JIM PETERS: An Olympic wrestling mystery, over 80 years later

2014-03-12T17:00:00Z 2014-03-13T01:45:09Z JIM PETERS: An Olympic wrestling mystery, over 80 years laterJim Peters Times Columnist nwitimes.com
March 12, 2014 5:00 pm  • 

Decades ago, when Frank Fetters wrestled for what was then Thornton Fractional High School, his uncle John Etienne regaled him with tales of his own days on the mat back in the 1920s and 30s.

Over 50 years later, the story Fetters remembers the most is his uncle talking about being an alternate on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team for the 1932 Games in Los Angeles.

"Every time I saw him, we talked about it," said Fetters, who now lives in Las Vegas. "For the longest time, he was proud of it. It was the highlight of his life."

A state champion as a 108-pounder at Hammond High in 1935, Etienne served in the Navy as an electrician during World War II, his claim to fame being a boxing match against the famed Willie Pep.

"Pep broke his nose," Fetters said. "That 'cured' him of boxing."

Etienne was also proud to have met the legendary Dan Gable, the former wrestling coach at Iowa who won the U.S.'s first gold medal in the sport.

While Etienne passed away about 15 years ago, all the memories lived on for Fetters. After reading a Times article in Feb. 2013 about Portage's Leroy Vega being inducted into the Indiana High School Wrestling Hall of Fame, Fetters began to wonder if it might be something worth looking into regarding his uncle.

"I didn't know there was an Indiana High School Wrestling Hall of Fame," Fetters said. "I figured it was worth a shot. I thought it would've been nice if I could do that."

That's where the mystery began for Fetters. He visited his 92-year old aunt in Long Beach, Calif., last summer hoping to gather more information.

"I was under the impression that my uncle was selected late in his high school career, but he was a freshman in high school in 1932," Fetters said. "It stands to reason that if he was good enough to be an alternate for the Olympics, he would have shown up as state champion more than once, but he is listed for the 1934-35 season only. This led me to believe my uncle's status was a result of an administrative decision, not a wrestle-off."

Fetters leafed through old yearbooks, but he could find no documentation of Etienne and the Olympic team, nor did his aunt know of any.

"I assumed if he had wrestled, there would have been headlines," Fetters said. "He would've only been 14 or 15. I wasn't able to find anything. Without any paperwork, there's no verification."

There were also no records of what Etienne did as a wrestler in 1934, nor the two years prior, when he attended Central Catholic High School, which was later renamed Bishop Noll. He later worked at Inland Steel before relocating to L.A. after the war, he and wife catching the Super Chief (a train) to the west coast.

"They'd come and back forth visiting relatives. I always ran into him," Fetters said. "I wonder why he never thought about going to college."

That, like the subject of the '32 Olympics, will probably remain an unanswered question, but it won't dampen Fetters' recollections of the wrestling chats with his uncle.

"I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over it," he said. "I'm not going to be discouraged that I couldn't make it happen. My uncle wasn't looking for any glory. He just loved the sport."

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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