1960 Olympic Gold Medalist Shelby Wilson Sets the Record Straight

Mark Palmer, Staff Writer at RevWrestling

Take a look at the wrestling resumes of most Olympic gold medal-winning wrestlers from the US, and just about all of them had considerable international experience, built on a foundation from being state champs back in high school, and NCAA champions in college.

Shelby Wilson is a notable exception to that rule.

Wilson, who, along with Terry McCann and Doug Blubaugh, won the gold medal for the US in freestyle at the 1960 Olympics, never wrestled in international competition before going to Rome. In fact, he never won an Oklahoma state title while at Ponca City High School”¦ nor did he claim a national collegiate crown as an Oklahoma State Cowboy.

Which makes Shelby Wilson winning the Olympic gold medal all the more special.

An introduction to the mat

Shelby Wilson grew up on a farm outside Ponca City, a community of 25,000 in northern Oklahoma, just south of the Kansas border. He was the oldest of four children, with a sister and two brothers, both becoming Oklahoma high school state champs.

Shelby Wilson

“In junior high, my P.E. teacher Don Smith taught us wrestling, ” says Wilson. “He told me I should go out for wrestling. He was assistant wrestling coach to his brother Loren, the head wrestling coach.”

“My junior high coach was a good teacher of basics.”

Shelby Wilson had a challenging introduction to the sport in more ways than one. “In seventh grade, it was an especially rough winter. It was hard to get to and from practice from where we lived on the farm. I ended up turning in my gear.”

“In eighth grade, I kept getting beat out in the practice room. But then my team rival moved away, and, suddenly, I went from not making the team to pinning every opponent the rest of the way through eighth and ninth grades.”

“I lived on the chinning bar, “says Shelby Wilson. “My junior high coach Grady Peninger got me started on chinning and push-ups “¦ During the summer in high school I did 200 chin-ups each day on my mom’s clothesline pole. My arms would never tire out during a match.”

“Both my junior high and high school coaches were Oklahoma State grads. They focused on the basics, and instilled a winning philosophy in us.”

“Loren Smith turned the junior high over to Grady Peninger my ninth grade year, and then Grady moved up to the high school my tenth grade year.”

High school highs “¦ and lows

Ponca City High was a wrestling powerhouse in the 1950s. In addition to Wilson, the school can also claim eventual Oklahoma State stars such as Gene Nicks (two-time NCAA heavyweight champ 1952 and 1954), Ned Blass (two-time 177-pound champ at the 1953 and 1954 NCAAs), Doug Blubaugh (157 pound champ at the 1957 NCAAs), and Dick Beattie (two-time NCAA champ at 157 pounds in 1958 and 1959).

“I learned two lessons right away, “says Wilson. “First, never argue with a coach. Second, don’t wait around to be told what to do. I never had to be pushed. I was self-motivated.”

“My parents said, ‘Do as I say’ and I did. I always obeyed them, and my teachers and coaches “¦ I understood later that it was God’s plan to teach me respect for authority.”

Shelby Wilson had a stellar high school mat career at Ponca City, losing only three matches “¦ all in the Oklahoma high school state tournament.

In fact, obedience and respect for authority may have cost Wilson his chance at a state title. In a fall 2003 interview with wrestling writer Matt Krumrie, Wilson said, “When I was a sophomore, I won all duals by fall. I weighed about 120 but the coaches dropped me down to 105 for the state tournament. I was a farm kid, I had no fat to begin with, and I was sucking weight. It was horrible. I lost one match and placed third. My junior year, I moved up to 120, went undefeated, cut down again, and placed third. My senior year, I wrestled at 135, coming down from 142, which was a good weight for me, but I lost fair and square to Paul Aubrey.”

In the interview for this profile, Wilson tells a story of perseverance in high school: “I was sick with the flu before districts. I missed school except for wrestling practice “¦ Thank goodness I was a pinner, and could end most of my matches quickly. My last match (at districts) I was up against an undefeated Greco technician. I was so tired, but had to go the full six minutes to get the win. Then, the following week, I lost in the finals at the state tournament to Paul.”

“When I lost (at the finals), it really hit me. It meant more to me than anything. It made me think that life was more than wrestling.”

“I was NOT a religious person up to that point. I went to church but I wasn’t really ‘there.’ I didn’t smoke, drink or chase around. But something was missing.”

“After a few months of searching, I found that what was missing was a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. In August of 1955 I committed my life to Christ and follow Him to this day.”

And that laid a strong foundation for the rest of Shelby Wilson’s life.

Shelby becomes a Cowboy

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