Gritting his teeth: The tumultuous year of Kyven Gadson


Photo: Huiling Wu/Iowa State Daily

Wrestler Kyven Gadson takes part in his first day of live wrestling on Monday, Nov. 5, at the Lied Recreation Athletic Center. Gadson has had shoulder problems since his senior year of high school.

Jake Calhoun

What a year it has been for Kyven Gadson.

From his long-awaited return to the mat to the recent passing of his father, Gadson has been through hell and back on his way to earning a No. 6 seed at 197 pounds for the upcoming NCAA Championships in Des Moines.

Before winning the Cyclones’ only individual title at the Big 12 Championships last weekend, Gadson told ISU coach Kevin Jackson that he didn’t want to be there because of the deteriorating condition of his father, Willie. However, Gadson then realized he had to be there.

“Before I left last Sunday to come back to Ames to get ready for Big 12s, I told [my dad] I’ll be back with a gold medal for him,” Gadson said with a pause. “And I truly meant that and I was really happy that I was able to go do that for him.”

Willie, a two-time All-American at Iowa State who was diagnosed with bone cancer in March 2012, died Sunday morning with his family — including Kyven and his Big 12 medal — by his side.

“I was pretty close to Willie, too, so I allow [Kyven] to share what he wants to share with me,” Jackson said. “He shared the whole experience of himself being in the hospital room when his dad passed away.

“Even though your father’s passed away, I’m going to treat you like my son. I think I already have, but you’re going to look at me in that role.”

Through this season — his first since being sidelined by recurring shoulder injuries — Gadson has gritted his teeth en route to compiling a 25-2 record and a conference title.

“Dealing with what he’s dealt with, it’s unbelievable,” said Luke Goettl, Iowa State’s 141-pound starter. “I try to put myself in that position thinking [about] what it would be like for me; I don’t know if I could do it.”

With Gadson as the starter at 197 pounds, the ISU wrestling team went 11-5 in dual meets and finished second at the Big 12 Championships — the first time it had not finished dead-last in three seasons.

However, Gadson’s return did not come without some hesitations.

“Oh man, I feel like it’s still strange at times,” Gadson said with a laugh when asked of his return to live wrestling. “It’s funny how you do something for so long and it becomes a part of your daily life and then when it’s taken from you, it changes everything.”

Shaken confidence and reluctancy on the mat were major road bumps for Gadson. While those road bumps have since been scaled, they would not have been there without some turbulence that started during the offseason.

‘Start running’

During his recovery from shoulder surgery that abruptly ended his redshirt freshman season, Gadson said he was unsure if he would ever wrestle again due to the mental toll the injuries had taken on him.

To make matters worse, he soon spiraled into a depression that came with the announcement of his father’s diagnosis last March.

The depression sent Gadson on an eating binge, which he said had him weighing in at 248 pounds at his heaviest last April. This triggered Jackson to have a serious talk with him about preparing for next season.

“He better start running,” Jackson said of what he told Gadson. “He better start running, and he better start running a lot.”

Jackson said the serious challenge for Gadson during the recovery process was to not let his weight become a factor.

“If we get into the season and you’re losing 10 pounds a week, it’s going to make your body weaker, therefore making your shoulder weaker,” Jackson said. “So we’ve got to come into the season in shape.”

While Gadson knew he wanted to get back to being the wrestler he once was, his father’s condition provided all the more motivation to do so.

“It was definitely a big-time driving force,” Gadson said. “When I talked to him in April about it and I told him I was scared about everything that was going on, he told me, ‘Don’t worry about that, you have your business to handle and I want to see you handle that.’

“When he said that to me, it kind of was a growing moment for myself. That really was a big point for me.”

‘You’re right there’

As Gadson stood on the top of the podium last Saturday, March 9, 2013, at the Big 12 Championships, he smiled as he got booed by disgruntled fans of Oklahoma State for beating Blake Rosholt in the 197-pound title match.

Although he didn’t want to be there with the persisting concern for his father’s condition on his mind, Gadson said his vision became clearer even after having an iffy match against Rosholt the previous day at the Big 12 Duals.

“On Saturday, I talked to my dad that morning — he didn’t say anything back, but I talked to him and I said some things to him and I kind of just got into a zone,” Gadson said. “I knew what I needed to do, what needed to happen.

“My mom told me my dad was kind of responsive on Friday to when I was wrestling, so that really made me happy. I was just thinking, ‘I did this for my pops.'”

Gadson’s father had always been his mentor, especially after having him as his wrestling coach at East High School in Waterloo, Iowa.

Following Kyven’s fourth-place finish at the Midlands Championships — where he suffered his only two losses of the season — Willie was able to pick his spirits up.

“After the tournament he said, … ‘You’re right there with the top guys in the nation and you just had two years off,'” Gadson said.

Gadson has not lost since having that talk with his father.

Sights have now been set for the NCAA Championships on March 21-23 in Des Moines, where Gadson will compete with the best of the best to aim for a national title in his first year of collegiate competition.

Even when Gadson came into his office 50 pounds over weight a year ago, Jackson said the plan for him this entire time was to have him poised to win a national title.

“We expected to be in this situation right now,” Jackson said. “We planned for him to be in this situation with a chance to win a national championship right now, so it’s come to pass.”