Jim Scherr knows all too well what his old Mobridge home carpet tastes like.
It bears the unmistakable texture of defeat, that’s what. And he didn’t like it.
Jim’s younger twin brother, Bill Scherr, introduced Jim’s palate to that unpleasant sensation when the boys were in elementary school. That moment alone probably didn’t change the course of U.S. Olympic wrestling history, but it’s among the stronger threads of one remarkable rug.
“We’d watched the older wrestlers go at it a bit, and in about fourth grade I had wanted to be a basketball player,” Jim said. He and Bill are both now 50. “And Bill had always wanted to be a wrestler, and so he’d come home and show me the finer points of the carpet. So I figured I better develop some wrestling skills pretty quickly.”
From there, no part of succeeding has taken the brothers very long.
The Scherrs shared the highly unusual achievement of qualifying for the Olympic Games in the same year. In Seoul in 1988, Jim reached the winner’s bracket semifinals before finishing fifth in freestyle at 198 pounds, while Bill won the bronze-medal freestyle match at 220 to reach the podium.
The Olympics has served as a springboard for both brothers in their professional lives. Bill has worked his way up the corporate ladder and is now a director for Barclays Wealth in Chicago. Jim has woven a more public post-Games career, as he served as the executive director for USA Wrestling for more than a decade and had a six-year stint from 2003 until early 2009 as the chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Jim remains the only former Olympian to hold that post and is now the commissioner of the recently formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Both Scherrs say the challenges and rewards of a lifelong interest in competition have served them well beyond their fortnight in South Korea.
“Anyone who competes in sports learns lessons about themselves and about life through that effort,” Bill said. “Olympic sports perhaps do a better job of that than other sports because it does have the attachment to understanding other cultures and the peace aspect of it, but you learn about yourself and what motivates you. You learn what makes you work especially hard, what you overcome to work hard, and you put all your mind toward that goal.
“That’s a great model for anybody to apply to other parts of their life.”
The call for both brothers to fully embrace the Olympic movement came shortly after Jim followed in Bill’s wrestling footsteps. The 1972 edition of the Games in Munich featured Dan Gable, Wade Wells and the Peterson brothers on the wrestling side and other transcendent amateur competitors such as Nadia Comaneci. The Scherrs gathered around the family television, and a dream was born.
Their reality was reached through a combination of blood, sweat and a lot of chalk.
“It was a progression. From a very early age, probably junior high, we focused on being the best in the world with the Olympics in our sights,” Bill recalled. “We’d dream about it. We’d talk about it. In our exercise, there was a blackboard in the wrestling room, and we’d make these little tournament charts about the next step we need to reach.
“There was districts, regionals, state, national and even Olympic charts we’d put up there, and there were all the names in the lanes. So we were mapping out how we’d get there from very young. We wanted to be the best.”
Jim said there was little better preparation on a daily basis than having an equally talented sibling as a training partner. The equal desire and determination helped push both to individual high school titles and a team championship in their senior season at Mobridge in 1980.
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Then, in 1984 at Nebraska, Jim won the NCAA 174-pound title, and Bill followed with the crown at 190. The two quickly accelerated their training and next found success on international stages.
Jim was a two-time silver medalist at the world championships, the Pan American Games champion in 1989 and won U.S. Nationals on three occasions. Bill had four top-three finishes at worlds, including a title in 1985 at 198. He won the Pan Am in 1987 and has a Goodwill Games gold from 1990.
“It’s no question that us together was a unique element of all our experiences, especially at the Olympics,” Jim said. “We got to share that journey to the Games and help each other on the way there. It was more special than it could have been otherwise. That’s a bond we’ll always share … We helped our brother be one of the best.
“It would have all been much more difficult, maybe not even possible, without a built-in training partner,” Jim continued. “We both had that throughout our wrestling careers. In wrestling, it’s so critical to have somebody with a similar size and ability and motivation to train with on an ongoing basis.”
It was motivation that landed Jim the executive job with USA Wrestling in 1990, and he took that organization out of difficult financial times over what was scheduled as a six-week stay and into prosperity over his decade in charge. It may have been that hardened example that had Scherr named interim CEO for the USOC in 2003, as that organization was in even deeper chaos.
“Our management team did such a great job,” Scherr said of the USOC’s work from ’03 to 2009. “The organization was almost completely dispirited, and the culture and morale was about as low as you could possibly imagine. We were leaking money financially, there was a Congressional investigation — large numbers of serious problems. The performance was there on the field of play, and we came behind (the athletes) and turned things around financially.”
Scherr’s tenure culminated with a U.S. 110-medal performance in 2008 in Beijing, which set a national record for medals won in a single Games.
Bill has kept his hand in athletic ventures in multiple ways as well. He’s president of the board of directors at World Sport Chicago, a nonprofit group that focuses on developing athletic foundations among inner-city youths.
“It’s about opportunities and access to sporting communities for them,” Bill said. “It links sports with mentoring and scholarship programs for the kids and helps them utilize sports as a positive connection to other parts of their life. It’s simply a way of staying involved.”
Bill has stayed involved in the wrestling world by assisting with the Northwestern wrestling team. One pupil in particular, two-time NCAA champion Jake Herbert, has qualified for the London Games later this month in freestyle at 185 pounds. So this will be Bill’s fifth overall experience (Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul, Atlanta in 1996, Beijing and London) at the Games.
Both Bill and Jim recounted the goose bumps felt at both the opening and closing ceremonies. Beyond the competition, the promotion of peace within the Olympic movement is a mission statement dear to their hearts.
“At their core, the Olympic Games are still a symbol of hope to the world, to showcasing better individuals living in the world, and trying to help the world be a better place,” Jim said. “That’s the real message of the movement, in that even in tough times it actually serves to be a stronger beacon of hope to the world.”
But there’s no denying the importance of the competition and their lessons learned. Neither Scherr came away from Seoul with the ultimate prize, but having to taste the carpet every once in a while is a character-builder in all walks of life.
“There are rules and consequences for everything you do,” Bill said. “If you step out-of-bounds, the ball goes to the other team. If you foul, you’re penalized. If you screw up, the other team can win. It’s the same in life. In sports, there are winners and losers, just as there are in life. Sports teaches you that lesson.
“Everyone in sports experiences winning and losing and learns to deal with it and is better off for it. I think sports and competition teach us so much about ourselves and the world around us. And that’s why even though not everyone has the ability to play the highest level of sports, they have the right to play sports.”