A Real All American
For the first time in his college career, Pete Mehringer was lying on the mat in defeat.
Failure was foreign to the 22-year-old Mehringer. Losing to Northwestern’s Jack Riley in the 1932 Olympic qualifying tournament was unexpected.
Mehringer had worked toward this moment and this stage his entire life. He taught himself how to wrestle using the “Frank Gotch and Farmer Burns School of Wrestling and Physical Culture” pamphlet. He then hitchhiked to the 1930 Kansas state tournament because his high school in Kinsley — population 2,270 — couldn’t afford to send him.
“There was nothing that was going to stop him from doing what he wanted to do,” Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Director Jordan Poland said. “That’s how he lived his life and that’s pretty evident from the things he accomplished.”
And he set out to accomplish as much as he could.
After college, Mehringer worked as a stunt double and stand-in in Hollywood. He was a stand-in for Herman Brix as Tarzan in “The New Adventures of Tarzan” in 1935. He also doubled for Bob Hope in the 1939 film “The Road to Zanzibar” where he was body slammed by gorilla during a fight scene.
But before that, during his first two years at the University of Kansas, he had a successful wrestling career, with his only loss coming in the finals of the National Intercollegiate meet, where he first lost to Riley by decision.
But Mehringer and Kansas coach Leon Bauman felt Mehringer was still good enough to be an Olympian.
“If you have the opportunity to compete against the best, why wouldn’t you take it?” said Laura Hartley, public historian and former co-director of the Kansas Sports Hall of
After facing off in the National Intercollegiate meet — which Olympic wrestling coach Hugo Ottopok referred to as the “semifinals of Olympic qualifying” — the rematch with Riley came in the finals.
But instead of being 100 percent ready for his chance at redemption, Mehringer was involved in a car accident the night before. Also, he only had a 45-minute break between the semifinal and final matches, while Riley had a bye.
Regardless of circumstance, Mehringer wasn’t one for excuses. Either way, his Olympic dreams were over, or so he thought. Instead, Ottopok gave Mehringer a second chance to represent the United States.
In a 1982 Kinsley Mercury story, Mehringer recalled Ottopok telling the team: “Anyone who had won the trials that thought they were going to make the team were mistaken.”
However, there was still another twist for Mehringer.
“After the match, the coach asked me if I wanted to wrestle heavyweight or light heavyweight. I asked him what would do the team the most good,” Mehringer said in the Mercury article.
Another way of putting it: Ottopok wanted Mehringer to lose 17 pounds to qualify for the lower weight class. The 1932 Los Angeles Olympics were only 12 days away.
Just before he cut the weight, though, Ottopok set up a rematch between the two rivals at the Olympic qualifying arena. Only Mehringer, Riley and Ottopok would witness the event.
This time around, there was no decision — Mehringer pinned Riley twice in six minutes. Riley would wrestle as a heavyweight.
During the next 12 days, Mehringer went through a physical and emotional transformation. He drove 1,600 miles from Lawrence, Kansas, to Los Angeles, working out at rest stops and gas stations along the way. Mehringer also got married just a few days before the Olympics but the nuptials came with an ultimatum.
“Frances told me that if I didn’t win a gold medal, I need not come back to Olathe (Kansas),” Mehringer said in a 1984 interview with the Johnson County Gazette.
When the Olympics began, Mehringer was at 189 pounds and set to compete for the U.S.
“It was terrific being in Los Angeles for the opening day ceremonies — to see the lighting of the Olympic torch,” Mehringer said in 1982. “But, being a farm boy, I didn’t realize just what the Olympics were. I thought it was just another tournament.”
Mehringer was the youngest competitor in the freestyle light-heavyweight division where he pinned his first two opponents, including 1928 Olympic gold medalist Thure Sjostedt of Sweden, and advanced to the finals against Australia’s Eddie Scarf. The “Kansas Whirlwind” won the decision to capture the gold.
“It’s something that would never be repeated today,” Poland said.
After becoming an Olympic champion, Mehringer returned to Kansas, where he become an All-Big Six tackle for the football team, and later became a member of the first all-star college team in 1934. After college, he played professional football for 13 seasons in Chicago and Los Angeles. His acting career was short-lived but besides working with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby on “Zanzibar,” he also was a stuntman in “Knute Rockne All American” (1940) that starred Ronald Reagan.
“[Sports] was a way to make a living, and he was good at it,” said Janice Mehringer, Pete’s granddaughter. “And he tried to be as good at it as he could.”
Once Pete left athletics, he later worked for the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, serving as a senior inspector from 1948-67. He died in 1987 while living in Pullman, Washington, but was buried in Saint Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery in Hodgeman County, Kansas – about an hour from his hometown.
“He was always his own person at heart,” Janice said. “He charted his course and stuck to it.”
To this day, Mehringer is considered the greatest wrestler in Kansas history, and one of the university’s finest athletes. He is a member of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“What Pete did was he worked his ass off every day to achieve his goals,” Poland said. “And I think if we take that lesson and apply it to our lives, I think we’d all have a little Pete in us. And, I think we’d all be a little better for it.”