Ruhkula: Wrestling’s ‘Rudy’

After wrestling at college powerhouse, Del Oro grad is back to inspire youngsters
By: Ray Hacke Journal Sports Writer
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Should a screenwriter ever get hold of Gabe Ruhkala’s story, his script would read like “Rudy” on the wrestling mat. The parallels are uncanny. “Rudy” is based on the life of Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger, an undersized football player whose determination, indomitable spirit and passion for his sport helped him make his dream of suiting up for the University of Notre Dame a reality. Ruhkala (pronounced “RUE-kulla”), likewise, had a dream of competing for one of his sport’s biggest powerhouses — the University of Iowa. Like Ruettiger, the 2001 graduate of Del Oro High wasn’t a top college prospect in high school and had to spend some time at a junior college before moving on to his dream school. Just as Ruettiger only got on the field for one game at Notre Dame, Ruhkala saw limited action at Iowa. But what they did in competition belies what they actually accomplished — Ruettiger and Ruhkala went as far as they could go in their sports by believing in themselves and pursuing their goals with everything they had. What the movie “Rudy” doesn’t portray is what Ruettiger did after graduating from Notre Dame — he is currently a motivational speaker. Here, the parallels continue — Ruhkala started American Elite Wrestling Camps as a means of motivating young wrestlers to reach heights in their sport that they might not otherwise think possible. “He has a great story, and his story is really something that’s very inspiring to the kids,” said Chris Hammer, a business partner in American Elite and a friend of Ruhkala’s dating back to their days at Sierra College. “He likes to share it with them. “He went from not being a state qualifier (in high school) to one of the most prestigious wrestling colleges in the country. A lot of kids don’t believe they’re good enough to go to a school like Iowa or one of the other big wrestling schools. After hearing him, a lot of kids start to realize they can do whatever they put their minds to. “Gabe is living proof of that, and it’s good for kids to see that.” Overcoming odds Ruhkala’s best finish during his days at Del Oro was sixth in the Sac-Joaquin Section. Back then, only the top five wrestlers in the section qualified to go to the state tournament, according to Golden Eagles co-coach Dave Sanchez. That was where the seed for Ruhkala’s dream of wrestling for Iowa was planted. “At Del Oro, you get your picture on the wall if you go to state,” Sanchez said. “For Gabe, that was really important, and not getting it was a big disappointment for him as well as for us as his coaches.” “I didn’t really reach my goals in high school,” Ruhkala said. “That’s probably why I was so driven.” Less than a year after leaving Del Oro, he became a junior college All-American. In the fall of 2001, his lone season at Sierra College, Ruhkala went from being a high school also-ran to California’s state junior college runner-up in his weight class. Ruhkala said if it wasn’t for the coaching staff at Sierra, “I probably wouldn’t have ended up at Iowa.” “At Sierra I got comfortable on the mat and learned how to figure out a way to win no matter what,” he said. “The coaching staffs at Sierra and at Del Oro are phenomenal.” Despite his high finish, however, Ruhkala wasn’t besieged by scholarship offers from top wrestling schools. He took it upon himself to contact Iowa’s head coach and ultimately earned a spot on the Hawkeyes’ roster. “You don’t have to be a big-time, blue-chip recruit to be successful in college wrestling,” Ruhkala said. “So many NCAA champions don’t even get recruited. So many walk-ons become All-Americans.” Making connections Ruhkala didn’t see much action on the mat at Iowa. After redshirting the 2002-03 season, he went 17-12 overall, including just 6-3 against collegiate competition. Still, Ruhkala cherished his time with the Hawkeyes, who compete in a state where wrestling has a borderline religious following. “It was phenomenal — it was everything you’d expect and more,” Ruhkala said. “It was intense to be around the best and put yourself in the same room with Olympic champions and national champions. Some days we’d have three gold medalists in there at one time. “You were wrestling at such a high level, you had no choice — you were going to get better, or you were going to get hurt.” Ruhkala met his wife, Alicia, at Iowa and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 2006. He started American Elite during his first summer out of college. “I wasn’t really at the level where I was pressed real hard to continue wrestling after college,” Ruhkala said. “But I wanted to stay involved with the sport.” Ruhkala’s time at Iowa has enabled him to establish connections that allow him to bring some of his sport’s top competitors to his camps. This week’s camp at Del Oro, for instance, will feature Mike Zadick, who wrestled for the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing last year, and Mark Perry, who won two national championships and was a four-time All-American at Iowa. “Not only do I want kids to learn from top-level NCAA and Olympic champions,” Ruhkala said. “I want to motivate kids and let them have fun during the summer.” Hammer, Ruhkala’s business partner in American Elite, said Ruhkala could probably do that even if he didn’t have champion wrestlers coming to his camps. “He’s gotten to be a real good communicator with the kids,” Hammer said. “He holds their attention, and when you’ve got a lot of little kids, that’s a hard thing to do. He makes sure everybody’s fired up, learning and having a great time.” Growing his sport American Elite isn’t merely a local venture. This summer he’s got camps in Elkhart, Ind., and Reno, Nev., and hopes to have even more camps next year. Sanchez, Ruhkala’s former coach at Del Oro, plans to bring his Golden Eagles to this week’s camp at the school. “Gabe’s definitely giving back,” Sanchez said. “It’s a great thing for our team to have this at the school. Every guy on the team can make it — it’s not like we have to travel far away and stay overnight somewhere. This is in their own backyard. “When you’re wrestling during the summer, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to get better.” Next summer Ruhkala hopes to have camps all over the country. However, organizing and running wrestling camps isn’t Ruhkala’s full-time job just yet. He currently helps his father, David, with his contracting business so he can support Alicia — who helps with much of the administrative and promotional work involved in running American Elite — and his two sons. “The reason I started this is that I love wrestling and I want to try and grow the sport,” Ruhkala said. “I want to make money doing something I love and have fun with it. It’s not just about getting kids in the door. It’s about doing something I love.” “He’s done real well for himself,” Sanchez said. “His coaches are real proud of him and the man he’s become.”