Gable Steveson celebrates after beating Nick Gwiazdowski in their Freestyle 125kg finals match at the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials on April 3, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas.
The crowd of wrestling fans at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas — far less than capacity and all socially distanced, according to COVID-19 safety protocols — started to chant “Backflip! Backflip!”
Heavyweight Gable Steveson, fresh off his U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Wrestling victory over Nick Gwiazdowski, was happy to oblige. As the crowd got louder, he waved them on, then turned and ran a few steps before launching into his signature handspring and backflip.
“Flip for the crowd, they’ll love it,” he told reporters about the showmanship. “It’ll get put back up on Twitter again and get lots of views, I hope.”
Steveson is just 20 years old, and although his Olympic Trials win was certainly the biggest of 2021 so far, it’s not his only title of late. Two weeks earlier the University of Minnesota junior won his first NCAA championship, running his winning streak to 34 matches and becoming the first Golden Gopher to win a national title since 2013.
It’s fitting, given that he’s named after Olympic gold medalist, world champion and two-time NCAA champion Dan Gable, considered one of the best wrestlers of all time.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, his name’s Gable, he’s got to make the Olympic team,’” Steveson said in his post-Trials press conference on how his Olympic journey started. “So yeah, that’s how it started. The Gable legacy lives on another day.”
While Steveson’s career as an Olympic wrestler and the chance to wow the crowd on the sport’s biggest stage has only just begun, he’s been making his mark on the collegiate scene ever since he arrived on the Minnesota campus.
He entered with high expectations after winning a junior world championship and his third straight age-group world championship in 2017 as well as four Minnesota state titles at Apple Valley High School.
As a freshman in 2018-19, Steveson was 35-2 overall and undefeated at 17-0 in dual meets, and was the top-ranked heavyweight by January. At the end of the season he was named Minnesota’s Most Outstanding Wrestler and Freshman of the Year. He was third at the NCAA Championships.
Steveson was cruising as a sophomore, going undefeated, winning the Big Ten Championship and heading into the NCAA Tournament as the top seed. He was after that first national title.
That dream ended — at least temporarily — when the Big Ten and NCAA announced they were ending competition on March 12, 2020 because of COVID-19.
His goals of winning an NCAA title were only on pause, however.
Steveson came back this season with another undefeated record, won his second straight Big Ten title and went into the tournament as the top seed. He defeated another Olympic hopeful, No. 2 Mason Parris, of the University of Michigan, for the title.
He did a backflip after that win, too.
“A lot of kids are going to want to come to Minnesota and want to do the things I do,” he said of his place in the Minnesota wrestling history books. “I hope this helps attract lots of people to our recruiting. Having coaches like we have sets the bar high for the kids that want to come in and you’re going to see a lot of heavyweights coming to Minnesota and try to be great just like this.”
Coming into the Olympic Trials, Steveson was ranked behind Gwiazdowski, the two-time world bronze medalist and a former two-time NCAA champion at North Carolina State. It was Gwiazdowski, in fact, who secured the U.S. an Olympic quota spot at the 125 kg. weight class by reaching the finals at the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier in Ontario in March 2015.
After defeating Greg Kerkvliet in the semifinals, 11-0, Steveson dominated the first bout in the best-out-of-three format of the final against Gwiazdowski, winning 10-0. Although he wouldn’t cruise through the second bout unblemished, the 10-4 victory — and a spot at the Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo — was soon Steveson’s.
“A lot of kids don’t get to this spot,” he said. “Man, hearing the crowd cheering is a great feeling and I got to experience it,” he said. “Hopefully kids look at me and are like, ‘Geez, I can do that, too.’ Having another crowd yell and having them scream, ‘Do the backflip again,’ was outrageous. I love the feeling.”