USA Wrestling Cornell's Gabe Dean ...

Cornell's Gabe Dean enters final collegiate season seeking third NCAA title

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | Oct. 12, 2016, 1:13 p.m. (ET)

 Photo: Tony Rotundo,
Gabe Dean loves wrestling. And he likes to keep it simple.

Dean attended Lowell High School in Lowell, Mich., where he was the star quarterback, surrounded by incredibly talented players and coaches, with plans to play football at the collegiate level.

Entering his senior year, he took a recruiting trip to Georgia Tech. The visit brought him to the realization that if he wanted to chase national titles, football was not the route to go.

“I just saw opportunities with wrestling that I didn’t see with football. I was a quarterback in high school, and I wasn’t very tall or fast or big in terms of football. I wanted to compete at the highest level,” Dean said. “Wrestling, at the time, was a small opportunity. I wasn’t going to play for Division I national titles in football. I’m not Cam Newton. I just wasn’t built like those guys. But with wrestling there was a possibility that maybe if I worked hard enough and had the right people around me, I could wrestle for a national title. Thankfully, I was right. After taking a step back after that football recruiting trip, I just saw a lot of opportunity with wrestling.”

And the wrestling world thanks him for that as he has become one of the greatest college wrestlers of his time.

But he wasn’t on many college coaches’ radars in high school, having won his only state title his junior year and finishing second his senior year.

Once word spread that he wouldn’t play football in college, he got a few phone calls from schools like Minnesota, Michigan and Cornell.

“I got lucky with Cornell,” he said. “They started recruiting me, and I just fell in love with their program. It was a lot of different things. Cornell offers a very unique experience compared to other schools. Coach (Rob) Koll and Coach (Damion) Hahn visited me, and I saw how well they connected with my family. Coach Koll and Coach Hahn just had something about them, a charisma. They just fit right in. They also created a family-like culture within the program and I’m a big family man. I just loved that Cornell operated like that and it wasn’t just a bunch of individuals.”

Being a self-proclaimed family man, he entertained the thought of attending Minnesota, where his father David was a NCAA runner-up and a two-time Big Ten champion, but Dean said he made his decision based on his best future.

“You have to think long term when you choose a school. One day I might be a husband and a father and I’ll have to support a family. Unless you’re really successful in the sport, it’s hard to make a living off of it. Getting an Ivy League education is huge for life later on down the road,” Dean said.

Dean went on to sign with the Big Red, but first he took a grey shirt year, taking classes and training at a local community college under NCAA champion and recent graduate of Cornell, Cam Simaz.

Dean didn’t win a single collegiate open that he participated in during his grey shirt year and admits that at times he wanted to quit. His passion for the sport and all that it has taught him, helped him to stick with it and keep chasing the dream.

“I can speak for wrestling when I say you’re not going to get through a career of it without having some failures. That’s just the way it is,” Dean said. “My failures, in particular, include wanting to quit wrestling multiple times and wanting to give up after getting beat down and feeling like there was no light at the end of the tunnel at different moments in my career. All that kind of stuff has made me a much better person as I approach different areas of my life and wrestling has taught me a lot about overcoming adversity.”

In the fall of 2013, he entered his freshman year at Cornell with one goal: make the starting lineup.

As the season went on, he found more confidence in himself and his wrestling and began to set higher goals.

Next was making the NCAA tournament. In December, he won the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational after entering as the No. 4 seed. The win spurred his drive to become an All-American.

Halfway through the season, Dean turned heads at the Southern Scuffle after taking out Penn State stud and then-two-time defending NCAA champion Ed Ruth in the finals.

That’s when Dean decided he was well equipped to become a national champion.

In March, Dean finished third in his first NCAA appearance, which spurred him to become highly motivated to be the best.

His sophomore year, Dean describes as “rocky” in terms of discovering what kind of wrestler he wanted to be and where he would draw his motivation from when times got tough. He suffered two losses in one day at the CKLV Invitational but bounced back, stringing together a 43-2 overall record and claiming his first national title.

That summer, he stepped away from the wrestling mat completely and focused on himself and his family.

“I just realized that new forms of motivation come and go, but I should really take more pride in the fact that I just want to be good and I just want to find a routine and stick to it,” Dean said. “I hunkered down and made things simple. I wasn’t trying to pull motivation from all these different places. I stopped trying to control the factors that I couldn’t control and let go of a lot of stress. My junior year went by pretty quickly because I was focused on being disciplined, learning technique and getting better every day. It was much easier that way.”

The 2015-16 season saw Dean execute a nearly perfect year, with one setback coming at a home dual to Nolan Boyd of Oklahoma State. Dean later avenged the loss in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament and went on to win his second national title with ease, becoming only the fourth Big Red wrestler to win multiple national titles.

He said he did it by changing his philosophy and approach to wrestling.

“Everybody says it’s harder to win your second national title. I disagree. I think it’s all about how you look at it,” he said. “Wrestling is a pretty simple sport. It’s you and another guy on the mat, and you’re just trying to score more points than your opponent. I think that’s where it needs to stay. Wrestling is just wrestling.”

Dean has a chance to cement his legacy as he enters his senior season seeking his third NCAA title among one of the toughest weight classes in the country, 184 pounds.

Only 29 wrestlers have won at least three Division I national titles, with Alex Dieringer of OSU as the most recent. The last Cornell wrestler to win three was Kyle Dake in 2012. He won a fourth in 2013.

Joining him in the hunt for three titles this season is Isaiah Martinez of Illinois and J’den Cox of Missouri.

Sure, Gabe Dean wants to win another national championship, but the world won’t end if he doesn’t.

“The things that I value the most about my time at Cornell is not being an All-American, national champion or anything accolade-wise but relationships I’ve been able to develop and the people that I’ve been able to meet. These are relationships that I will hold onto for the rest of my life,” Dean said. “I’m so thankful that I get another year to compete for Cornell, a program that I hold so near to my heart. Most importantly, I’m thankful that I get to be around such wonderful people while I do it.”

He also has a bright future in wrestling after college if he chooses to pursue it. He was a 2014 Junior World bronze medalist in freestyle and won a 2015 Pan-American Senior silver medal in Greco-Roman. He hasn’t decided what direction he might take on the international scene. For now, his focus is on finishing his college wrestling career strong.

Dean kicks off his senior campaign on Nov. 5 at the All-Star Classic in Cleveland, Ohio, where he will face 2016 174-pound NCAA champion Myles Martin of Ohio State in an early-season test.

“My biggest fear, even more than losing, is regretting not putting enough training or preparation in before a match to put myself in a position to compete at my highest potential,” Dean said. “You just have prepare the best you can and let the rest take care of itself.”