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Good Sport

Jennifer Bails

Perfect Form

That championship season

(Tom Altany photo)

The taut-bodied wrestler yanks off his head gear and uses the back of his palm to wipe away the sweat and tears burning his eyes. He’s still on his knees after holding down his opponent for the closing seconds of his last collegiate match. He raises a hand and points it skyward in quiet celebration. Exhausted, but jubilant, Pitt’s Keith Gavin rises from the mat in front of 17,000 fans gathered in St. Louis for the 2008 NCAA Division I wrestling finals. The referee takes Gavin’s hand and holds it up in the air, declaring victory for the new national collegiate wrestling champion.

The two-time All-American had already inscribed his name in Pitt program legend by going 27-0 his senior year—a perfect winning record. His achievement marked Pitt’s first undefeated season since Panther wrestler Pat Santoro won back-to-back national crowns in 1988 and 1989.

Now, the NCAA championship seals Gavin’s place in Pitt sports history. But, when he first arrived at Pitt, he was perhaps the last athlete anyone expected to step onto the winner’s podium. He had never won any state titles or even finished higher than third in his weight class while wrestling for Lackawanna Trail High School in his hometown of Factoryville, a rural hamlet in northeast Pennsylvania.

At the college level, Gavin garnered some attention from several Division III schools, but he made a cold call to Pitt head wrestling coach Rande Stottlemyer because the young athlete felt he could compete with the best. “He wasn’t a heavily recruited young man, but there was just something about him that you liked,” says Stottlemyer, who took a gamble on the wrestler.

Gavin qualified for the NCAA tournament as a sophomore in 2005 before redshirting the next season. He spent the year conditioning in the weight room to build the strength needed to compete in the 174-pound weight class. He also dedicated time to analyzing video from world championship matches as a way to refine his style. The philosophy major also searched inside himself to find his mental edge.

“Wrestling is an especially hard sport, because there’s no one but you to blame when you lose,” he says. “But when you win, you get all the glory.”

Gavin emerged his junior year as one of the country’s top wrestlers, with a 28-4 season that culminated in a heartbreaking second-place finish at the national championships. This year, though, he redeemed that loss.

His composure and confidence throughout the grueling championship match made his achievement seem almost easy. “Once I had the takedown in the second period, I knew I was going to win,” he says, matter-of-factly.

After graduation this spring, the 22-year-old is going for gold at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing and then the 2012 games in London. It’s not just wishful thinking. “I expect to win every time I wrestle,” says Gavin. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be out there competing.”

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