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Gutches humbled by Hall of Fame induction

When Les Gutches took up wrestling at age 7, he could not have known where it would take him.

Now he does, for this weekend it took him to Stillwater, Okla., where he was enshrined into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.

On Friday, Gutches was honored at a ceremony in the Hall of Fame, where a large granite bust in his likeness and a display case and plaque were unveiled.

On Saturday, in a formal setting, he took the podium and thanked many of those who helped get him to this point. He then accepted an award from his father, Les Sr., and a lavish ring — "It has to be the closest thing to a Super Bowl ring that there is," he said — from his wife, Jennifer.

The former South Medford and Oregon State University star was one of four distinguished members inducted in the Class of 2009. The others were Peter Blair (posthumously), Edward Eichelberger and Dennis Koslowski.

Gutches was beside himself.

"I'm emotionally exhausted and speechless," he said in a phone interview after Saturday's ceremony.

Gutches was a three-time state champion for South Medford and a two-time NCAA champion for the Beavers.

But success was had at many other levels and over a long period for Gutches, now 36 and a bank loan officer in Corvallis, where he lives with his wife and kids, Alexis, 5, and Logan, 2.

Gutches placed seventh in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and won the 1997 World Championship.

They are things he hadn't thought much about until the Hall of Fame contacted him first about his nomination, then about his induction.

On Friday, his accomplishments and memorabilia were on display with so many of his heroes during a social ceremony at the Hall. Glass cases devoted to the newcomers were covered in black cloth. One by one, the honorees were singled out and the cloth yanked away.

"It was great, just unbelievable," said Gutches. "It was strange, but in a great way. It was almost a surreal experience. I'd been working toward this from the time I was 7 years old, and to pick up this kind of paycheck at the end was amazing."

He and his family and friends had a chance to the tour the massive Hall, and they found plenty of remnants from his career.

"It was kind of like an Easter egg hunt looking for those," he said.

Gutches won a national championship in either freestyle or Greco-Roman competition in every age division — cadet, junior, espoir, university and senior — becoming the first in USA Wrestling history to do so.

He competed in World Championships in four age groups, winning an espoir bronze medal in 1993.

Saturday's festivities began with a golf tournament.

"I consider it a success because I didn't harm anyone or damage any property, despite my best efforts," Gutches laughed.

After that, he got in a workout "out of habit," then attended the black-tie induction program.

A video montage was shown that included interviews and action footage of him.

Gutches then spoke, thanking his support cast of family and friends.

Among them were his high school coaches, Sergio Gonzalez and Pete Lucas, and his uncle, Kent Gutches, back in Southern Oregon.

"It was just a great opportunity for me to be able to thank them in front of the wrestling community for all the things they've done for me," he said, "and to let them know that it isn't only my induction, but it's for my family, friends and coaches and everyone who helped me along the way. We don't get here alone."

It's hard to single out a highlight or two from his career, said Gutches, but "as far as purely wrestling goes," his first championship at OSU and his World Championship victory that came in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, were extra special.

He remembered being 11 and watching the Los Angeles Olympics from his Medford home.

"I knew all those guys were NCAA champions," he said, "and I wanted to win one for Oregon State."

At OSU, Gutches was 134-10 and won his titles at 177 pounds as a junior and senior. He had a 69-match win streak and only once in his final two years did an opponent score a takedown on him.

Although wrestlers by nature look ahead to their next match or tournament rather than reflect on the past, said Gutches, the Hall of Fame experience gave him pause.

"They look at your entire body of work and decide that because of that, this guy should be in the Hall of Fame," said Gutches, a former OSU assistant who puts on occasional camps and makes it into the Beaver mat room from time to time. "To go along with that, you look at your childhood heroes, the people you've respected and wanted to emulate who are in the Hall and all the talented ones that are not in the Hall, and that's when it hits you. It's like, oh my God. It's very humbling and overwhelming and hard to put into words."

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com