By Frank Rajkowski, SJU Writer/Video Producer
COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – Gary Svendsen ’72 wasn’t initially sold on the concept of attending Saint John’s University. In fact, the highly sought-after wrestler from Coon Rapids (Minn.) High School had already decided on another school as a senior in the spring of 1968.
But SJU head coach Terry Haws – who had just completed his first season at the program’s helm – refused to take no for an answer.
And it turned out he had an ally in those efforts embedded inside the Svendsen household.
“After I visited several schools, including Saint John’s, I decided I was going to Winona State,” Svendsen recalls. “But my dad was really high on Saint John’s. I was born in Brainerd and Saint John’s was a popular school in that part of the state. He really wanted my brother Tom ’75 and I to go there. So he was disappointed when I decided to not to.
“I learned later that he contacted Terry Haws, and together they mounted a last-ditch effort to get me to change my mind. They kind of teamed up to convince me.”
It worked. Svendsen changed his mind and enrolled in Collegeville just weeks before the 1968-69 school year was scheduled to start.
“I put my application in just before the start of classes that fall, and I think Coach Haws had to pull some strings to get me accepted,” Svendsen said. “But it turned out there was no housing left. Coach Haws told me I could stay with his family.
“At the last minute, though, another student dropped out and a spot on campus opened up. So the Haws family was spared having to put up with me.”
Maybe, but Haws was certainly grateful for Svendsen’s presence as he went on to one of the most successful careers in program history.
Despite breaking his leg early in his first semester on campus (which posed a challenge for the freshman who had been placed on the fourth floor of Benet Hall), he returned to action after Christmas and made an immediate impact, capturing an MIAC title at 118 pounds.
Svendsen repeated that feat the following year and also won his weight class during the Johnnies’ first trip to the National Catholic Invitational, which included prominent schools like Notre Dame and Marquette. He also advanced to the NAIA national tournament.
And he was just getting started.
“Saint John’s was on the rise as a program at that time and Gary was a big reason why,” recalls 2019 J-Club Hall of Honor inductee Pat Haws ’72, who served as an equipment manager for his father during his time as a Saint John’s student before embarking on a successful head coaching career at SJU in both soccer and swimming and diving.
“He was part of my Dad’s first recruiting class, and he’d been one of the better high school wrestlers in the state. He finished second in the state tournament (at 103 pounds) when he was a senior at a time when there was only one class. He was a name people recognized, so when he came here, a number of other good wrestlers started to follow.”
During Svendsen’s junior year in 1970-71, the Johnnies won the first of what would be four straight MIAC titles, then claimed the championship at the National Catholic Invitational – all in a span of eight days.
Svendsen moved up to 134 pounds and won his third straight conference title before finishing second in his weight class at the National Catholic Invitational and placing fifth at the NAIA national meet, making him just the third All-American in program history.
Yet he wasn’t satisfied.
“He lived on the floor below me in Tommy Hall,” Pat Haws said. “I hadn’t been able to go to the national meet because travel budgets didn’t include equipment managers in those days. But I went down to see him when he got back after taking fifth, which was really unheard of for a Saint John’s wrestler at the time. And I remember telling him how amazing that was.
“He said ‘Pat, that doesn’t matter. I want a national championship.’ That’s what he was focused on.”
And the next year, he made it happen despite battling through a knee injury that again kept him out of action early on, then finishing second in his weight class at the conference meet.
He rebounded to win a title at the National Catholic Invitational, then powered through a stacked bracket at the NAIA national meet in Oregon – defeating the returning national runner-up, future Hall of Famer Ken Martin of Wisconsin-Parkside, in the semifinals.
Actually, defeating him twice.
“When the match ended the score was 7-6,” Svendsen said. “My hand was raised and I celebrated the excitement of making the national finals with my family and teammates. A short time later we were notified that the opposing coach filed an objection with the national tournament grievance committee protesting what he thought was a scoring mistake earlier in the match. The grievance committee debated what to do for several hours.
“Three hours later, their decision was to re-wrestle the entire match,” he continued. “I was, of course, devastated and I had a very difficult time mentally preparing for this rematch against one of the nation’s top wrestlers in a now-completely empty arena. Fortunately, I was able to rise to the occasion and won this rematch by a score of 6-3.”
Svendsen said he and Martin would eventually become friends and get together over the years. But back in 1972, he still had to beat defending national champion Craig Skeesick of Central Washington in the title match.
His win made him the first national champion in an individual sport at Saint John’s, and together with Pat Marcy of Augsburg (who won the national title at 150 pounds at that same meet), the first individual national champions in MIAC history.
“It was one of those things where you have a goal, and you know it’s obtainable, but you also know you have a mountain to climb,” said Svendsen, whose career winning percentage of .921 (105-9 record) is still the best in program history. “So once you do it, it’s an amazing feeling. Standing on that podium, I just felt overwhelming emotion.”
Svendsen added it was a moment that would not have been possible were it not for family – not just his father, whose helpful nudge got him to Saint John’s, but also his younger brother Tom, who arrived two years after he did and went on to finish second and third at 134 pounds at the NAIA national meet as a junior and senior.
He was also an All-American in NCAA competition during the 1972-73 season.
Tom Svendsen died of a heart attack at age 63, four years ago.
“He was one of the more successful wrestlers in Saint John’s history, and to have him as my workout partner during my time there played a huge role in helping me be as successful as I was,” Gary Svendsen said.
“I was a mentor because I was older and I was able to help coach him in both high school and college. But he was so good that he pushed me to get better too. My success was his success and vice-versa.
“I owe an awful lot to him.”
Check out Johnnies Wrestling at gojohnnies.com.