By Brian Jerzak
You can take the wrestler out of the wrestling room, but . . .
As a senior in high school, Ron McClure placed fourth in the state tournament for Hopkins. A few years later as a senior at Minnesota-Duluth he would find himself in the Division II national title match. His second place finish would cap off a two-time All-American career and years later a place in the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame.
After nearly twenty straight years of constant wrestling, McClure needed to step away from the sport he loved, but not away from athletics. He found himself back in a gym coaching, but nowhere near a wrestling room. He spent nineteen years coaching girls’ gymnastics, a sport – going into it – he knew very little about. McClure was able to become an effective gymnastic coach by leaning on his wrestling knowledge and learning how the two sports complement each other. After nearly twenty years coaching gymnastics, he decided to step away from that sport. Now McClure has come full circle. You can take the wrestler out of the wrestling room, but you can’t take wrestling out of the wrestler.
If not for his mother, McClure might have ended up in the ring instead of the wrestling mat.
“My uncle boxed in the Olympics in 1960 with Muhammad Ali,” McClure recalled. “My brother and I wanted to be boxers. Once, we were downstairs with all the men, and they put the gloves on us. I gave my brother a bloody nose, and the women came downstairs, and that was that. My mom wasn’t letting us box, so we had to find something else physical to do.”
McClure took to wrestling right away and was drawn to the sport – in part – because of its physical nature. It allowed him to benefit from his work ethic.
“I always took pride in being in shape,” the former Hopkins Royals’ wrestler said. “We had to be tough. I was kind of a brawler, but I was always in shape. I could outlast anybody.”
A coaching change early in McClure’s five-year varsity career laid the groundwork for the successful wrestler and then gymnastics’ coach McClure would become.
“At that time the school hadn’t won a match in over ten years. Pat Zilverberg and Mike Petit came in and taught us how to work out in the offseason, how to lift weights, how to do pushups, how to get better – how to get tough.”
McClure would wrestle all year round. He would develop into an effective wrestler from the feet.
“I would do a high crotch to a double. That was my go-to takedown. I learned to hate being taken down. I still don’t like it to this day. I learned to dislike being shot on – not being taken down – just guys shooting on my legs. I would work on leg defense before practice and after practice.”
More than his leg defense, McClure’s work ethic might have been his biggest strength.
“I had the mentality that I had to be tougher than everybody. I need to work harder than everybody. That took me a long way.”
After graduating from Hopkins, he would wrestle for one year at the University of Minnesota and then would transfer to Minnesota-Duluth a year later. After college, McClure needed to step away from wrestling.
“The first day of wrestling practice my senior year I tore some tendons and ligaments in my right thumb – the first day of practice,” the two-time All-American said. “Then I tore ligaments in my knee. So during my senior year, I had a brace on my knee and a soft cast on my hand. After the season I had to get those things repaired. I pushed my body pretty hard. My body needed a break. I had surgery, and I coached wrestling for a year at Hopkins, but my body and brain were tired. From kindergarten until a year after college I wrestled non-stop. I had to take a break.”
McClure was working in the special education department at Hopkins, and a coaching opportunity opened up that the former Bulldog never saw coming.
“I met John Tobler – the (Hopkins) gymnastics coach – and Jason Passeri (former Hopkins assistant and now the head gymnastics coach at Rosemount). John said they needed some wrestlers – guys with upper body strength and hand-eye coordination to help them out with the gymnasts and spotting. I decided to give it a shot.”
What started out as a part-time thing that McClure was going to ‘give a shot’ turned into a nineteen-year coaching career.
“Hopkins was really good at the time. It was a great time to learn. I learned how to spot.”
With his background, McClure saw similarities between gymnastics and wrestling right away.
“Wrestling is body awareness. Gymnastics is the best sport for body awareness, so it made sense.”
Although he had no experience in gymnastics, McClure was able to focus on universal athletic truths with the athletes.
“Athletics is athletics,” McClure said. “To be the best you have to work your butt off – there is no way around it. You have to be mentally tough. When you put a young gymnast on a balance beam that is nerve wracking. You have to be mentally focused and mentally tough. One mistake, one lapse in concentration and bad things can happen.”
Gymnastics has moved its way into American wrestling rooms.
“There are a lot more wrestling warm ups where some tumbling is going on,” McClure has observed. “You need to know how to control your body to be able to control somebody else’s body – that is basically what wrestling is. A lot more programs are starting to use tumbling as a warm up. When you go to PINnicle with Brandon (Paulsen) and Jared (Lawrence) and watch them warm up, they are tumbling, and then they get into wrestling. That is how the Europeans do it, how the Iranians do it, how the Russians do it.”
McClure used his experiences in the Bulldogs’ wrestling room and brought it to gymnastics’ practice.
“Wrestling is technique and repetition. We had a guy at UMD that every day after practice he would drill his single leg takedowns – both sides – fifty times every single night,” McClure recalled. “He got really good. It is repetition. It is technique. When you go into gymnastics’ gym, there is a lot of technique. You are scored on being perfect, so it is repetition and technique – doing something perfect every single time.”
As a wrestler, McClure practiced what he now preaches. As a young coach, he took the same type of dedication to learning his new craft.
“One of my weaknesses was leg riding. I was a smaller guy, and guys would get on me, and just leg ride me. In college Tom Youngblom – the wrestling coach at Mora – I would tell him, ‘Tom, get on me after practice and ride the leg.’ Tom was a good leg rider so he would get on and just pound. Troy Haglund, he would get on me and pound. It was frustrating, but I needed to work on it to get better – same thing with gymnastics. I had to work my skill as a coach on how to spot, how to see things.”
“Coach Tobler taught me to watch different things as the athlete was going through the progression of the move,” McClure continued. “How was her run? Where did she put her hands? Were her legs straight? Are her arms bent, are her knees bent? Then you can anticipate the final flip. She is going to land short; I need to get there. She is going to over rotate; I need to get there. I could start to see things – technique wise.”
The more experience he got spotting, the more he was able to coach the girls.
“As a spotter, you correct technique so the girls can get better.”
As McClure’s own kids got older, he wanted to cut back on coaching. So after nineteen years coaching gymnastics – starting at Hopkins and most recently Bloomington Jefferson – McClure stepped away from coaching – for a time.
Through a mutual acquaintance, Eastview co-head wrestling coach Nick Fornicoia heard of McClure’s retirement and made a phone call.
“I remembered Nick from Richfield and Augsburg,” McClure said. “Nick gave me a call and asked if I could just do pre-season. ‘Sure, I will come up there.’ I will just do a couple weeks of this. I put on the shoes, I smelled the smell of the mat, and I was right back in it. I think (Fornicoia) knew if he got me in there, he would hook me.”
When gymnastics started again, McClure returned to Jefferson to complete his final year as a gymnastics coach. After the season Fornicoia approached him again.
“I came back up for one day. I told Nick ‘you’ve got me. What do you need?’ I ended up coming to practice four days a week. I am so appreciative of Nick and (co-head coach) Kurt (Habeck) and John Prokopowicz for letting me get back in there and get back at it.”
McClure came to a realization about himself early in his adult life.
“Very few people can figure out what they are made to do in life. I am a dad. I love being a dad, and that is what I am good at,” McClure said. “I am a coach. I am in my best spots when I am a dad and when I am a coach.”
He is a dad, and a coach, but he is also a wrestler – and he always will be.
“I can’t explain the feeling going back to the Xcel Energy Center,” McClure explained. “Walking around in the staging areas, seeing all those guys I knew from high school, seeing all those guys I remember from college, seeing some of the old referees and college coaches. It brought back so many good memories. That is the thing that is so different about this sport. You get back together, and you are seventeen again. You talk about stories. You are cutting weight. You are beating the hell out of each other in the practice room, and then you walk out of the practice room, and you are best friends.”