Terry Steiner always dreamed of representing the U.S. at the Olympics.
Following a standout wrestling career at Century High School and the University of Iowa, Steiner fell just short of qualifying for the Games as an athlete. When he achieved the ultimate in athletic glory and donned the Stars and Stripes at the 2004 Athens Olympics, it was as a coach, and the moment came with mixed feelings.
“It’s a great thing. You’re proud to be a part of it and proud to be leading our team,” the Bismarck native said. “There’s also a little bitterness, too, because it’s something you chased forever as an athlete and never quite made it. You try to help these athletes have experiences you never attained.”
For the past 10 years, Steiner has been doing just that. Since 2002, he has served as head coach of the U.S. women’s wrestling team. Later this summer, he’ll lead the American contingent in London; it’ll be Steiner’s third Olympic appearance as head coach.
Years after helping attract the national wrestling spotlight to North Dakota, he is still serving as an ambassador for the sport, his state and his country.
Lil Steiner laughs when she tells the story.
One night during high school, Steiner and his twin brother, Troy, spent the entire night taking turns churning out miles on a stationary bike—an hours-long relay to nowhere.
“It was a mind thing to say they could do it,” Lil said. “When most kids were out doing whatever, they took turns riding a stationary bike all night long. I was like, ‘really?’”
Throughout high school, the twins wouldn’t take a sip of soda during the wrestling season, and they spent most of their time training.
“They were just very easy to raise,” Lil said. “They were very disciplined.”
That type of dedication and mental toughness helped propel Terry and Troy to the pinnacle of North Dakota high school wrestling.
Troy ended his career at Century with three state titles, while Terry took home two state championships while wearing a Patriots singlet. Both earned a spot in the North Dakota wrestling hall of fame.
Lil attributes that success to their work ethic — the type that will keep two teenage boys up all night conquering a made-up challenge on an exercise bike.
“There were many, many more talented wrestlers coming out of the state,” Lil said. “There were kids that were naturally talented that didn’t have to work that hard to get there.”
After their high school dominance, the Steiners achieved something few in North Dakota had up to that point — earn scholarships to an NCAA Division I university.
The twins went on to the University of Iowa, where they helped the Hawkeyes win three team national championships. Troy wrestled his way to an individual title, and Terry capped his stellar four years in Iowa with a national title of his own, earning Most Outstanding Wrestler honors for the tournament in the process.
“They are the resounding name in Bismarck and North Dakota wrestling,” said Jeff Schumacher, the co-head coach at Bismarck High. “You say Steiner, and you’re talking about excellence in human beings. They’re the greatest guys in the world, absolutely. I truly have not found anybody ever in this state say anything bad about the Steiner boys. Them guys are gems. Them guys are absolutely wonderful people. They’re such workers.”
LEADING THE WAY
That work continued for both after college, as Terry and Troy entered the coaching ranks. It’s no surprise that they both chose to devote their time to helping others improve. They had been doing it for years.
In the early 1990s, Bismarck featured two of the top high school wrestling programs in the nation — success largely traced back to the Steiner brothers.
Over summer vacation during his high school years, Chad Renner would travel to Iowa City to train with Terry and Troy. While two years younger, Renner, a standout wrestler at Bismarck High, knew the twins from a young age from their time together at Milo Trusty’s Matpac Wrestling Club.
“We had great coaches and great training at BHS,” Renner said, “but I was wrestling with those guys who were kicking my butt. It was such a high level compared to the kids I wrestled with in high school.”
Renner credits those summer workouts for helping him develop into a national-caliber athlete. He went on to win three state titles for the Demons, and he captured a junior freestyle national championship, as well.
The commitment to help develop younger wrestlers extended beyond inviting athletes to train where they lived. Whenever Terry and Troy visited home, they made sure to call ahead to find out when wrestling practice was.
“Every time they came back to Bismarck, they would call and want to work out and wrestle,” said Kasey Gilliss, a three-time state champion at Century who wrestled after the Steiners graduated. “I got more out of those two hours wrestling with them than all the practices during the high school season. They wanted to help, and they wanted to share what they had to offer.”
They also drew attention to North Dakota with their hard work and success at Iowa, which presented opportunities to wrestlers such as Renner and Gilliss. Renner followed his time at Bismarck High by wrestling at Oregon State University, where Terry and Troy worked as assistant coaches, a position Troy still holds. Gilliss emulated his idols and continued his wrestling career at the University of Iowa.
“They set the precedent,” Renner said. “They’re kind of the guys who put North Dakota on the map on a national level in my opinion. Both of them made other kids feel we could compete nationally.”
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
After his own wrestling career ended, Terry Steiner had a clear vision for his future. He would spend a few years as an assistant at the college level before ultimately taking over a major college program of his own.
The first part went according to plan.
Following two seasons as an assistant at Oregon State, Steiner accepted a position on the coaching staff at the University of Wisconsin, where he spent six years.
Then came a curveball.
Women’s wrestling earned status as an Olympic sport, and women would be grappling for medals starting with the 2004 Olympics. Steiner had the chance to lead the U.S. program during its infancy, but it certainly wasn’t an easy decision.
“When I first got into this, I didn’t know if I was making the right move,” Steiner said. “I wanted to be a Division I college coach, and I didn’t know if this was the right choice. I knew this may be my last opportunity in the college ranks.”
On top of that, he had only two short years to get the team ready for Athens and develop the fledgling program.
However, he thought of his own experiences failing to make the Olympic team, and he wanted to use those lessons to help others achieve their goals.
“Going in every morning, you don’t want them to have the experience of not accomplishing your goals,” Steiner said. “That hurt never leaves. You have to use it in the right way.”
It didn’t take long for Steiner to start building a power in women’s wrestling. At the 2003 world championships, all seven American women earned medals, including one gold medal, and the team tied for first, though Japan took home the top trophy because it had more gold-medal winners. That same year, Steiner took his team to Japan for the World Cup and toppled the host nation for the championship.
At the 2004 Olympics, where there are only four contested weight classes instead of seven at other international events, Steiner saw two of his athletes stand on the medal podium.
“He’s the No. 1 women’s coach in the world — not just the United States,” said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. “Having a leader like that is why we’ve been at or near the top since the start of the program.”
Steiner helped develop a residential program for elite wrestlers in Colorado Springs, Colo., and he has been instrumental in growing the sport of women’s wrestling at lower divisions.
Coaching is different from competing, as he no longer controls what happens on the mat during matches. However, the joys of victory are still sweet.
“That’s what keeps you in it. A lot of times it’s a thankless job, but what you like to see is when people are rewarded for things they’ve done and decisions they’ve made,” Steiner said. “The time they’ve put in, and the sacrifices they’ve made. When that’s rewarded, there’s nothing greater.”
LOOKING TO LONDON
If the Americans meet their potential, Steiner should have that feeling multiple times at the 2012 Games.
Bender doesn’t hesitate when he talks about his goals for the women’s team this summer.
“Four gold medals,” he said. “That’s the goal, and we think we have four women on the team who are capable of winning gold medals. One thing I’m certain of is we’ll be the best-prepared team going into London.”
Steiner knows he’ll be judged by how many medals his athletes win on the international level, and he’s fine with that pressure. But he’s also taking a long-term view.
“The goal is winning medals, but our mission is a lot larger than that,” Steiner said. “I want to see successful people 10 years down the road. I want to see people in successful careers and successful marriages. I want to see people being able to handle everything given to them. That’s the greatest thing sport does. You can teach from those failures because you are going to fail.”
He hasn’t forgotten his home state, either.
When he returns to visit family, he still calls local coaches to find out when wrestling practice is being held.
“The guy comes home at Christmas, calls before he comes, asks when we’re going to work out,” said Schumacher, the co-coach at Bismarck High. “He comes into our practice room and works on leg defense and guys getting in on shots. He’s just showing great stuff—fantastic techniques. We’re just so happy. He’s always, always happy to come in.
No doubt one of the all-time best people to come out of North Dakota.”
-Tim Flagstad is a freelance sports writer and columnist for the Great Plains Examiner.
Terry Steiner Career at a glance
* Two-time state champion at Century High
* Three-time All-America at Iowa
* 1993 national champion at Iowa
* 124-27-2 college record
* Gold medal at 1996 Pan American Championships
* Fourth at 1996 Olympic trials
* Second at 1998 U.S. national championships
* Fourth at 2000 Olympic trials
* North Dakota wrestling hall of fame
* First head coach of U.S. women’s national wrestling team