Article #103 Being American


A Being American
By Mike Houck #103

A note from Ben Peterson: One of the great things about wrestling is the super individuals that succeed in our game. Mike Houck is one of those men. Not only was he the first USA Greco Roman World Champion, he is a great story teller. Read what he has to say about our American culture versus that of other nations. These are lessons we all can treasure.
When I first began as a US team member I lacked a full understanding of what it meant to be an American. The cultural, ethnic, religious and ideological makeup of any given US team was so diverse. Most other countries share a common ethnicity and culture going back hundreds and hundreds of years giving them cohesiveness and strong national identity tied to a common tradition, religion and shared historical culture. Nowhere was our diversity more evident than when we would come together with other countries overseas.
Banquets are a part of most international competitions and it is there where you get a feel for each team’s culture as they might share things like songs, dances, traditional dress, etc. I was always a little envious at the strong cultural bonds exhibited by other foreign teams and often wondered what common identity our US team shared, especially in light of the incredible differences I saw between me and my teammates. We were a hodgepodge of individuals represented by all religions and nationalities and any mixture of them.
Training camps were always an interesting and unique challenge as cultures and lifestyles clashed. On one such occasion during a two week national team training camp in 1983, my teammate Tony Amado and several of his inner city Portland team mates burst onto the scene with a classically huge obnoxious boom box blaring cutting edge hip hop music. To me a conservative Baptist Bible college student in was anathema! The Box followed Tony and his entourage everywhere especially to the practice room where it was used as part of their warmup/play routine before practice. They were incredible break dancers and the music fueled their physical activity. In my mind, pre practice was a wondrously annoying spectacle.
The music, which always continued into practice, was an offence. It pierced my very being and tortured my soul. Stated without hyperbole, I really didn’t like it and it was a major distraction. My many attempts to turn the music off were met with strong resistance. I eventually appealed the issue to Pavel Katsen our national coach, carefully explaining to him the evils of this music and the detrimental effect it was having on our team because they were relying on it as a crutch. After careful consideration, Pavel declared that the music would continue and explained to me that this hardship I was experiencing should be embraced as my personal mental toughness training. I reluctantly accepted the challenge and dealt with my mental discomfort.

During the cold war in the USSR and Eastern Europe, somberness and unassuming behavior seemed to be the norm accompanied by what felt like an underlying fearfulness. The last thing anyone wanted in the Eastern Block was to draw attention to themselves especially in public places. Public contact with westerners was mostly avoided and I’m sure we were somewhat of a spectacle to the locals.
On one particular layover in an airport in Eastern Europe, Tony Amado’s music was playing. My teammates were strewn about the waiting area laughing, telling stories, reading books and playing card games. I noticed looks of distain and discomfort as people walked by and realized how out of place we were and how foreign this suppressed culture seemed to me. The moment made me feel very uncomfortable also, but when I took a second look at my teammates they could not have cared less. They were a group of individuals freely expressing themselves. We were a microcosm of America and I took comfort being a part of this group knowing we brought our culture with us. Even Tony’s music was welcomed, not because I liked it but because it reminded me of our greatest American treasure, personal liberty.
In 1983, in route to the World Championships in Kiev, USSR, I had an opportunity to put my faith in action. It was an opportunity that solidified what I value most about being an American.
My friend John Peterson asked if I’d be willing to transport a box of Russian Bibles for him to distribute to his contacts there. The Bible and open expressions of faith were banned under the former Soviet Union posing a threat to communist ideology. The plan was for me to transport the Bibles and pass them off to John in Kiev.
As a US team member and a part of an official international sports delegation normal search protocols were generally overlooked by customs so “Operation Bible Transport” should have come off without a hitch. However, about a month before the world championships a Soviet MIG shot down a civilian airliner creating an international uproar resulting in a U.S. air embargo to the Soviet Union. As a result we were forced to travel by train entering the USSR at a remote border crossing between Hungary and the Ukraine.
We arrived at the boarder somewhere between 3 and 4 am. It was dark, eerily quiet and all business. Armed boarder guards entered the train. There were no smiles or friendly greetings. More importantly, there was no official there to welcome us as VIP’s and expedite our entry into the country. We were treated like anyone else, the result being a complete and thorough search of all our belongings.
By the time the border guards got to me they had loosened up a bit realizing the uniqueness of having an American National Sports team entering at their boarder post. Whatever lightness and goodwill that had been generated during the brief encounter quickly came to an end when the box of Bibles was discovered in my suitcase. As the agent opened one of the books, somberness came over him. He gathered up the remaining Bibles while directing me to accompany him. We proceeded off the train and into a back room in the customs area where I was asked to wait. A teammate had alerted Steve Combs, our team leader and head of our US delegation. Steve went with me and stayed by me side throughout the ordeal.
It’s hard to put into words the mix of emotions running through me. There was fear, embarrassment, regret, helplessness, disbelief, uncertainty and a powerful sense of failure. During the walk from the train to the interview room neither Steve nor I spoke a word. Breaking the silence I finally blurted out, “I’m really sorry I didn’t mean for any of this to happen”. As I looked up I was surprised to see a smile and calmness on Steve’s face accompanied by brightness in his eyes and he simply stated…”Mike, its ok. This is about conviction and conviction is what our country is built upon.” Those words of support at that moment provided great encouragement as this strong gentle man stood by me.
The interview by the boarder officials that followed lasted about an hour and a half. They were most interested in who my Soviet contacts might be, where the bibles came from and was I a part of a larger organized group? I was lectured on the shame and distraction of “mixing sport with politics” while being reminded of the dominance and great success of the Soviet wrestlers in contrast with Americas lack of success especially in Greco-Roman wrestling. They even went so far as to tell me I would never be any good as a result.
As I moved forward from that experience I never again questioned or wondered what it meant to be an American nor did I continue to envy the strong cultural identities of other countries. Being American transcends culture, religion and ethnicity. Being American is about individual liberty and the right of all citizens to live and thrive according to their own personal convictions. To me representing the United States of America was not only a privilege but it was a great inspiration because of these fundamental values.
You can find other articles by Ben at these web sites: & Today Ben & John run Camp of Champs Wrestling Camps. Contact them at: PO Box 222 Watertown, WI 53094; 800-505-5099 or

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