In Ron “Tiger” Cole’s high school yearbook, he wrote, “I can’t wait to go to the World Championships and wrestle a Russian in Russia.”
Nearly 40 years later, his dream may finally come true, but it has been a tumultuous road to get there.
Cole, the high-energy fitness coach at Redmond’s Emerald Heights retirement community, will be traveling to Perm, Russia next month to defend his title in the veteran’s division of freestyle wrestling at the FILA World Championships, which took place last year in Istanbul, Turkey.
He got his start in the sport as a young boy, mostly as a form of self-defense.
“I was eight years old, I started wrestling because I was getting picked on a lot when I was a kid,” Cole recalled. “I didn’t like to hit people, so I thought wrestling was cool.”
Unfortunately, the wrestling programs were dropped at both his elementary junior high schools. That is when Cole sought help from his former coach Jack King. He offered to wash mats and do whatever he could to be able to work out with King, who took the young Cole under his wing.
By the time he was in eighth grade, he was beating all the high school kids. After a stint in the Army, he wrestled at Southern Oregon University, where he was fortunate to find a big-name coach, four-time Olympian Lee Allen. Cole credits him with being “a great coach, the guy that really straightened me up in my life.”
Cole went to Collegiate Nationals all three years he wrestled, until an injury and settling down to start a family took him away from the sport he loved.
Ironically, it was Cole’s then 16-year-old son, J.R., who was instrumental in starting his incredible comeback to competitive wrestling.
“I hadn’t wrestled for nine years, but J.R. was getting into drugs and having some problems in his life,” Ron said. “He was still a great kid, so I said ‘how can I get you to stop (hurting yourself)?’ and he said simply, ‘come out of retirement and win a wrestling tournament for me.”
Under the condition that his son would practice and wrestle with him, Ron regained that competitive edge that he had lost during his time off from the sport. His first true test was at tournament at Elma High School near Olympia, where he was challenged by J.R. to win in three different weight divisions — 197, 215 and heavyweight — against athletes who were generally much younger and more agile.
And in the end, he did it.
“(My son) straightened up his life, and J.R. and I have decided to go to Worlds in Moscow together,” Ron said.
Just three years ago, Cole cemented his comeback by becoming the oldest wrestler to ever win the State Wrestling Championships at age 54.
‘A BLESSED SPORT’
Now 57, Ron’s lifelong passion for wrestling continues to push him to compete at the sport’s highest level even though he may physically be well past his prime.
“Wrestling is a blessed sport, it’s mentioned three or four times in the Bible,” Ron said. “I think it’s one of those sports that is blessed by the ‘guy upstairs.’”
Ron also feels he is blessed to be working with the fantastic seniors at Emerald Heights, and says that many of them have inspired him to achieve greatness and give the World Championships one more shot.
“I’m coming out of retirement for this,” Ron said. “I retired last year after I wrestled in the World Championships. But looking at all these great people I’m working out with every day in the exercise classes, I need to show them that just because we get old, that doesn’t mean we can’t do something more, and challenge ourselves.”
Ron said that he is dedicating the 2008 World Championships to Emerald Heights residents Don and Jody Sutherland, Will and Stella Bevens, and Dena Aitchison.
“These five people have inspired me to get out of retirement and wrestle and try to win,” Ron said. “I don’t know if I’m going to win. I have a good chance that I’m going to place.”
Still, Ron plans to not only defend his title in freestyle, but also try to go for the gold in the Greco-Roman division, which is known as the oldest Olympic sport on the planet.
“It’s the way the Romans and Greeks used to wrestle,” Ron explained. “It’s all upper-body, you’re not allowed to touch the legs. Everything’s throws.”
Ron favors Greco-Roman because he said he believes his strength revolves around his upper-body. In last year’s freestyle competition he fought Greco-Roman every match except for one, and still managed to pin three of his opponents.
TRAINING LIKE A TIGER
Since his return to the ring, Ron has had an astounding amount of success. In addition to winning his first and only gold medal at the FILA World Championships last year, he has medaled four other times at that event, considered to be the pinnacle of competitive wrestling outside of the Olympic Games. Ron has also been named the USA National Champion 14 times in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, and is also the four-time Amateur Athletic Union Ironman World Wrestling champion.
It hasn’t been easy as Ron gets more advanced in his years, as he has learned to fight through the aches and pains that didn’t bother him as much when he was younger.
“I train harder now than I did when I was a young athlete,” said Ron, who graduated from SOU with a degree in Social Sciences and Human Behavior. “I work out six classes and run three to five miles a day, and run Tiger Mountain once a week, up to the top and back.”
In preparation for major tournaments like the FILA, Cole even challenges high school students, most of which are less than one-third his age.
“Starting this past week I wrestle every day for an hour and a half.., all the young high school athletes that challenge me and let me throw them,” Ron said. “It’s better for me to challenge younger wrestlers because they’re fast.”
Ron knows he will need to call on all of his experience come September when he will travel halfway around the world to represent the United States for what may be his last world championship.
“You understand that when I’m wrestling these veterans, I’m not just wrestling a guy that wants to get out and have a recreational time,” Ron said. “They’re Olympic champions, guys that have been six or seven-time world champions. When I go up against these Russians and Europeans, those Germans, they are absolutely conditioned, strong athletes. They’re not old-timers.”
Unlike the Europeans, however, who Ron says get paid to wrestle, United States wrestlers have to pay their own way to international tournaments, which involves a great deal of physical and financial sacrifice.
Ron is a talented artist who specializes in abstract “skooldoodle” paintings, and is looking to sell some of his art to help pay his way to Russia.
“I need help to get there… one of my biggest problems is that I’m $3,500 shy of making my goal,” Cole said. “My goal is to sell 12 (paintings) and I’ve already sold four. I’ve set it up that if someone donates $200 or more, I will present them with one of my paintings.
Ron lists one of his life philosophies as “living life to its fullest includes serving others,” something he practices every day reaching out to hundreds of seniors and helping them live a healthier and more active life. His efforts to support the worldwide wrestling community also have earned him a great deal of respect.
“One of my friends was at a wrestling camp in Latvia, and (told me) my picture is on their wall at the camp,” Ron said. “I asked him, ‘Why is that?’ and he responded, “They’re after you.”
“But that means they respect me. This year I sent back 12 or 14 pairs of headgears for the girls’ wrestling team, and they presented me with a Latvian wrestling medal. It was just a gift of friendship, and when we wrestled there we were a family … we toast each other, totally a community.
Now he hopes that not only Emerald Heights but also the Redmond community as well will support him as he attempts to earn a gold medal for the United States and live out his childhood dream of winning in Russia.
“No one has ever wrestled two world championships in one week, it’s going to be tough. But that’s what motivates me,” he said.
To contact Ron Cole, call him at (206) 841-4616 or feel free to send donations to Ron Cole 805 “F” Street SE Auburn, WA 98002.
Tim Watanabe can be reached at email@example.com or at (425) 867-0353, ext. 5054.