Bethel University track star Gabe Irons’ fearless attitude and humble demeanor has led him to immense success despite significant tragedy.
By Caden Christiansen | Sports Reporter
Gabe Irons grasps the triangular handle of the 35-pound metal weight with both hands. With his long, curly brown hair flowing, he slowly begins to swing it around around his head. The weight leads his entire body into several full spins, inching him forward before launching the weight into the air.
What some would struggle even holding, the six-foot-six-inch Irons hurls more than 60 feet downfield. But despite his remarkable strength and athletic ability, the remnants of tragedy and loss loom over Irons’ large frame.
A thrower on the Bethel University men’s track and field team as well as an offensive lineman on the football team, Irons grew up in the small town of Lake Mills, Iowa, where sports and competition played a significant role in his family.
“We grew up with some sort of sporting equipment in our hands,” Irons said. “[All] year round I was always in a sport.”
Whether manifested through track and field, wrestling or football, Irons’ competitive spirit ran deep from an early age. Watching his older brother Noah wrestle at Air Force Academy and oldest brother Ben throw and play football at Bethel, Irons was inspired to cultivate the same values of hard work and dedication that his brothers displayed in their sports. Irons’ father, Gary, was a prime example to all three of them, not only as their dad, but also as a coach.
“My dad has been our wrestling coach and football coach throughout our whole lives,” Irons said. “He was always tough on us through athletics and that gave us all a competitive spirit.”
Iron’s mother, Roxanne, also played a large role in supporting her sons throughout their various athletic journeys.
“My mom was a big part of our sporting life as well,” Irons said. “She came to every single game from when my brothers were three and four to when I graduated high school.”
With such strong love and support from his family, Irons grew into a dominant athlete in high school, making it to the state tournament in wrestling and earning all-district honors in football. But amidst all his success and accomplishments, Irons and his family began to notice some problems with his mother’s health.
“It started during my junior year of high school and we started seeing some signs that we thought were stroke signs,” Irons said. “My dad and my mom went to a couple different hospitals and found out after a little while that it was ALS.”
With Irons’ brother Noah being away from home at The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, his parents were hesitant to break the news.
“They told my oldest brother Ben pretty early,” Irons said. “But Noah and I weren’t told until the summer.”
In June of 2017 as Irons finished his junior year of high school and his older brother returned home, their mother told them the news.
“It was 15 minutes of just bawling,” Irons said. “We were just upset that it was happening and that they didn’t tell us right away.”
ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s disease, is a terminal illness with no known cure that progressively weakens the nervous system and impacts the ability to function as nerve cells begin to weaken and break down. With little knowledge of the disease and its implications, Irons and his family were fearful and left with many questions and unknowns.
“You hear about Lou Gehrig’s disease and you read ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ in school but you don’t really know what it’s like until it happens.” Irons said.
Irons and his family began to see the repercussions of the disease as his mother’s health began to deteriorate quicker than expected. In some cases of ALS, the extremities and limbs of a patient are affected first, but in Gabe’s mother’s case, her voice and diaphragm were attacked first.
“She couldn’t speak for most of the time so she had to use her iPad to text us,” Irons said. “And that was rough because she was a music teacher and she loved singing and she lost that ability pretty quickly.”
As the summer came to an end and Irons entered his senior year of high school with his mother battling a terrible disease, the emotional weight he carried began to take a toll.
“I went through a lot of changes that year,” Irons said. “I stopped being as outgoing. I just went to school, did my stuff, came back home and went back up to my room. I didn’t personally feel like I made a conscious effort to talk to my mom as much as I should have.”
As Irons faced tough times at home, he found the drive to lead his Lake Mills High School wrestling team to the state tournament. With one of his primary supporters fighting for her life every day but still continuing to cheer him on from the stands, Irons found strength in trying to do everything he could to make his mother proud.
“I didn’t lose my love for sports,” Irons said. “But it kind of encouraged me to want to push for it even more because her goal was to watch me win the state wrestling meet.”
In February of 2018, Irons led his team to a 3rd-place finish in the Iowa state wrestling tournament while finishing third in the individual state tournament as well, all while his mother watched with pride from her wheelchair in the stands.
She passed away on March 1, 2018 just weeks after the competition had ended.
As Irons finished his senior year in wake of his mother’s death, he began to turn the heads of college coaches with his athletic ability. One of these coaches was Bethel’s track and field coach Andrew Rock, who was already acquainted with his family after coaching his older brother, Ben.
“Gabe’s older brother was on my team here a couple years before,” Rock said. “Ben had told me about his younger brother Gabe so I started following him when he was a junior in high school and texting with him throughout the recruiting process.”
But with older brother Ben and father Gary both attending Bethel themselves, Irons found himself reluctant to follow in their footsteps.
“Originally I didn’t want to go to Bethel,” Irons said. “I wanted to blaze my own trail.”
Luckily for both Irons and the track and field team, he felt most at home in Arden Hills and chose to commit to Bethel. Now in his junior season, Irons has posted impressive numbers in all four throwing competitions including breaking the school record for the 35-pound weighted throw with a distance of 60 feet 3.75 inches. Posting two 1st-place finishes in the discus throw, four first place finishes in the weighted throw, and two 1st-place finishes in the shot put, Irons’ impressive repertoire speaks for itself. But the track star is not quick to boast his accomplishments.
“You read a lot about him in the headlines about how well he is throwing, but you would never know it,” Rock said. “He is very humble and very down to earth and just a great guy to be around.”
With all of Irons’ recent success, Rock does not attribute it to his large frame or impressive strength, but the fearless attitude he brings to each and every competition.
“Quite frankly, he’s not scared to be great,” Rock said. “There is a lot of pressure and the fear of failure, but he’s not afraid of that stuff.”
Iron’s brings much more to the team than his outstanding achievements. As he and his teammates continue to build on a successful season, the junior track star leads by example with his work ethic and determination, motivating those alongside him.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be as good as I am now,” fellow thrower and Bethel senior Odera Onwualu said. “He’s helped me so much over the last couple years with my form and just having someone to compete against.”
With the loss of his mother still fresh in his mind, Irons has been able to inspire his team through the non-traditional, pandemic-affected track season by opening up about the hardship and reality of pressing on while still grieving.
“He shared a devotion with our team last year and he really was vulnerable with the team,” Rock said. “That was a powerful moment for Gabe and a powerful moment for our team. I think we all grew a lot that day.”
As Bethel track and field enters the latter part of its season, Irons looks to build on the successful performances he has put together thus far. He is currently ranked fifth in NCAA Division III men’s track and field for discus throw and 15th in men’s hammer throw. With the support of both teammates and coaches, Irons is ruthlessly chasing his goal of becoming a national champion. He says one of his greatest motivations is his mother’s spirit.
“I always draw motivation from the competition in general, and that part doesn’t change,” Irons said. “But I know now that she is at every single event and is watching down from heaven, and I have to compete for her through that.”