After wrestling through the toughest season of his life, Cyclone Kyven Gadson enters 2014 inspired by his dad’s legacy
One of the best pieces of advice Kyven Gadson ever got from his wrestling coach, who was also his father, was never to let outside distractions affect him on the mat. “’Clear your mind, come in here, and try to get better.’ That’s one thing he always said,” Kyven remembers about Willie Gadson (’77 phys ed).
Last wrestling season, Dad’s advice was put to the ultimate test. Kyven faced the 2012-2013 season knowing Willie could die any day of lung and bone cancer, would be unable to come watch him wrestle in person, and — because he was also his son’s longtime coach — believed wholeheartedly that Kyven should focus on his wrestling and not worry about “Pops” back in Waterloo.
When you come into the wrestling room, anything that’s going on outside of it, don’t bring it in.
Those words gnawed at the injury- and tonsillitis-plagued sophomore as he fought through the season, collecting wins at 197 pounds that he knew would make his dad, a two-time Cyclone All-American and Big Eight champ, proud.
“The last time he saw me wrestle in person was against Old Dominion on Nov. 25, 2012,” Kyven said. “Then, after that, he just kept telling me not to come home. You know, during the season there’s a tournament every weekend and I wanted to come back home, but he didn’t want me to. He wanted me to focus on wrestling.”
So Gadson focused on wrestling, continuing to fight through the pain of illnesses and injuries and continuing to rack up victories. He placed fourth at the Midlands Championships in December. February rolled around, and Gadson was undefeated in dual meets. The Cyclones were playing host to Arizona State Feb. 1, and one of the Sun Devils’ assistant coaches had wrestled for Willie Gadson at Eastern Michigan University. So, while he was in Iowa, he traveled up to Waterloo to see Willie.
“I was going to go with him, but I had class,” Kyven said. “He posted a picture on Facebook [of the visit] that I saw right before the meet, and what I saw wasn’t my dad. I hadn’t seen my dad since November, and now his neck was really skinny and his eyes looked big and I felt so bad about myself because I hadn’t been home.”
As soon as he finished the weekend with wins over opponents from Arizona State and Oklahoma State, Kyven went home to see Willie.
“I was like, ‘Dad, you need to let me know. Every time I ask you say everything is fine, but when I saw that picture it threw me. I don’t even know how I won the matches.’ I just told my mom and dad, ‘If my wrestling falters, it falters. I don’t want this to be some abrupt thing where Dad just dies and I didn’t get to say anything or see him.’”
Renewed by the conversation with his parents, Gadson went back to Ames and focused on wrestling again. He returned to Waterloo the weekend before the Big 12 championships. That Sunday, Willie was moved to the hospital and Kyven saw the writing on the wall: The rest of his father’s life would now amount to a matter of days. Kyven kissed Willie and told him he would bring him back a gold medal from the conference meet.
Willie Gadson watched his son’s Big 12 matches from a hospital bed. Although he had stopped talking a few days earlier, family members say he moved with his son. He was still with them, still cheering Kyven on.
Meanwhile, in Stillwater, Okla., Kyven was having a hard time. “I won my first match and then I [drew] the Okie State kid again. But I just didn’t feel like myself,” he says. “I didn’t feel explosive. I just felt drained.” After narrowly beating his opponent, Kyven crumpled in the corner crying.
“[ISU] Coach [Kevin] Jackson said, ‘You know you have permission to go home if you feel like that’s where you need to be.’
I think he played reverse psychology on me, though,” Kyven said, “because he knew I wouldn’t go home because that’s not where my dad would want me to be.”
Kyven remembered his last conversations with his dad and made peace. He regrouped. He won the Big 12 title. As soon as he got off the bus from Oklahoma, Kyven drove home to Waterloo, clutching his championship medal. He was able to give it to his father before he took his last breath.
“I told him, ‘Hold on if you can; we’ve got another one to get at nationals.’ He was unresponsive, but I think he heard me,” Kyven said. “I’m pretty sure he heard me.”
The week of one of Willie Gadson’s favorite events – the NCAA wrestling championships, he was laid to rest. Since the 2013 event was being held in Des Moines, family members and friends came from all over to honor Willie Gadson and the sport he loved. After Kyven pinned his opponent in the first match, the crowd gave an extra roar. The wrestling community is tight-knit, and they knew what Kyven was going through. They knew how proud his victory would make Willie.
Kyven finished sixth at the 2013 national championship, joining his father on the list of Cyclone All-Americans. Although the tournament was even harder than he’d anticipated and didn’t result in the national title he’d hoped for, Gadson felt a sense of calm and relief at its conclusion. He would have another chance next year, and his father’s wisdom would guide him through it.
“Dad came from South Carolina and grew up picking watermelons, picking cotton,” Kyven said. “He didn’t come from the best background; his parents were divorced, and putting food on the table was a struggle. Thanks to my dad, I always had clothes on my back and food on the table. He always told me to work hard. He didn’t raise me to make excuses and say ‘I can’t focus because my dad died.’ If you only see the negative, you can’t get positive out.”
“I’m just trying to get positives.”
This story was written by Kate Bruns, associate editor, and was originally published in the winter 2014 issue of VISIONS magazine.