Written by Kevin Swafford
There are many inspirational wrestlers with legendary legacies throughout Iowa Wrestling history. Growing up in Southeast Iowa, and having the good fortune of seeing so many kids come through local and state-wide wrestling programs to test their skills against great competition has been a 45 year joy for me, as well as for those who participated in the making and molding of those athletes. That would include coaching staffs, families, teammates, friends and fans. One of the things that I admire about sports, and particularly wrestling, is that to advance and get better, there’s no way around the obvious – you have to face challenges head-on in order to achieve success.
There are no shortcuts…
Sometimes it takes longer to reach our goals, sometimes they are never reached. Sometimes the biggest challenge we face is in ourselves. But the values gained in training and work ethic remains engrained in those who participate in wrestling because to succeed we are taught and trained to do everything with a purpose. Wrestlers grow up learning to live their daily lives with purpose, to set high goals and develop plans to reach them, which are then put to the test and measured. Adjustments are made, then applied and put into practice if useful. The point being, you are always moving or advancing and not standing still.
It’s a tried and true repeatable pattern and a process of continual learning that can be seen in those who advance, achieve and are successful. Sounds easy right? The key ingredients in all of that is vision, commitment, dedication, and perseverance!
That’s what I see in the life of this RTW profile wrestler… from a talented and successful high school wrestler, who made it a habit of overcoming odds – being labeled “too small” to be competitive… the struggles, commitment and persevering throughout. Yet, it was Dan Gable that told this wrestler before his senior year that he was going to be the 118 pound national champion over and over again. It wasn’t just crazy talk. It was a coach intentionally sowing seeds of inspiration that made it possible for unlocking mental barriers and opening the doors to a “story book finish” for both this wrestler and that coach’s career in Cedar Falls, along with a whole team that dared to imagine themselves putting together performances that shocked the wrestling world.
As fans we’ve witnessed countless amazing moments in this sport. In a reference that will no doubt link me to an ancient bygone era… it’s what ABC’s Wide World of Sports host – Jim McKay called: “The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat.” It doesn’t get any more dramatic than that, not in wrestling. Win and you experience that thrill of victory much like this RTW profile did in 1997. Lose and you feel like you’ve suffered a deep and searing agony like skier Vinko Bogataj in this WWS intro!
In competition, there’s such a great amount of preparation that goes into achieving and experiencing success. It’s not just the battle against an opponent that fans watch, but the constant battle within ourselves to push ourselves beyond our imagined limits to reach that goal or prize. When “battle-day” arrives, we all take part in that experience but once the lights are turned off, there’s just a brief time of reflection and then life moves on to the next event. But there are those extraordinary moments that are special, that draw on the unforgettable excitement and emotions that happen in life, yours and mine… they are lasting, and to some extent can define us or leave its mark on others.
Like when Albert Pujols hit that mammoth homerun in Houston off of Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS playoffs, and where we keep hearing reports from time to time that his homerun ball was seen passing Mars or other some other distant galaxy!!! That event happened over 15 years ago and folks are still talking about it…
You instantly remember where you were, who you were with, when it took place, and all the raw emotions that went with it as the event happened before us. Unfolding like a 3-part play, you remember Act I – the intro, then Act II – the confrontation or main plot, then the finale in Act III – the conclusion or resolution. Each part building upon its own unique foundation.
In sports it’s sometimes called the Road to Victory. But I believe what makes victory taste the sweetest and lasts the longest is recognition of that great adventure and of the individual road that was traveled to reach that destination… remembering the pains and struggles and sometimes suffering that were eventually overcome, and the countless hours of hard work, perseverance and persistence that were poured into that journey and relishing in that. Learning to capture those moments and appreciate them as stepping stones towards the future. In reflection, remembering the decisions, lessons learned, the all-in commitment and sacrifices made just to get to that place where everything paid off, became worth it and culminated in triumph.
That’s what makes the story of this RTW profile subject so special!
Today, I’m talking about an Eagle Grove athlete that wrestling legend Dan Gable called: “the Strongest Man In The World!!!!” – Jessie Whitmer.
He’s one of the most well-known wrestler’s the state of Iowa has ever produced. Mostly because his career epitomizes the perseverance it takes to achieve greatness.
He was a member of the record setting 1997 Iowa Hawkeyes “Dream Team” performers at the NCAA Championships that year and was Dan Gable’s crowning achievement as a college coach. As they scored the highest points total ever amassed in a NCAA Division 1 Tourney with 170 as well as having 8 All Americans with 5 of those National Champions. That Iowa team also destroyed seeding expectations!
What made that ’97 championship that much sweeter when looking back on it, was the Hawkeyes were underdogs and not picked to win the title that year. And Jessie Whitmer was one of the biggest underdogs in the tournament, with low expectations from outside experts. The truth of that problem was that the so-called pundits and wrestling fortune tellers forgot to ask Iowa or Whitmer about it.
Jessie didn’t start wrestling till he was in 7th grade, but he took to the mat like a duck takes to water. Success quickly followed as Jessie placed third at the 1989 IA state tournament as a 103 pound freshman in class 2A, finishing with a record of 36-5. The following three years saw him go 112-3 on the mat while winning one state title at 103 his sophomore year and then placing 3rd his junior and senior years at 112 and 119 pounds and compiling an amazing 148-8 HS career record by the time he graduated in 1992.
Jessie went on to wrestle at the University of Iowa as a Hawkeye, and he redshirted as a freshman, learning his craft wrestling behind the great Chad Zaputil one of my nephew’s favorite Hawkeye wrestlers, who held down the 118 pound class till he graduated in 1993 with 3 NCAA finalist finishes …
Coming out of high school, he was deemed by many as “too small” to be competitive at 118 pounds in college. After his freshman year at Iowa, he was stuck behind Mike Mena for 4 years, who ended up becoming a 4-time All-American himself. “I wrestled varsity my junior year until after Midlands. Mike Mena placed second there and I placed fourth so he took over that spot,” Whitmer explained. He noted at that tournament he was beaten by David Morgan of Michigan State twice and that Morgan continued to give him trouble throughout his career.
Prior to the start of his 5th and final season, Coach Dan Gable believed the team was stronger with Whitmer in the lineup, and convinced Mena to move up a weight class. With only 1 more year of eligibility remaining, Jessie stepped up his game along with his intensity. That turning the corner focus for Whitmer can probably be placed at his dedication to an off-season strengthening program that was managed by Iowa’s conditioning and strength coach – Terry Brands. Jessie, who by his own admission (if you listened to “Tony Hager’s Happy Hour” podcast back on September 25th 2020 with Jessie Whitmer as Adam Feller’s guest… yes shameless plug but I like these guys!) was still physically small for the 118 pound class. Whitmer filled out and put on some much needed muscle over that summer and fall. It was one of the parts of the puzzle that was missing in his game plan for becoming a national champion, but not the most important part.
During that 1997 senior campaign, Whitmer discovered the power of self-confidence and the change from inside that occurs when athletes finally latch onto it. In Whitmer’s case it was developing and maintaining that belief that he could beat anyone that stepped on the mat with him. Developing the unshakable mental strength required to win at that pinnacle athletic level. It doesn’t guarantee you will win, but it becomes ‘The Keep’ of no retreat! That’s what separates those who try and those who succeed. That’s probably one of Dan Gable’s greatest gifts in the sport of wresting, preparing his soldiers for battle and mentally for war on both the mat and life.
Specifically, after a dual meet at Michigan State, where his college nemesis David Morgan had again beaten Whitmer… “On the bus after the meet coach Gable went through each match but that day he started at 126. He got to my match last and said that I learned that I could take him down, turn him and escape. When Gable was done with all the positive things, it changed my outlook and I started believing in myself,” recalled Jessie.
Whitmer captured 4th place at the Big Ten Conference tournament… With 2 weeks left before Nationals, the Hawkeye team shifted gears and put the pedal to the metal with rumors that this would be Coach Gable’s last NCAA tournament. Jessie did his part, as he went on to become the NCAA Division I champion at the 118 weight class that year. Seeded 6th, he upset the #3, #2, and #5 seeded wrestlers in the tournament, all three returning All-Americans. Whitmer finished that final year with a 24-6 record and a national crown, and helped the Hawkeyes to a record setting national team title with 170 points.
Coach Gable would later state that the 1997 team peaked at the correct time because he changed his coaching style slightly to get the team more mentally prepared. “He was such a great coach. You didn’t just wrestle for yourself…you didn’t want to disappoint him. He told me before my senior year I was going to be the 118 pound national champion and I thought he was crazy,” Whitmer said.
What I love about Jessie Whitmer’s story is that it’s a story of perseverance. In an interview, Dan Gable reflected on what he felt made Jessie Whitmer successful: “Whether he was the first string guy or the second string guy – which he was always the second string guy until that last year – he stayed committed to the system. He always kept training to get better….believing in himself, believing in the system….and adding to what he did well, and he just peaked when it was time, because he was committed to getting better, committed to the system.”
I couldn’t say it any better than that…
Introducing husband, proud father and family man, a dedicated employee, and coach… Jessie’s also an Iowa Wrestling HOF inductee, Eagle Grove alum and state champ, the 1997 NCAA D1 National Champion at 118 Lbs. weight class for the Iowa Hawkeyes… and according to the legendary Dan Gable – Wrestling’s Strongest Man In The World…!
What clubs, schools, etc. did you wrestle for?
I wrestled for Eagle Grove High School starting in 7th grade after a classmate told me he thought I would be good at it because I was short. I also wrestled for Iowa in college.
What year did you graduate?
I graduated high school in 1992 and college in 1997.
Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?
The classmate that told me I should try it was Matt Wadle. I didn’t know anything about wrestling other than watching George “The Animal” Steele and the Road Warriors. I remember coming home after school and telling my mom that I was going to try wrestling and she said, “Oh buddy, you are going to get hurt!”. I think she thought someone would hit me over the head with a steel chair.
Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc.? How did they do?
I had a brother that wrestled whom was two years younger than myself. He won a state title in 1994. My youngest sister tried wrestling at some point. I currently have a son that wrestles. He is in 3rd grade and he’s learning a lot. He has a ton of heart and many qualities I wish I had at his age or even now.
What were your youth results? Any rivals there?
I started in 7th grade and my first loss of 7th grade was from Cory Jones of Iowa Falls. He was a bit of a rival for a few years until he grew and I remained pretty small. I wrestled him again in 8th grade and we tied. The last time I wrestled him was as a 9th grader at Iowa Falls. He later wrestled my little brother and beat my brother up pretty good. We went to a few local tournaments, but never really knew about other wrestling opportunities.
What was your record in HS?
I believe it was something like 142-8. As a freshman I lost to Troy Bennett from Ft. Dodge three times, once to Troy Frieders of Algona at the NCC Conference tournament, and once in the semifinals of state to Marty Bolin of Davis County. As a sophomore I lost to Troy Bennett again. As a Junior I lost to Jason Nurre of Dyersville Beckman, and as a senior I lost to Juan Robles of Wilton. I remember all eight. If you are looking at rivals, I guess Bennett could be one, but we only wrestled five times and he won four of those, giving me 50% of my high school losses. He was better at positions than I was and probably just plain grittier than I was at that age. He made me better each time we wrestled.
How did you place at state every year?
I placed third as a Freshman, first as a Sophomore, third as a Junior, and third as a Senior.
What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?
I think you have adverse challenges in wrestling all the time. It starts with hard practices, managing your weight, maintaining grades, blending in socially, being a good son, daughter, or sibling. It’s a challenge each day to juggle all these things and still mentally be in a place to go out on a mat by yourself, in front of lots of sometimes rowdy fans, peers, town members, and teammates to put on a performance people sometimes expect from athletes.
How would you describe your wrestling style?
In high school I was probably a little more relentless and pretty aggressive. In college I tried to be more physical and I think things slowed down for me.
How many guys in high school did you go back and forth with or exchange wins with?
I didn’t really exchange with anyone. Bennett pretty much lopsided those matches and he deserved to win all of them. I will say, as a freshman at Eagle Grove, we had some tough people in the room already and those were true battles every day. I will add more below when I talk about our team.
Who was your most influential coach?
I had great coaches, but my first coaches were my parents and they will always be my most influential coaches. The people below are all people that I care deeply about. They all gave me a piece of themselves to make me better. They gave me “TIME”, which is no greater gift you can give someone, and with that “TIME”, you knew they cared. My parents gave me so much and didn’t ask for anything. This started me in the right direction and put me in front of all the other great people below. I had plenty of great coaches through the years and all gave me tools. I started 7th-8th grade with Coach Jim Neighbors and Coach Dick Messerly. They got me going in the right direction and grew my love for the sport. Coach Marv Reiland was there at the same time and showed me how to be slick and remain calm. Coach Mike Woodall came in when I was a freshman and showed me how to love wrestling. Coach Woodall would grab you after your match while you were all sweaty and show you technique, never worrying about getting blood, sweat, or tears on him. Coach Dave Morgan came in for the remainder of high school. He taught us to be intense and to not stop wrestling.
I went to college and I had Coach Dan Gable and Coach Terry Brands for a majority of the things that I did. Both taught me to believe in myself and gave me the skills to compete with some of the best people in the nation. They all taught me how to prepare for the time on the mat and get ready to perform. I still believe today when I run into other coaches, I am still learning from them. I help with the Clear Creek-Amana program and I learn stuff from Coach Kyle Forness. I also help out at Big Game Wrestling Club with Dylan and Tyler Carew. I learn something from them every week. They all have been influential and provided pieces to me as a puzzle to make me into the wrestler and person I am today.
Was your team competitive in HS/college?
In high school I believe we got 2nd in the traditional State tournament when I was a Freshman and as a Senior we won the State Dual tournament.
Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?
I looked up to the Eagle Grove wrestlers. Mark Reiland, Rick Coltvet, Chris Mickelson, Denny Asche, Shawn Angell, Dave Vrba, Don Schmanke, Jason Olson, Jason Thomason, Dave Messerly, Heath Chelsvig, Rich Bol. The college guys at the time I loved to watch were the Brands brothers, both Terry and Tom. I also looked up to guys like Brad Bruhl, Doug Black, Stacy Rice, Mark Schwab, and Tim Ascherl.
Who would you consider the GOAT Iowa HS wrestler?
I would say Mark Schwab. I actually wrestled with him at UNI when I was an 8th grader and I was there for a wrestling camp. We wrestled on our knees because he had surgery at some point prior to that day. He probably doesn’t remember this because I am confident he wrestled more kids than just me. He was that kind of guy. Sometimes the smallest of gestures can mean the world to people. He was someone that I always pulled for as a kid.
Who are your favorite current HS wrestlers?
I would have to say Drake Ayala. Who couldn’t like a guy that goes out and wrestles weights above to give fans matches that we all want to see. I enjoy watching the CCA wrestlers and many of them are my favorites. I also like Hunter Garvin, Kael Scranton, Wyatt Voelker, and Millie Peach. I get the privilege of seeing some of these kids during club season. I do want to point out one CCA kid that is a favorite of mine because he constantly puts in work to get better and that’s Max Carlson.
Who are your favorite current college wrestlers?
I enjoy watching Spencer Lee, Austin Desanto, Nate Carr Jr.
When you started, some of the guys in the club not only had years of experience, but were some of the best kids in the nation. Did you ever feel frustrated having to play catch-up or were you able to maintain a positive attitude?
When I started in 7th grade, I listened very well and we had great partners. I can’t express how beneficial a good partner is. It doesn’t have to be a great wrestler, just a good partner.
What wrestling move worked best for you?
Probably the fireman’s carry in high school along with a near cradle. In college I used underhooks and the front head and arm.
What music would you listen to back in the wrestling days?
Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of The Heart
What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?
I don’t remember ever feeling horribly upset about the losses themselves. The feelings I felt were from letting down the community that sacrificed time and money to come watch the performance.
If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change a single thing. Each thing that happened made me into what I am today. All of the stuff made me better as a wrestler, father, son, husband, employee, and coach.
What was your best wrestling memory or accomplishment?
My best memory was being able to acknowledge my parents by pointing at them after the national finals. It was also a chance to be able to direct the crowd that their applause was for what the coaches in my corner were able to accomplish by getting someone to believe in themselves.
Who were some of your most notable competitors in high school? College?
In college I wrestled Lindsey Durlacher, Dave Morgan, Mike Mena (In the room), Teague Moore, Cody Sanderson, and Sheldon Thomas.
Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?
It was always seasonal. My senior year I wrestled in the summer a bit.
How would the guys from your day stack up against the guys today?
I think the guys from the past were tough and gritty. I think they would be fine today, but would have to evolve like the sport has to remain competitive.
What other sports did you play?
Football and track
What are your favorite sports teams?
Hawkeyes and the Atlanta Falcons
What are your hobbies other than wrestling?
Lifting weights, hiking, biking
How good does it make you feel to give back to the sport?
I love helping other people grow in the sport.
How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?
It has given me a great foundation or base to build on. I think I work harder because of it and I have a higher expectations for myself.
Your NCAA finals victory has become a fan favorite moment in Iowa Hawkeye wrestling history, not only because of your story leading to it, but because of Dan Gable’s emotional reaction and referring to you as “the strongest man alive.” Could that moment have been any sweeter for you?
I don’t believe so. I knew I had to come off the stage at some point, but the roar of the crowd was one of the coolest things ever.
How often when you go to wrestling events do you hear the words “strongest man alive” from fans?
I usually hear it as I walk around a few times. My son thinks that makes him the strongest kid. LOL
Does it get old or is it always cool to hear?
It’s always great to hear! Makes me feel good that people remember those moments like I remember them. It’s an underdog moment.
Were there any Hawkeyes you looked up to prior to becoming one?
Mark Reiland, Bart Chelsvig, Chad Zapitul, Terry Brands, Tom Brands, Tom Ryan.
Who is the GOAT Eagle Grove wrestler?
Wow, that’s a tough one. Coach Dave Morgan will always be up towards the top. I never got to see him wrestle. Mark Reiland was pretty incredible and I did watch him. It would be a toss up for me.
What do you do now?
I am a Special Agent in Charge for the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement
Are you still involved with wrestling?
I help coach at the Clipper Wrestling Club in Tiffin and Big Game Wrestling Club in North Liberty.
Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?
Listen, work hard on being a good partner, and try to get a little better each day.
Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?
No way. This body was never a BMW in the first place. It has way too many miles on it.
Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?
I used to wrestle a kid from Hampton-Dumont named Matt Showalter. I pinned a lot of kids in high school and I don’t know if I ever pinned him even once. I will forever remember his toughness and the fight in him and I have always respected it. Those kind of people are built from within and they are special!
Tell us something about yourself that folks might not know about Jessie Whitmer?
I am pretty much an open book. I usually am pretty shy and don’t like big crowds. It has taken years of work to come out of my skin a little bit and open up more. I thank all of you that have helped pull me out. Wrestling is just an extended family, and I don’t think anything is more important than family
Do you have anything to add? Funny/interesting stories? Trivia? Etc.
I have a daughter that’s 11. She doesn’t wrestle, but she is pretty tenacious. She plays softball and she pitches. She also finds herself out in front of people on the mound by herself, surrounded by teammates and fans. It’s similar to wrestling when you face off with each batter. She also has more courage than I did as a kid. I also have a wife, she was my girlfriend in college and also the painter of my toenails.
Here’s a brief glimpse of a young Jessie Whitmer winning his 2A state title in 1990 at 103 Lbs. over Brian Benitz of Jefferson Scranton in resounding fashion with a 11-4 decision. It was the same night Jeff McGinness of IC West in 3A won the first of his 4 straight titles, with Ike Light of Lisbon in 1A winning the first of 3 state titles. All on the mat at the same time… great company!
Jessie Whitmer Wrestling Career Notes…
Jessie Whitmer was inducted in the Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2019 along with Joe Corso, Don Buzzard and Dr. Gary Steffensmeier.
HIGH SCHOOL- EAGLE GROVE HIGH SCHOOL
COACH MIKE WOODALL, DAVE MORGAN
1989 36-5 3RD AT STATE TOURNAMENT 103 LB
1990 38-1 1ST AT STATE TOURNANEBT 103 LB
1991 34-1 3RD AT STATE TOURNAMENT 112 LB
1992 40-1 3RD AT STATE TOURNAMENT 119 LB
HS Record of 148-8
COLLEGE – UNIVERSITY OF IOWA
COACH DAN GABLE, JIM ZALESKY, TERRY BRANDS
1997 NCAA 118-POUND CHAMPION (24-6)
1989 2A Iowa State Tournament Results (Freshman)
1. Donni Donahue, Clarinda
2. Marty Bolin, Davis County
3. Jessie Whitmer, Eagle Grove
4. Jaysson Gurwell, Saydel
5. Ryan TeBockhorst, Mid-Prairie
6. Vin Chem, Roland-Story
1990 2A Iowa State Tournament Results (Sophomore)
1. Jessie Whitmer, So., Eagle Grove
2. Brian Benitz, Jr., Jefferson-Scranton
3. Jason Nurre, Jr., Dyersville Beckman
4. Brad Canoyer, Fr., Carson-Macedonia
5. Leung Prim, So., Grinnell
6. Jason DeVos, Jr., Estherville
1991 2A Iowa State Tournament Results (Junior)
1. Jason Nurre, Dyersville Beckman
2. Dave Morgan, New Hampton
3. Jessie Whitmer, Eagle Grove
4. Brian Benitz, Jefferson-Scranton
5. Dee Clarke, Knoxville
6. Bob Edens, Camanche
1992 1A Iowa State Tournament Results (Senior)
1. Juan Robles, Wilton
2. Tony Milcoff, Cedar Rapids LaSalle
3. Jessie Whitmer, Eagle Grove
4. Matt Albright, Lisbon
5. Jamie Cochran, Moravia
6. Mike Dukes, Bedford
Some interesting trivia regarding the 1997 Iowa Hawkeye’s historic run at the NCAA Nationals Championship…
That 1997 team was Dan Gable’s crowning achievement as a coach. As they scored the highest points ever amassed in a NCAA Division 1 Tourney with 170 points as well as having 8 All Americans with 5 of those National Champions. That Iowa team also destroyed comparative seeding expectations vs results.
118 Lbs. Jessie Whitmer, a one-year starter, a farm boy, won the title as a 6 seed, beating the #3, #2, and #5 seeds along the way.
126 Lbs. Mike Mena, a 4 seed, finished 2nd against Eric Guererro of Okla St and felt (with some good reason) that he let one slip away
134 Lbs. Mark Ironside was seeded 1st and finished 1st
142 Lbs. Kasey Gillis, unseeded, finished 6th
150 Lbs. Lincoln McIlravywas seeded 1st and finished 1st
158 Lbs. Joe Williams was seeded 1st and finished 1st
167 Lbs. Mike Uker was unseeded but finished 5th
177 Lbs. Tony Ersland, unseeded, finished one overtime loss away from the podium
190 Lbs. Lee Fulhart was seeded 5th and finished 1st
277 Lbs. Wes Hand was, like Ersland, an unseeded wrestler who finished one loss away from the podium
Those are ridiculously good results against seeding.
Iowa’s cumulative record in the tournament: was a phenomenal 45-9
Even their two non-AA wrestlers contributed well to the win total. Wes Hand added to the bonus points by winning one match by forfeit and another by fall. Mike Uker and Kasey Gillis (who struggled for much of the year) won two matches by fall.
Iowa wrestlers earned 22 bonus point victories in the 1997 nationals.
Iowa’s 5 champs scored 117 points.
An underdog to Oklahoma State, Iowa clinched the title Friday night, winning 24 of 26 matches – including an incredible 23 in a row that started the night before.
In the end the great coaching, great teammates, a great family support system, and a tremendous effort resulted in what was indeed an impressive NCAA championship.