Gary Abbott’s career was at a crossroads in 1988. He and his former coach, Hall of Famer Carl Adams, had just shuttered their magazine, Wrestling Masters, after five years of business.
But at the same time, there was an opening for the manager of communications at USA Wrestling — the sport’s national governing body. After Abbott applied, USA Wrestling offered him the role, but there was some hesitation on his part, he said.
“I almost turned it down, wasn’t sure I wanted to move to the Midwest,” Abbott said in an interview. “I took a chance and took the job, and I’ve never left it.”
Over 30 years later, Abbott is the director of communications and special projects at USA Wrestling. He will be honored for his lifetime of work in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an Order of Merit recipient in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on June 4.
The Order of Merit is awarded for making “a significant contribution to the advancement of wrestling, other than success as an athlete or coach” and chosen by Distinguished Members of the Hall of Fame, according to the selection procedures.
“What an honor that is, to be selected by your peers, the peers that he’s helped promote and market, our heroes of the sport,” Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, said in an interview. “What a gratifying experience that is for those honorees, and in particular, Gary Abbott.”
Abbott’s induction comes one year later than originally planned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said “it’s a blessing” to be able to attend the ceremony in person this year and that receiving the Order of Merit is an “ultimate honor.”
“It’s very humbling,” Abbott said. “I don’t belong in there as an athlete or a coach, I was decent at both of those, but then I built my career in wrestling through my communications abilities and my passion for being a good leader.”
Abbott’s path to the Hall of Fame began at Boston University, where he graduated from the College of Communication in 1982. Abbott was a four-year starter on the varsity wrestling team and served as the editorial page editor at The Daily Free Press in his senior year, both of which he credits as the most important things he did at BU.
Despite being a student-athlete, Abbott said he didn’t anticipate going into sports beyond college — an idea that changed once he graduated and the job market yielded few newsroom opportunities.
Abbott soon found a way to bring his passions for writing and wrestling together by telling the stories of wrestling: first with Wrestling Masters and then with USA Wrestling.
“If I had two passions, it was writing-slash-communications and wrestling,” he said, “and I was able to create a lifelong career doing both of those, and then along the way obviously I’ve been to eight Olympic Games.”
His family, friends and colleagues have credited him with creating growth in the sport.
“We can all tell stories about how wrestling has shaped and improved our lives,” said Ken Abbott, Gary’s brother, at the Honors Weekend Virtual Tribute Thursday. “When I think of Gary, it’s fair to say that Gary’s life has shaped and improved wrestling.”
One of Abbott’s career highlights came in 2013, Smith said, when the International Olympic Committee announced its recommendation that wrestling not be included in the 2020 Olympic Games. Abbott helped lead the effort to keep wrestling an Olympic sport, working with the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling.
“He’s really been our go-to guy when it comes to telling the story of our sport’s past and its present and helping our leadership in the sport across the United States and even in the world,” Smith said.
After months of hard work and creative marketing — including a wrestling exhibition called “Rumble on the Rails” at Grand Central Station featuring the United States, Russia and Iran — wrestling was reinstated for the Tokyo Olympics. Abbott said the fight to keep wrestling in the Olympics was “the most difficult year” of his life until the pandemic.
Smith said Abbott’s work was essential in the movement to reverse the decision.
“There’s nobody you would want on your team more than Gary Abbott in a crisis time,” Smith said. “He’s done a tremendous job in helping the sport grow and become more sustainable through his work at USA Wrestling.”
Abbott said his proudest career achievement has been in developing women’s wrestling as a sport, a special project he has supported since early in his career.
Two moments that have stood out, he said, were when Helen Maroulis was the first woman from the United States to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling and when the NCAA added women’s wrestling to their Emerging Sports for Women program for Division-1.
“It’s not like we demanded it, we went out and earned it,” Abbott said. “The future of wrestling is going to be much brighter.”
After taking time off to celebrate his achievement, Abbott plans on getting back to work to continue to advance wrestling and make the sport more inclusive.
Telling the story of wrestling, he said, will help the sport impact many other lives as well, just as it impacted his.
“I think we’re going to end up touching a lot more lives and making a positive impact on the people that participate in wrestling,” Abbott said. “I mean, Gary Abbott could never have been an Olympic wrestling champion, but through wrestling, I was able to be successful in life.”