By Matt Nauman
Even after 50 years, the Olympic memories remain fresh for Dan Brand.
He remembers the thrill of representing the United States as an Olympic wrestler in the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. And he still feels the disappointment of not winning a gold medal in the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Brand did win a bronze medal in those games. He was a PG&E employee at the time, in the early years of a 31-year career as a mechanical engineer who helped build power plants for the utility.
With the 2012 Summer Olympics taking place in London over the next two weeks, Brand and the rest of America will be watching swimmers and soccer players, track stars and basketball heroes and, yes, wrestlers, go for their moments of glory.
Brand’s path to the Olympics almost didn’t happen.
“It’s a good story,” says the 76-year-old who lives in Oakland. “I wanted to be a basketball player.”
In fact, he played on the University of Nebraska’s freshman basketball team. But, when he didn’t make the varsity squad the next year, he took his athletic talent to the school’s wrestling team.
Learning from a gold medalist
After winning the school’s intramural wrestling championship, Brand wrestled for two years at Nebraska before Bill Smith, a 1952 gold medalist, became the school’s wrestling coach. That’s when he really learned how to wrestle, Brand says. Brand graduated and kept wrestling and, with the guidance of Smith, he made the 1960 Olympic team.
“I was a fairly good athlete,” Brand said, but going from a novice wrestler to the Olympics in just a few years was “a far-fetched dream” and “rather amazing.”
What he remembers most from the 1960 Games – he finished fifth – was marching in the opening ceremonies.
“It was a great experience,” he says. “There’s nothing like it. You’re waiting in the tunnel and waiting for the United States team to be called. Then they strike up ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ It’s a great thrill and you’re very proud to be an American Olympian.”
Joined PG&E and prepared for the ’64 Games
Over the next four years, a lot of things changed in Brand’s life. He moved from Nebraska to California, following Smith, his wrestling coach who had become the athletic director at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. Brand got married in 1961. He went to work for CalTrans and then got hired at PG&E.
He told his new bosses that he intended to try to compete in the 1964 games, and they allowed him to take a leave of absence during the Olympic trials and the Games.
This time, his focus was on winning. He had won seven national titles and placed third in the World Wrestling Championships in the intervening years and was a serious contender for a gold medal in the freestyle middleweight wrestling division in 1964. He didn’t march in the opening ceremonies.
“I was in it to win it,” he says.
Instead, in a final match with a Turkish wrestler, the match was tied in a judges’ decision, but a jury decision overruled the judges and Brand had lost the match by one point.
“I don’t understand to this day how I lost,” he said. His coaches protested the decision but it stood. His consolation prize was a bronze medal, and a permanent place in Olympic record books. (It was America’s only wrestling medal that year.)
Designing and constructing power plants
When Brand returned, he devoted himself to his career at PG&E and to his family.
Working in PG&E’s engineering department, Brand worked on the design and construction of various power plants, including The Geysers geothermal plants in Northern California as well the Potrero, Morro Bay, Moss Landing and Pittsburg natural-gas power plants. He also worked on the design and construction of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
He retired in 1992 after 31 years at PG&E.
“A great company to work for,” he says.
Since he retired, he has spent time with his family – three grown children and five grandchildren including twin 18-month-old granddaughters. He coached the Campolindo High School wrestling team from 1996 to 2000.
Bob McLaughlin, who coaches the Moraga high school team today, speaks highly of Brand.
“He’s a great guy and was a tremendous motivator to the kids at Campolindo,” McLaughlin says.
In 2011, Brand was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He also has been inducted into the Olympic Club Athletic Hall of Fame, the California Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Representing his country was “a great honor,” he says. And his philosophy of athletics and competition still comes from that experience a half century ago:
“To be an Olympic champion, your worst needs to be better than your opponent’s best.”
Email Matt Nauman at email@example.com.