Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Grundy High School wrestling coach Travis Fiser. The second installment will appear in Saturday’s Bristol Herald Courier.
Travis Fiser was a sophomore wrestler at Kirkwood Community College and was looking to stay in tip-top shape over Christmas break in 1988.
After wrapping up practice one day at a local high school (Kirkwood did not have its own wrestling room on campus), Fiser happened to bump into Barry Davis, a three-time national champion at the University of Iowa, and asked about possibly coming to Iowa City and working out with some of the Hawkeyes.
After Davis gave him the go-ahead, Fiser made the 20-mile trip to the mecca of the college wrestling world a few days later to hone his craft in what turned out to be a fateful afternoon.
Only a small group of wrestlers were present as most members of the team had dispersed to spend time with their families, so Fiser paired up with 167-pounder Scott Williamson and the two grappled for a while in front of an audience of one.
“Dan Gable came in, sat down and started watching,” Fiser said. “I got done wrestling with Scott Williamson and Gable says, ‘You want to wrestle for a while?’ Of course, you’re going to say yes. You can’t say no, it’s Gable. He warmed up for about 45 minutes, since he was older then. We started and he absolutely got on top of me and tore my arms off.
“One arm about went to sleep and I finally got it out in front of me and then he grabs the other one and starts working on that. We get finished and he asks, ‘Who are you?’ “
Fiser introduced himself to Iowa’s legendary coach, got invited back the next day and the two would form a close bond over the subsequent years. Wrestler and Coach. Protégé and Mentor.
Fiser became a two-time All-American and a member of two national championship teams at Iowa.
Trackwrestling.com recently unveiled the “Dynasty Duals” in which 40 of the NCAA’s top squads through the years were put in a virtual tournament and fan votes decided the winner.
Iowa’s 1990-91 squad finished as the second-best squad of all time.
The 1991-92 Hawkeyes took home the title as best-ever.
On both those teams was Travis Fiser, who competed in the 190-pound weight class.
A few years before he began his run as the head wrestling coach at Grundy High School in Southwest Virginia, Fiser was a successful grappler with a quiet intensity for a fabled powerhouse.
“He was exactly what every locker room needs – a leader who is a ferocious competitor and a gentleman off the mat,” said Tom Ryan, his former teammate and roommate with the Hawkeyes. “Travis understood the value and necessity of when to turn the switch on to savage and when to turn it off.”
A native of Marengo, Iowa (with a population of around 2,000), Travis Fiser was in fourth grade when he and some buddies piled in a car and headed to their first wrestling tournament. His mother, Reenie, got a speeding ticket in Dysart, Iowa, on the way to that first event.
It turns out Fiser was on the fast track to stardom as he got bit by the wrestling bug at a young age like many kids in Iowa do.
When he was an eighth-grader he attended the J. Robinson Intensive Camp at the urging of a coach of his at the time.
“It was brutal,” Fiser said. “That first practice was a red flag. I’m used to wrestling one-minute periods and got thrown into that and they went an hour and a half of hard wrestling that first day. It was a meat grinder. I don’t know how many times I threw up that first practice.
“That’s about the only time I thought about riding my bicycle back to Marengo and saying forget this. I’d call home crying every night and my mom was saying, ‘You’re all right. You’ll be OK.’ At the end of the first week, we had a 15-mile run. The crazy thing is I went back [to that camp] four more times. Once I figured out I could live through it, it was OK.”
By the time he was a senior at Iowa Valley High School, Fiser was wrestling in the Class 1A state finals where he dropped a 6-3 decision to Lisbon’s Greg Butteris in the 167-pound weight class.
“I was absolutely crushed when I lost in the state finals,” Fiser said. “I think that motivated me … but at the time that was a hard lesson and setback.”
Despite the showing, he wasn’t heavily recruited.
“I had watched him at different tournaments in high school and knew his straightforward wrestling style, that Iowa style,” said Kirkwood coach John C. Johnson. “A lot of [colleges] kind of overlooked him and I was the only one that offered him a scholarship.”
For Fiser, his two seasons at Kirkwood were the most important in his development and not just because he became an All-American.
“Being a small-town kid, I would’ve struggled at a big university being a number,” Fiser said. “I needed to be more of a student than I was an athlete at that time. Coach Johnny Johnson was absolutely great for me. He loved wrestling and really kind of mentored me through that first year. That was a good steppingstone for me.”
He would soon step on the mat in a black-and-gold singlet for the greatest team led by the greatest coach.
The wrestling room at the University of Iowa was not for the weak-minded.
“It was unbelievable,” Fiser said. “It was a war every day. You’re wrestling some of the best guys in the country. You might go three or four days in a row and not get a takedown. That’s how it was. I always tell my guys it was always better to give than receive. You wanted to give a butt kicking instead of getting one. It’s just a process or at least it was for me. You get past those tough times, get some confidence and then you just take off.”
Tom and Terry Brands were the most intense (“They were tough,” Fiser said. “I’m glad they weren’t bigger. God made them lighter weights for a reason. They were a handful.”).
Troy and Terry Steiner were terrors.
Chad Zaputil and Mark Reiland were nationally ranked.
Fiser, who redshirted his first season, had his daily battles with the likes of Ryan, Royce Alger, Bart Chelesvig and heavyweight John Oostendorp.
“Travis was strong as an ox and very difficult to move out of position with solid attacks on his feet,” Ryan said. “He was a great positional wrestler.”
Overseeing this juggernaut was head coach Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist and an icon.
Gable’s status in Iowa is comparable to Bear Bryant’s in Alabama and Bobby Knight’s in Indiana.
He was a larger-than-life figure.
“He could talk to anybody and push the right buttons,” Fiser said. “If you did something wrong, he might tell you alone in the locker room or he might tell you front of the guys. You had to toe the line and live up to your expectations to what you wanted and what was expected of you. He was just a psychologist at knowing what to do to get people going. It might be a kick in the butt or sometimes a pat on the back.”
If being around Gable was surreal, so was wrestling in front of packed houses at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the hometown kid. Fiser wrestled to a 1-1 draw with Iowa State’s Dan Troupe during one dual match that brought 15,291 spectators to Iowa’s home arena.
“Sometimes it was overwhelming,” Fiser said. “When you’re winning it’s a great place to be. When you lose there – that’s hard.”
Iowa went 41-0-1 in dual matches over the course of the 1991 and 1992 seasons and nine of the 10 grapplers on the ‘92 team were All-Americans.
“We knew we were good, but I don’t think we were arrogant,” Fiser said. “We had a swag to us, because we were tough and battle-tested and we’d take on anybody. But we earned it. Up and down the lineup, we worked for it. There wasn’t a hole in our lineup. Anybody on our team could beat anybody else at a given time and probably did. We had a good bunch of guys who knew what was expected of them. You didn’t want to be the weak link.”
Fiser certainly wasn’t a weak link as he compiled a 72-26-5 record with the Hawkeyes. He finished sixth at the NCAA tournament in 1991 and placed fifth in 1992.
“Travis was such a gritty, hard-nosed competitor,” Oostendorp said. “With most guys if you put enough pressure on them you can get them on their heels from either an aggressive mindset or a conditioning standpoint. Working out with Travis you knew he was going to stand toe-to-toe with you and never take a backseat. He was mentally tough enough he could go all day.”
Off the mat, Fiser was the friendly and laid-back dude that he remains still today.
“He was just a good friend to me,” said Ryan, who is now the head coach at Ohio State University. “Being from New York, we once went to a wedding in his hometown. Unlike New York where you have to be invited, his hometown was filled with community. Anyone was allowed to come celebrate. I thought that was cool. I believe he took me gigging one time for catfish. That was wild. I’m grateful for Travis, his friendship and the class that he always carried himself with.”
Iowa hosted the National Wrestling Coaches All-Star Classic in January 1992.
Fiser earned a 3-2 decision in the showcase event over an opponent who was ranked No. 1 in the country at the time.
“I just knew I was going to win that night,” Fiser said. “We had a huge crowd and there were probably 10,000 people there at Carver-Hawkeye. It’s just one of those things where you didn’t know how you were gonna win, just that you knew you were gonna win.”
That opponent was Randy Couture from Oklahoma State.
The same Randy Couture who would go on to become a three-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champion. Fiser was 1-1-1 against Couture over the course of his college career.
“I would root for him [when he was in mixed martial arts],” Fiser said. “People would talk about that and they said, ‘Why didn’t you fight [in the UFC]?’ I don’t know, maybe I should have.”
Fiser followed a different career path instead.
After departing Iowa, Fiser competed in freestyle wrestling at a number of high-profile tournaments.
“I got as high as the third or fourth on the ladder [in the United States],” Fiser said. “As you move up, the pool gets smaller, but the fish get bigger.”
He had a stint with Team Foxcatcher, which was financed by overzealous multimillionaire John du Pont, who later shot wrestler Dave Schultz. A movie based on the events was released in 2014.
“I couldn’t believe that Schultz was gone,” Fiser said. “It just seems surreal that could happen to such an ambassador to wrestling. He was so good to a lot of people and a great competitor. I did meet John du Pont briefly and he was very eccentric.”
Fiser’s bid for the 1996 Olympics fell short, ending his competitive career.
“Things weren’t just going right at all. I always say it was a sign from up above,” Fiser said. “God was telling me, you’re done here.”
It wasn’t an easy fact to come to grips with, however.
“I was at my wit’s end,” Fiser said. “Wrestling had been my whole life. I knew I wanted to coach kids. It was just finding a high school or college to do it at.”
One day, Iowa assistant coach Jim Zalesky asked Fiser if he’d be interested in taking over the program at Grundy High School in Virginia.
Kevin Dresser, who also had wrestled for the Hawkeyes, had recently left the job and coaching a Virginia High School League powerhouse was a coveted gig. Zalesky passed along the phone number to Grundy wrestling benefactor F.D. “Red” Robertson and Fiser didn’t hesitate.
“I said sure,” Fiser said. “We had a lot of Grundy kids who came to the Iowa summer camps. I knew what the Grundy kids were like and knew what I was getting into.”
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!