By Lilli Khatibi
Entirely East Lansing staff writer
Donald Behm never knew he was destined for success in athletics. In fact, he never even wanted to join the sport that would change the course of his life.
“I wanted to be a gymnast, but somehow that didn’t work out,” said Behm. “My brother was a wrestler so I just walked in there one day and it just kind of fit, just felt really good. So I did it and I had immediate success.”
Behm was in the ninth grade when he started wrestling.
Fast forward to present day, Behm holds many accolades. He is a two-time Big 10 champion, two-time All-American, and was a silver medal winner at the 1968 Olympic games.
Behm received a scholarship to Michigan State University, and when asked why he chose the school, he explains it’s, “kind of a funny story.”
“I was going go to Oklahoma State. They were the national champions and had the No.1 team in the country. Michigan State wasn’t. I sent in my application and accepted their full ride. I went down in June for a visit, did all that, came back, and then August comes along and I receive a rejection letter from the Office of the Registrar at Oklahoma State,” said Behm.
Disappointed, Behm said he decided to look into his other offers.
“I figured I had to go somewhere, so I called the Michigan State coach and asked if I still had a scholarship. He said yeah, so I told him I was coming. I drove up on a Friday afternoon, signed the papers, and then drove back home Saturday morning,” said Behm. “That morning … I got a call from the coach at Oklahoma State saying there was a mixup in my application process and they had accidentally put me in the pile with the out-of-state quota instead of scholarships.”
Behm went on to wrestle all four years with Michigan State, and oddly enough, ended up beating Oklahoma State his senior year to help his team win the NCAA national championship title.
It was during his freshman year at Michigan State that Behm decided to try out for the Olympic games. He was cut in the last round, but was determined to try again the next round.
In 1967, he made the Olympic team.
Behm went on to wrestle in the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico, where he earned a silver medal in the 125 pound weight class for freestyle.
Behm said he attributes a lot of his success to having good coaches.
“I’ve always had the best coaches ever. Every coach I’ve ever had is in the Hall of Fame,” said Behm.
After the 1968 games, Behm came back to East Lansing to earn his masters degree.
“I learned a lot from the professors I had at Michigan State. My career was over when I worked on my masters, but when I went back to school, I could see why certain things had worked in my professional career. It gave me a really clear understanding of why I made the decisions I made,” said Behm.
Behm said this drove him to start coaching high school teams all over mid-Michigan for what would be a remarkable four-decade long career.
Former student, as well as wrestling team member at East Lansing High School, Trayvon Speed, said he was grateful to have Coach Behm in his life.
“He was one of my best mentors. The stories he told gave us hope and motivated us,” said Speed.
Speed said the best advice he had ever received from Coach Behm was, “Never give up. Wrestling is a sport that takes repetition. Once you get the mental aspect, you will succeed.”
Marie Wicks is one of Behm’s former students and current city clerk for East Lansing.
“I’ve known Mr. Behm for a long time,” said Wicks. “He was my fifth grade gym teacher at Central School,” she said.
Behm was also the high school wrestling coach to Wicks’ stepson for all four years.
“There were a couple of other coaches, one of them was kind of a tough one, but Coach Behm was definitely the level-headed one and I think he actually mentored kids more at an emotional level,” said Wicks.
Wicks said Behm was more than just a coach, but a father figure to the kids.
“He didn’t just focus on the coaching techniques, which obviously he is an expert at that. But he did focus on the individual and their maturity level. He would call it like it is. He would focus on the kids not only in terms of wrestling, but also in terms of their emotional growth. I think that’s a sign of a caring coach as well as teacher,” said Wicks.
After retiring in 2012 because a heart attack, Behm still does not think of himself as the accomplished wrestler that he is.
“It was something I did, and I certainly enjoyed it, but then I went off and did other things,” said Behm. “It’s kind of that one shot, then you do it, then you go off to raise a family and kids, and it’s not that big of a deal.” What a nice, humble man.