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Gaylord Strand: 50 seasons in corner of Yelm Tornados wrestling coming to an end

With more than 400 dual-match wins, 21 league titles - and the 2010 WIAA 3A title - under his belt, Strand, 71, is retiring at the end of this season

YELM, Wash. - For one more night, the pagoda housing the city's best eras of wrestling was rocking, "Bad to the Bone."

The Tornados' gymnasium was near-capacity Tuesday night as folks congregated to say goodbye to one of the longest-standing tenures of coaching in state history - 50 seasons.

Gaylord Strand welcomed the company as Yelm eked out a 37-36 non-league win over Bethel, coached by Matt Lininger, one of his many former wrestlers.

"I am just so happy everybody came," Strand said. "Renewing friendships ... and getting all these hugs - it's wonderful."

Indeed, it was a final home curtain to what's been a wonderful career.

"Yelm is wrestling," Lininger said, "and wrestling is (Gaylord) Strand."


Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.

As a junior in high school, Strand knew two things about what he wanted out of ---his future - he wanted to teach and he wanted to coach.

It also just so happened that one of the most influential wrestling mentors - LaMont Simons - walked into his life as the new coach at Woodburn High School in Oregon where Strand attended.

"By the time I got out of there as a senior (in 1970), I was fourth at state (tournament), and the school was first place at state," Strand said.

Strand accepted a full-ride scholarship to wrestle at Seattle Pacific University under the late Frank Furtado, whose bigger claim to fame was spending 26 seasons as the head athletic trainer for the NBA champion Seattle Supersonics.

After wrestling at 126 pounds as a two-year captain, Strand started interviewing for high school teaching jobs that also presented coaching opportunities.

His first opportunity almost was somewhere else - Cashmere.

"I was one of three finalists (for a job), but the coach that retired the year before decided to come back," Strand said.

Prepared to enroll for a fifth year of college this time at the University of Washington, Strand was contacted by Furtado about another job opportunity - in the tiny town of Yelm, in Thurston County.

"It was teaching science, PE and coaching wrestling," Strand said. "Coach said, 'You better get down there."

The same day Strand interviewed, he was offered the job - and signed a contract at age 21.

"I had never heard of (Yelm)," Strand said, "but it was a great place to get started."


At that time, Yelm was a one-stoplight town. He even remembers driving down the main street and noticing a horse tied up in front of a bar.

But it was also a community, largely made up of dairy farmers, that "wrapped their arms around me as a young coach."

Strand immediately went to work building up the town's youth wrestling program, which today is considered one of the strongest in the state.

As far as learning the ropes of Class 1A wrestling, he became close with Ed Amick, who spent 42 years as the coach at North Mason High School in Belfair.

"He took me under his wing and welcomed me to the realm of coaching," Strand said. "And we've been best friends for years."

Strand has been the model of consistency - and longevity - in Washington wrestling. He took Yelm teams to the state championships all over the state - from Moses Lake High School to the University of Washington.

And he saw the foundation in 1988 of what the WIAA championships are today - multi-classification Mat Classic in the Tacoma Dome.

Six years later, Yelm started landing on the state-placing radar with a fourth-place finish in the Class 4A tournament.

And a decade after that, the Tornados hit their stride as one of the powerhouse programs in Washington, starting with back-to-back state runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2009 before winning their only Mat Classic team title in 2010 as Class 3A champions.

"We had more people coming to our wrestling matches when I was in high school than people that came to our football games," said Lininger, a 2001 Yelm graduate. "We had more kids on our wrestling team than we had on any other sports team in our school."

All Strand has done is rack up wins and respect. His Yelm teams have won more than 400 dual matches, 21 league titles and seven regional crowns during his tenure.

He's been in the corner of 134 state-placing wrestlers, including 19 who have won Mat Classic titles.

And in 2017, Strand was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

"What he gave me, and all of us, was a father figure - and discipline when a lot of us didn’t have it," Lininger said. "We were poor kids who grew up in a poor town. He was firm but fair. It didn’t matter who you were - everyone got a fair shot."


Strand has been at Yelm so long, he has started to coach grandchildren of wrestlers he had in his early years.

"That kind of hits home," he said.

But Strand, who turns 72 in May, said the energy it takes to keep a program prosperous - and alive - is getting more difficult to produce.

After word got out that Tuesday would be his final home match, former wrestlers and other school athletes began reaching out to confirm they were attending, or just to say, "Thanks!"

His wife, Sarah ("my biggest fan"), who is wheelchair-bound and had not watched a match in person for years, attended Tuesday. So did his son and daughter and grandson.

And, of course, many of his ex-wrestlers over five decades came out to salute their longtime leader.

"I treat these wrestlers as if they are my own kids," Strand said. "I don't know how many times it has paid benefits to me to hear kids say, 'Thank you for what you did.' It's helped me and made me who I am."


Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.
Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.
Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.
Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.
Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.
Gaylord Strand's final home match in 50 seasons with Yelm High School wrestling.