By Mark Palmer
Being a Nike signature athlete is a unique honor/distinction bestowed on a select few sports stars. Among the honorees: Bo Jackson, John McEnroe, Sheryl Swoopes. However, sports fanatics may be surprised to learn that Wayne Wells — 1972 Olympic gold medal-winning freestyle wrestler — was not only a Nike signature athlete … but the very first one.
When the National Wrestling Hall of Fame brought this distinction to this writer’s attention, I thought this story was too good NOT to share with the amateur wrestling community.
What is a Nike signature athlete?
Let’s go to the source. Here’s how Nike defines its signature athlete program at its website:
“Becoming a signature athlete at Nike is an honor reserved for few. In the company’s 42-year history, less than one percent of its endorsed athletes have been given a signature shoe.
“As members in one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sport, Nike signature athletes take pride in representing the brand and the prestige that comes with having a shoe made just for them. Through a highly collaborative process, Nike designers create footwear that is engineered to the exact specifications of the athlete’s physical needs and tailored to the demands of their specific sport. Fusing innovation with inspiration is essential.”
“Nike’s first signature athlete was welterweight wrestler, Wayne Wells. The 5′ 8″ Texas native had an accomplished career, winning a gold medal in Munich in 1972 while working closely with Nike footwear designers on his signature, high-top wresting boot. The Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee’s inner drive translated off the mat as well; he later became a practicing attorney.”
The Nike/Wayne Wells partnership
As the Nike website explains, the Oregon-based athletic shoe company targeted elite athletes that excelled at baseball, basketball, football, golf, running, soccer and tennis. However, in the first decade of Nike’s existence, Wells remained the only athlete with a signature shoe. (Now there are more than 30 Nike signature athletes.)
“I knew about the signature shoe program when I signed a contract with Nike in 1972,” Wells told InterMat. “They were just getting started.”
“Back then, there were few athletic shoes available. Nike wanted to get into all sports, including wrestling shoes. Nike designed the Wells wrestling shoe, as well as the Wells training shoe, which was designed for doing roadwork. I had told Nike they needed to come up with the training shoe.”
“After I won gold — the (Olympic) Games were over in September,” Wells continued. “I came back to Oklahoma where I got a job to practice law. (Wells had earned his law degree from University of Oklahoma.) I was also doing wrestling camps in 1973. A Nike salesman contacted me. He was a wrestling coach, and invited me to L.A. to put on a camp.”
“He wanted me to meet Phil Knight, the founder of Nike.”
As Wells explained, “Phil Knight was a track guy connected with the University of Oregon. They were developing a new track shoe without cleats. It had a waffle-type sole that was really comfortable, super-light. In fact, Knight’s wife used a waffle iron to make the first sole.”
“There hadn’t been a shoe named for a wrestler. I got some money for the deal. I had retired from wrestling, so that was fine with me.”
Wells and wrestling as they once were, now on display
Wayne Wells’ status as Nike’s first signature athlete is now a key part of an exhibit at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. The display — titled “Evolution of the Sport” — features Wells’ actual Nike shoes, the original Nike poster and a photo of Wayne Wells in action on the mat … as well as other examples of wrestling gear, such as headgear and a previous-generation singlet worn by U.S. wrestlers in freestyle and Greco-Roman competition.