Britt News Tribute

Story by Sam Jefson, January 15, 2014


The documentary "Wrestling with Iowa" includes footage from an interview with Bob Steenlage, the former Britt wrestler who was the first Iowan to win four high school wrestling championships.  A special screening of the documentary was shown in Forest City on Jan. 6 in front of an audience of 100 fans, coaches and wrestlers.

A copy of the March 1, 1962, Britt News Tribune shows Britt wrestler Bob Steenlage on the front page.

The support the documentary has received so far is not surprising to Steenlage.  "The significance of Iowa wrestling can be seen all over the country," Steenlage said. "It's because of the knowledge Iowans have about the sport and how they follow it."

Steenlage recalls a story about a time he was scheduled to speak in Atlanta, Ga., and a 12-year-old was told a Steenlage from Iowa was going to be speaking to a wrestling club. "He responded by asking, 'which one? Bob, Les or Jerry?'" Steenlage said.

A copy of the March 1, 1962, Britt News Tribune shows Britt wrestler Bob Steenlage on the front page.

A copy of the March 1, 1962, Britt News Tribune shows Britt wrestler Bob Steenlage on the front page.

That 12-year-old boy could probably give every detail about Steenlage's fourth run to a state title. But it is a story worth repeating for those who aren't familiar with it.

During his senior year he faced major hurdles, but cleared every one.  Challenges started when his previous coach, Kent Townley, left before the season started.  "He was like a father to me," Steenlage said. "It was devastating when he left because he was my workout partner, my mentor and my teacher."

The change in coaches was initially devastating for Steenlage, but he believes everything happens for a reason.  "I had to change my way of thinking to make it a positive thing," he said. "Wrestling is like life and you have to learn how to control your thoughts."

As soon as Steenlage started to get accustomed to his new coach, Jim Craig, the next challenge occurred.  "I had been asking my coach, who was a national champion at Iowa, if I could workout with him," Steenlage said. "He finally agreed to drill with me."  Steenlage started drilling, went for a double leg drop and something snapped in his back.  The pain forced him to see a local doctor, who after an x-ray said he wouldn't be able to wrestle again.  "I didn't believe him," Steenlage said. "I crossed the street and went over to the chiropractor."

The chiropractor told him he could wrestle, without any more serious permanent damage if he could manage the pain. That was enough of an approval for Steenlage to get back on the mat. It just took him longer than expected.   Back pain prevented him from working out until 10 days before the district tournament started. Steenlage's confidence, however, never wavered.

"I knew that I could still win because of three things," he said. "My mental outlook, the strong grip I had and the physical shape I was in."  Steenlage knew he had thrown more bales of hay, lifted more weights and conditioned more than any other competitor.  This belief in himself carried him all the way to the state semifinals for a match against his fiercest competitor in Ron Barker of Osage. 

Steenlage's only loss his senior year came against Barker during a regular season dual. He knew he had to be performing at the highest level to win in the tournament.  The match was highly competitive and resulted in a 7-5 Steenlage win. However, the victory came at a cost.

He had separated his right shoulder during the match.

"Referee Harold Nichols came over to coach Craig and said he didn't think it was too serious and told me not to eat and to exercise continuously before the finals to keep it from tightening up."  Steenlage followed the orders, but was exhausted mentally by the time the finals began.  "I knew I had to wrestle with one-arm," Steenlage said.

He persevered, though because he wanted to win his fourth title for his coach.  "He felt responsible for hurting my back," Steenlage said. "Because I was driven to win for coach Craig rather than myself, I knew I could stand more pain and take on great stress."

Steenlage had no grip in his right arm throughout the final match against Steve Balsbaugh of Perry. Miraculously, he wrestled him to a 2-2 draw when the third period ended.  In those days, extra points were awarded for riding time. The referee went over to the scorer's table to check and came back to tell Steenlage the news.

"The referee grabbed my right hand and said, 'congratulations, you are the first four-time state champion in the history of Iowa high school wrestling,'" Steenlage said. "He raised my arm and a shot of pain went from my finger tips to my toes."  The pain was soon erased when Steenlage looked over at his coach and teammates. "They were normally very reserved," he said. "But we all embraced and tears were coming down their faces."

Steenlage will turn 70 in February, but the story about his senior year is still applicable today. "Over everything else, dream big," he said. "When I was 11 years old I had a dream to win four Iowa wrestling state championships. We are blessed with great minds if we think properly. It's important to think big."