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OSU Wrestling: How John Smith Started a Tradition of Late-Night Workouts For Cowboys Seeking World Glory

‘We’re all looking for that edge. It gave me the edge’



[Devin Wilber/PFB]

There’s a legend of John Smith waking up in the middle of a slumber at 2 a.m. to run up and down stairs at Gallagher Hall in preparation for world championships and Olympic games. He hated the thought that while he was sleeping, an opponent in Russia was training to beat him.

Between becoming the winningest wrestler in Oklahoma State history and coaching the Cowboys to five NCAA titles and a program-record 490 dual wins, there was a time Smith wore red, white and blue instead of orange. In that six-year span, Smith won a historical six world championships in a row, including a pair of Olympic gold medals. That run also included his two NCAA individual titles in 1987 and 1988, and his first year leading Cowboy Wrestling while in the midst of training for the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992.

“Where did motivation come from?” Smith said. “Everything came from family — it came from Oklahoma State wrestling and Oklahoma State University, as well. You don’t just find that level of motivation. I was a two-time state champion. I went to junior nationals but never won it. I got beat out as a true freshman in the NCAA championships. I wasn’t there [yet]. I wasn’t the guy that ended up winning six world championships and belts. I became that guy through my experience here at Oklahoma State and through the things I wanted. I was so driven that I didn’t need sleep — I thought.”

That set of stairs on the east side of the venue survived a renovation and are still standing at Gallagher-Iba Arena, which was formerly Gallagher Hall. Smith hated those stairs then, and even with his wrestling and 33-year coaching careers over after he retired last week, he still does today. But despite the hatred, Smith still went through the trouble of sneaking into Gallagher Hall to spend extra time with them instead of sleep. Smith lived in a dorm across the street, so when he woke up in the middle of the night and every door at Gallagher Hall was locked, he’d climb through a window that he left cracked for himself earlier that day. Then he’d run up and down those stairs.

“There’s a lot of times when I’m going through the gym, I look at them, because I hate them,” Smith said. “Literally, I hated them. I ran at 2 a.m. because it was 4 p.m. in Russia. If you’re working out, I’m working out. I don’t know what time it actually was in Russia. Some of you are trying to figure it out. I think you’ve got to create those moments in your career as an athlete. That’s what you take to the mat. It’s the hardest thing you’re doing. I didn’t do it all year. I did it six to eight weeks prior to my big competitions, and those stairs just made me iron tough. They hurt. It was painful.

“For me, it was the moment. You’re in the moment of doing something that nobody else is doing. I don’t know if anybody else is doing it, but I can promise you they didn’t do it as hard as me. So those steps, every time I look at them, every time — a lot of times during [coaching] matches — I catch myself looking up there because it was such a long memory over a lot of years. Six years. It gave me the edge. We’re all looking for that edge. It gave me the edge.”

Smith hasn’t gone to Gallagher-Iba Arena late at night to train since 1992. But other OSU wrestlers still do 32 years later. Olympic Team Trials are Friday and Saturday with one current and two former Cowboy wrestlers competing for a chance to represent their country like their coach did — Christian Carroll, Daton Fix and Alex Dieringer.

Eight years ago, only a few weeks after winning his third NCAA individual title, Dieringer got to Gallagher-Iba Arena at about 11 p.m. and didn’t leave until midnight. He was preparing for his first Olympic Team Trials and he had heard the stories of his coach training when no one else was, so he did the same. This weekend, Dieringer will participate in his third Olympic Team Trials but hasn’t made Team USA for the Olympics yet.

“When I got here, everything changed,” Dieringer told me during that late workout in 2018. “I was always motivated, but being around these people here, all the success there’s been, I think that’s been the big thing that really helped me.”

Fix was in high school in 2018 but was still around the program and witnessed Dieringer train for that first Olympic Team Trials, going to Gallagher-Iba Arena when no one else was there. He saw that and heard those same stories about their coach. On Monday, the same day as Smith’s retirement news conference that Fix attended, Fix was at Gallagher-Iba at 9 p.m. that night, training for his second Olympic Team Trials after just finishing his Cowboy career as OSU’s only five-time conference champion and five-time All-American.

“The influence to work out when no one else is came from the stories of Coach Smith training for the Olympics and not being able to sleep because of the thoughts that someone was outworking him,” Fix said. “I usually don’t wake up in the middle of the night, but I’ve definitely had my fair share of late-night workouts by myself. If all goes well the next couple of weeks, maybe I’ll throw in a couple middle-of-the-night workouts as I train for the Olympics.”

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