said Gable's message hit home with the team.
"He said to take what we learn in wrestling and apply it to life," Fries said. "He said if we can handle wrestling, we can handle anything."