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Famous Iowa Olympic and Athletic Champions

Updated on February 6, 2013
Nile Kinnick
Nile Kinnick | Source

©joaniebaby 05/24/2012


Nile Kinnick, the grandson of an Iowa governor, was probably one of the most famous football players in college football and he was born in Adel, Iowa on July 9, 1918. The only Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Iowa football team, he was what some referred to as "the kind of man every mother wants her daughter to marry."

All through school he showed unusual athletic talent, and even played on a Junior American League baseball team with the future major-leaguer Bob Feller, who will be featured in another portion of this Hub. He was always working to turn personal weaknesses into strengths and thinking about self improvement. When it was time to go to college, he decided on Iowa rather than Minnesota because Iowa was on the bottom and Minnesota was on the top. He wanted to use what strengths he had to help Iowa develop into a top team. It took three years, and when he was a senior at Iowa, under Coach Eddie Anderson, the team, and Kinnick, finally excelled. It was before the first game of the 1939 season, that Kinnick said, "For three years, nay for fifteen years, I have been preparing for this last year of football. I anticipate becoming the roughest, toughest all-around back yet to hit this conference." He also said, "I'm looking forward to showing Anderson what a real football player looks like - so hold your hats." At the end of the 1939 season, Kinnick received the following awards: consensus First Team All-American, the only unanimous selection on the AP poll on every first team ballot; Big Ten MVP award, the Walter Camp and Maxwell Awards, and the Associated Press Athlete of the Year competing against the likes of Joe Dimaggio, Byron Nelson and Joe Louis. On November 28, 1939 Nile Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy award, the only Iowan to ever do so.

After graduating from Iowa, he decided to go back to the University of Iowa law school. But after only one year, he felt it was his duty to enter the war and joined the United States Naval Reserve training to be a fighter pilot. On June 2, 1943 he was on a routine training flight off the coast of Venezuela when his aircraft developed an oil leak and it was so serious he was not able to return to his carrier, the USS Lexington, or to land. His plane went down, and even though rescue boats arrived within eight minutes, all they found was an oil slick on the ocean. The body was never recovered. (This is very poignant for me, as my brother, a member of the United States Army Air Force, was lost in the Pacific Ocean due to an airplane crash on March 13, 1945. His body was never recovered either.)

Nile Kinnick's football number, #24, was retired and in 1951 he was inducted into the inaugural College Football Hall of Fame. The coin used for the toss before every game in the Big Ten Conference has Kinnick on the heads side, and the helmet of the opposing teams on the tails side. These coins are minted at the beginning of every football season, and kept under lock and key at Big Ten headquarters. After Nile Kinnick's death, the University of Iowa wanted to change the name of the football stadium to Kinnick Stadium but Kinnick's father did not think it appropriate to single out his son for this honor as over 470,000 Americans had lost their lives in World War II, including Ben Kinnick, Nile's younger brother. Later, in 1972, the Iowa Athletic Board did rename the stadium and Nile's father attended the ceremony and appeared very proud and happy. On September 1, 2006 before the opening game of the season, a 14-ft bronze statue of Kinnick was erected and there was a flyover Kinnick Stadium of a replica of the plane Nile flew in World War II. Kinnick had the game-winning touchdown run against Notre Dame in 1939, and there is a 9 foot by 16 foot bronze relief of this winning touchdown run on the stadium wall.

Shawn Johnson competing in 2008 Beijing Olympics
Shawn Johnson competing in 2008 Beijing Olympics | Source


This Iowa athlete will be the youngest one featured in my Hub. Shawn, an American artistic gymnast, was born in Des Moines, Iowa on January 19, 1992. She distinguished herself early in life in gymnastics, and went on to win a Gold Medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing on the balance beam and all-around, and a silver medal in the floor exercise. Before that she was the 2007 all-around World Champion, and in 2007 and 2008 the U.S. all-around champion.

Shawn's parents enrolled her in gymnastics class at age 3, and at age 6 she was one of the first students of Liang Chow when he opened his studio in West Des Moines. She attended a public school in West Des Moines and took part in most activities of a young teenager. Her training was limited to 25 hrs. per week compared to the normal 40 hrs. Then in 2009 Shawn and her mother moved to Los Angeles, California and lived there while she competed in the national television show, Dancing With The Stars, and she and her professional partner, Mark Ballas, went on to win the Mirror Ball Trophy. She was the youngest contestant to ever win that competition. After that she finished her schooling with a private tutor back in West Des Moines.

Her many awards during her short life so far include: America's Most-Liked Sports Figure in 2009; an ESPY in 2009 for "Best Female U.S.Olympian," and "Athlete – Female" Teen Choice Award, the latter for the second consecutive year; 2009 AAU James E. Sullivan Award, the annual award which honors the USA athlete who best represents "the qualities of leadership, character, sportsmanship, and the ideals of amateurism." The Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines honors Shawn with a life-sized bronze statue.

There was a setback in Shawn's career in January of 2010 when she tore her ACL while skiing and she had to have reconstructive surgery the following month. In 2011 she did start training again for the 2012 Olympics, but at this time I do not know her standing.

Update (9/26/2012)

Shawn was not able to compete in the 2012 Olympics because of her earlier injury and did, in fact, retire from gymnastics in 2012. She is once again competing in "Dancing With the Stars" as one of the former winners in a competition of former winners and finalists. As we follow this wonderful young lady's life, it is our sincere hope that she can repeat as a Mirror Ball Trophy winner this time around.

Zach Johnson
Zach Johnson | Source


Zach Johnson, the son of a chiropractor, was born February 24, 1976 in Iowa City, Iowa. In 1992 he led Regis High School to the Iowa Class 3A state golf championship in his sophomore year. After high school graduation, he attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and was the #2 player on the Bulldog golf team. They won three NCAA Regional Golf Meets and two Missouri Valley Conferences. He won his first PGA tour event at the 2004 Bell South Classic outside of Atlanta. Johnson qualified for the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, finishing 9th on the U.S. points list. He was a member of the Ryder Cup team again in 2010.

Johnson won the Masters Tournament in Augusta on April 8, 2007 by a margin of 2 strokes over Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen, and Rory Sabattini. It was his first major title. He had a final score of 289 (+1), which tied Sam Snead in 1954 and Jack Burke, Jr in 1956 for the highest winning score at the Masters. He went from #56 to #15 in the world rankings; he was the first outside the top 50 in the world rankings to win the Masters in the history of the ranking. Since it was Easter, he mentioned his Christian faith and thanked God for his win. At the end of the 2009 season he found himself ranked fourth on the money list.

As so many athletes do, he formed the Zach Johnson Foundation and in May, 2011 donated money to Van Buren and Harrison Elementary Schools in Cedar Rapids, Iowa as a part of the educational program called "kids on course."

One of the highlights of Zach's career came on September 4, 2007 when he sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch of the Cubs ballgame at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Dan Gable
Dan Gable | Source


This Olympic gold medal wrestler was born in Waterloo, Iowa on October 25, 1948. In high school Dan was not allowed to wrestle on the varsity squad as a freshman, but as a sophomore through his senior year he was undefeated. During his sophomore year, his older sister Diane was brutally raped and murdered in their family home on May 31, 1964 while the rest of the family was on vacation. Gable felt that wrestling helped give his family an uplift after this tragedy.

After high school graduation, he enrolled at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, and wrestled for three years on the varsity squad compiling an unbelievable record of 181-1. NCAAa rules did not allow freshmen to wrestle on the varsity squad at that time. During this time his team won two NCAA titles. His lone defeat came during the last match of his college career. In 1972 he won the Olympic gold medal and did not give up a single point during those games.

In 1976 Gable took over a different job, as head coach of the wrestling squad at the University of Iowa, and his squad won the NCAA nine times from 1978-1986. He continued to coach through the 1997 season and he compiled a record of 355-21-5, which included 16 NCAA titles and 21 straight Big 10 titles.

Dan Gable was selected as "the greatest sports figure in the history of the State of Iowa" by Sports Illustrated in 1999. The Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum operates the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum which is located in Waterloo, Iowa, and operates entirely on private donations.

(Since we have so many great athletes in the State of Iowa, there will be another Hub about some more.)


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