Sports Zone, Springfield

Bowden, 2002 wrestling team join Thurston HOF

SPRINGFIELD – Where does one begin when trying to rank Gary Bowden’s accomplishments as a wrestling coach?

Tough question. 

But his favorite team? That’s a pretty easy call. It’s the 2002 Thurston state championship team, which was honored Saturday night during the 7th annual Thurston High School Sports Hall of Fame banquet. 

That 2002 team’s run to the state title came entirely out of the blue, as the Colts hadn’t made any noise in previous postseasons. Their junior high feeder program had been dropped by the district the year Bowden arrived, and Thurston had to rely exclusively on its youth club teams to build its program. 

“Nobody took us seriously. They would say, ‘Thurston? Really?’” Bowden said. “But the reason we won is because this team flat-out put people on their backs like no team I’ve ever seen before.”

He even went one step further.

“This is the greatest group of wrestling badasses this state has ever seen,” he said, adding that his 2002 team was ranked No. 20 by “Wrestling USA Magazine,” ahead of 30 other states. 

The evening was a time to celebrate for many others as well, including 23 dance team members from Thurston’s 1987 Cabaret team; Amy Bruhn Harwood, a 1988 grad who ran track, played volleyball and basketball, and has been a highly successful coach at Thurston; Kurtis Bonar, a 1990 grad who starred in football and has been an assistant coach for the Colts’ state champion football teams; and Kathleen McCleary Kirby, a 1997 grad who starred in track, volleyball and basketball. 

Kelly McCleary Barneburg introduces her sister Kathleen McCleary Kirby during Thurston High School’s 2023 Sports Hall of Fame banquet Saturday.

It was a reunion-type of atmosphere, with some old friends seeing each other for the first time in decades. 

“That’s why it’s so special to see the people here and hear all of their stories,” athletic director and head football coach Justin Starck said. “I look forward to this every year to see the coaches and to hear some of those great stories.” 

Many amusing tales were shared, but the spotlight on this night belonged to the 2002 wrestling team and Bowden, who said he got his first assistant wrestling job in 1972 in Fullerton, Calif. 

“I tell kids that the two most important days of your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why,” he said. “It was on that day in 1972 that I found out why I was born. I knew instantly after one practice I was in the right place.”

“I was 25 and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had applied to be a cop and they asked me why I wanted to be a cop. I said I loved donuts, and I don’t think they thought that was too funny. Luckily, I didn’t get the job. I think I would have been a terrible cop.” 

After several years of coaching in the ultra-competitive fast lane of California wrestling, Bowden got a call from Thurston principal Wayne Hill, who persuaded him to move to Oregon, where he would go on to build a wrestling empire at Thurston. In 2004, he retired after 30 years of coaching, and has been a volunteer coach around the area for the last 20 years. 

“When I left here, they were ready to hire someone else and I told the AD he didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t hire Mike Simons (as his replacement),” Bowden said. 

Simons got the job. In 2020-21, he was named National Wrestling Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Coaches Association. 

Bowden volunteered under Simons until 2014, then started helping out at Springfield and Churchill. He’s been at North Eugene for the last six years. 

Nowadays, Bowden has changed his focus to looking for individual success stories, and finding those diamonds in the rough. 

“I had a kid from Eugene who came in to see me recently – a quiet, introspective kid – kind of reminded me of myself. Most of my wrestlers don’t know that I went 0-5 and quit the team in my first year of wrestling,” Bowden said.

“This kid says, ‘I’m not sure about all of this, I’ve got a lot on my plate.’ I said, ‘I’ll do everything I can to help you succeed, but it’s your plate and you’re gonna have to deal with it.’ Shortly after that he won his first match, and I’ll never forget the look on his face – and that’s why I’m still coaching today.”

Joby Jarrvis, who introduced Bowden at the banquet, said his coach always had quite the persuasive manner.

“He saw me and said, ‘You look like a wrestler. I want to see you up in that wrestling room next week.’ I was pumped. I had no idea I looked like a wrestler,” Jarvis recalled. 

“As I learned later on in the world of winter sports, everyone who sucked at basketball or couldn’t make the swim team looks like a wrestler.” 

No hard feelings. Jarvis still looks up to Bowden after wrestling for him all four years at Thurston, then working for him as an assistant for five years, when he said he learned his main job “was to put out fires and play defense against the AD at that time.” 

One of the most eye-popping numbers that really tells the tale about Bowden’s influence on his athletes is this: Seventy-six of his former wrestlers have become head coaches. Countless others have stayed involved in the game as assistants, referees, scorekeepers, etc. 

That’s the legacy of a Hall of Famer, and one that just keeps on growing. 



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