Neldon Gardner speaks while being inducted to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame following the duel wrestling meet on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Neldon Gardner speaks while being inducted to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame following the duel wrestling meet on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, at Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

‘Look for the good in things’

When I think of Neldon Gardner, who said after the state tournament Dec. 17 that he would be stepping down as head coach of the Soldotna wrestling team after 40 years of coaching wrestling on the central Kenai Peninsula, I think of interviewing him for a season preview in mid-October 2000.

There was controversy surrounding the upcoming season stemming from the Alaska School Activities Association changing the activities calendar in 1996.

All the sports got a calendar with which they were happy, except for wrestling, which was unquestionably the odd sport out.

The sport tried out many solutions for a new season over the years. The current solution of a quick season just over two months long for small and big schools right after football appears to be the imperfect solution that will stick.

In March 2000, the situation hit rock bottom when ASAA created a spring and fall season and said schools could choose either season, regardless of school size.

Gardner, then the head coach at Skyview High School, had created one of the top wrestling programs in the state. His 1997 and 1999 state titles against the big schools put him on an exclusive and impressive list of coaches in any sport who have led the smaller peninsula schools to state team titles against the big schools.

But Skyview was told in March 2000 by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that it would wrestle in the fall, not in the spring when most of the big schools were wrestling.

When I interviewed Gardner in March 2000, he was not happy and rattled off a list of reasons why the district was wrong. This was such a big deal that about 50 wrestling boosters turned up to complain at an April 2000 school board meeting.

So when I called him for the preview in mid-October, I was expecting more of the same. Gardner shocked me when he said while he didn’t agree with the decision, he was going to put politics aside and focus on wrestling.

“We’re going to have to hit the ground running,” he told me. “This season, you’re going to have to wrestle hard every weekend. There’s no letting up. That’s exciting.”

I didn’t believe Gardner. There was so much bitterness in the wrestling community about what ASAA had done to the season — bitterness that I still feel was totally justified — that I didn’t think Gardner could set it aside so easily.

Remarkably, in every interview I’ve done with Gardner since then, he set politics aside and focused on wrestling.

There would be plenty more Gardner could complain about.

After winning fall state titles for the Panthers in 2000 and 2001, Skyview High School closed its doors in the spring of 2014.

Gardner immediately took over a Soldotna program that had fallen to just four healthy wrestlers as the conference tournament approached in 2014.

Todd Syverson was the principal at Soldotna in 2014. As vice principal at Skyview in 1990, Syverson had played a heavy role in hiring Gardner as wrestling coach when the school opened in 1990.

“He is the best wrestling coach in the state of Alaska,” Syverson said in 2014. “He’s a legend. He has such great rapport with the students.”

Characteristically, Gardner didn’t pout about the abrupt end of his Skyview program.

“I thought it was going to happen a long time ago,” he said at the time. “People ask if it bothers me. It doesn’t. I just roll with the punches and look for the good in things.”

Gardner told me at the recently concluded state tournament that he was ready to get out of head coaching 15 years ago.

“I was just trying to find a coach that wants to do it and would stick with it,” he said.

While peninsula wrestling showed its strength at state this year by claiming 14 state titles, the area won just four in the 2013-14 school year — the last for Skyview. The Panthers won two of those.

Gardner said the love of wrestling got him to stick with it and help rebuild wrestling on the peninsula. Just like he built the Skyview program to a powerhouse from nothing, Gardner, with the help of the community, built Soldotna into a powerhouse that claimed second at big-schools state this season, plus six individual state titles.

The coach, who retired from teaching at Soldotna Middle School in 2006, showed he still had the rapport with students that Syverson talked about.

Soldotna senior Liam Babitt won a third straight undefeated state title this season. He quit wrestling as a freshman after two weeks.

“Gardner was like, ‘That’s fine. You can come back next year,’” Babitt said. “And he kept talking to me during the summer.”

After winning his third title, Babitt again told me he’s done with wrestling, except for messing around here and there. But that doesn’t mean he’s done with the lessons learned in wrestling.

He said in wrestling, he found success by listening to his coaches. He’s also found that works in professional life.

“I work with a lot of older gentlemen,” Babitt said. “They’re always like, ‘Hey, don’t do this.’ I’m like, ‘OK. I won’t do it.’ Because they have 30 years experience. So it’s like, learn from other people’s mistakes, right?”

Soldotna was favored to win its first big-schools state title this season. It would have been quite the head coaching finale for Gardner, especially after he was an assistant on the 1988 Soldotna team that finished second in state.

A controversial call in the semifinals turned the meet against the Stars, but Gardner stayed classy to the end.

“They made the call and you can’t go backward,” Gardner said. “We did phenomenal.

“(South) was ahead by close to 30 going into the finals, and we won all five. We had a clean sweep of the finals with the boys and one out of two for the girls. So six of seven. I’m pretty happy with that, and the team had a great year.”

Gardner achieved his longevity focusing on the good in things — his love for wrestling and rapport with students — and doing his best to roll with the other punches that came his way.

It’s a lesson all of us, and not just student-athletes, can learn from.

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