KU's Greatest Grappler
In the pantheon of KU Olympic heroes, track athletes and basketball stars loom large. A person would hardly expect to find a wrestler among the great milers and hoopsters. The University of Kansas never developed a reputation for producing great wrestlers, and indeed unable to compete against perennial powers in the conference such as Iowa State and Oklahoma State, KU dropped its program in 1966. And so it might seem surprising that in 1932, one of its students claimed an Olympic gold medal as a grappler. Indeed, his was the first gold medal ever awarded to a KU athlete.
Peter J. Mehringer’s victory in the 1932 Olympics at Los Angeles was made more remarkable by the fact that he had received virtually no coaching either in high school or at his alma mater. He had grown up in the western Kansas town of Kinsley where the 1920s proved to be as hard on farmers as the Great Depression of the 1930s would be on factory workers. In 1926, as a freshman in high school, Mehringer became interested enough in wrestling to subscribe to “Frank Gotch and Farmer Burns School of Wrestling and Physical Culture,” a now legendary correspondence course, in order to teach himself the sport. He proved a quick study.
As a high school sophomore, he began coaching his school’s wrestling team and met with a good deal of success. The young coach’s victory as a competitor in the final of the state tournament helped his team secure a fourth-place finish. Economic times proved too dreary to allow Kinsley High the chance to improve upon their placing in Mehringer’s junior and senior years, although as a senior the ambitious youngster hitchhiked to the state tournament where he won his second state crown.
Freshmen were unable to compete in intercollegiate athletics, but as a sophomore at Kansas, Mehringer went undefeated in the conference and won the first of three consecutive Missouri Valley Conference titles. His only loss that year came at the hands of Jack Riley of Northwestern University in the heavyweight final of the National Intercollegiate Meet. Following his successful season, the NCAA runner-up decided to try out for the Olympic team.
At the beginning of the second week of July, the Olympic hopefuls for the wrestling team convened in Columbus, Ohio. After beating wrestlers from Indiana, Army (West Point), the University of California, Harvard, and Oklahoma State, Mehringer earned a shot to redress his only loss of the season. The details of what happened on July 8, 1932, in the heavyweight finals of the Olympic Trials, a bout between Riley and Mehringer, are somewhat debatable.
Publications that celebrate KU’s athletic achievements tend to accept a contention Mehringer made in his later years that despite his pinning Riley twice in six minutes, the coach of the Olympic team thought that the squad would be stronger with Riley filling the heavyweight slot. Thus, Mehringer claimed, he complied with the coach’s request that he drop from heavyweight to the 191.5-pound weight class. Contemporary accounts suggest that Mehringer did actually lose to Riley in the final, but impressed his teammates and coaches sufficiently to earn a spot at the lower weight class, if he could make the weight. (Leon Bauman, the KU wrestling coach, told the University Daily Kansan that contrary to the “general impression on the Hill,” Mehringer had made the Olympic team “even though he lost to Riley at Columbus.”)
Regardless of which story a person might choose to accept, Mehringer’s making the team opened the door for his rather improbable march toward a gold medal in an Olympics that saw a number of firsts. Due to a depression that was global in scope, members of the Los Angeles Olympic Committee struggled to invent ways to ensure that nations would participate. They hit upon the notion of laying out an “Olympic Village” in which the athletes could stay for free and thus initiated an Olympic tradition.
Yet another tradition was born at the Los Angeles games of 1932 when the victorious athletes took their places in front of the crowds on a victory stand while the national anthem of the champion played in the background. Despite these innovations, nine fewer nations competed in the Tenth Olympiad than had four years earlier. The 37 nations that did send athletes sent fewer, and so less than half the number of competitors than had participated in the 1928 games at Amsterdam arrived in L.A.
Having dropped 17 pounds in 12 days in order to make weight, Mehringer began his quest for a medal. As a relatively low seed in the tournament, Mehringer drew the 1928 Olympic gold medallist, Thure Sjostedt, of Sweden. The “Kansas Whirlwind,” as newspapers would dub the KU sophomore, dispatched the defending Olympic champion rather quickly. He later recalled the match being his easiest of the Olympics. After defeating a Canadian opponent in the semifinals and a particularly ornery Australian (who gave Mehringer a black eye to remember him by) in the finals, the Jayhawk star could claim an Olympic gold medal as his own. He was one of three gold medallists on the wrestling team that year. Ironically enough, Riley lost in the heavyweight final and walked away with a silver rather than a gold medal.
Mehringer returned to KU that fall for his junior season and solidified his place among the all-time great athletes of the University by earning all-conference honors in football as a 214-pound tackle. In a tight loss against Notre Dame that year, Mehringer reputedly had his nose broken and both eyes blackened. So ferocious was his play that the Fighting Irish named him to their all-opponent team. (In 1933, when the team traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to take on Notre Dame again, Mehringer recorded more than half of the team’s tackles and blocked two punts in a game that ended with the teams deadlocked 0-0.) Following the 1934 football season, the football and wrestling star played in the first ever College All-Star Football Game.
When Bauman stepped down as KU wrestling coach to enter medical school before the 1932-33 academic year, Mehringer became a student-coach for the second time in his young life. He met with continued success on the mat, but Athletic Director Phog Allen would not grant him the funds necessary to travel to the National Intercollegiate Meet to attempt to win a NCAA crown. (Thus it was that Mehringer, an Olympic champion, never could claim a NCAA title.) Financial considerations, made more difficult by Allen’s refusal to permit Mehringer to keep his campus job, led the star athlete to leave the University after his senior year without a degree.
The Olympic gold medallist went on to a professional football career with the Chicago Cardinals and the Los Angeles Bulldogs where he earned the lineman’s top salary of $100 per game. Although he declined to discuss it in his later years, KU’s only grappling icon also pursued a career in professional wrestling. While he was in Los Angeles as a football player, he cultivated a series of relationships that earned him a spot in some movies, both as an extra (he was one of Ronald Reagan’s teammates in Knute Rockne, All-American) and as a stuntman (in at least one Tarzan picture, as well as the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour vehicle The Road to Zanzibar).
It was as a wrestler, however, that Pete Mehringer left his mark and so in 1983, only four years before his death, he was honored as one of the greatest wrestlers the United States ever produced when the National Wrestling Hall of Fame inducted him as a distinguished member.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas