The Evolution of Gable Steveson from HS Star to Olympic Champion

2021 Olympic champion Gable Steveson (Photo courtesy of Larry Slater;

There were 13 seconds left.

The official called a stalemate. Geno Petriashvili, Georgia's towering heavyweight, stood up and exhaled. He had completed a remarkable comeback, from down 5-2 to up 8-5, and was now on the cusp of an Olympic gold medal.

There were 13 seconds left.

Across from Petriashvili stood Gable Steveson, Petriashvili's powerful, dynamic, affable American peer. Steveson, the 21-year-old wunderkind from Apple Valley, Minnesota, hurried into a stance with just one thought on his mind.

I need a takedown.

There were 13 seconds left.

We all know what happened next.

Petriashvili shot, Steveson posted, faked right, then spun behind for a takedown to make it 8-7. Steveson stood up, as if to restart the match himself. The official, surprisingly, followed. Petriashvili looked confused, saw that 6.5 seconds remained, and stood up.

Another whistle. Steveson shot, forced an underhook, another shot, circled right, posted again, spun right again, his arms snaking their way around Petriashvili's frame. He circles more, he gets behind. A takedown? Yes, a takedown. Steveson calls it himself, with two-tenths of a second left.

The horn sounds. Steveson jumps up. He runs to his corner and hugs Minnesota coach Brandon Eggum. The American contingent inside Makuhari Messe Hall goes ballistic, and millions around the world collectively drop their jaws in awe.

Yes, Gable Steveson became an Olympic champion on Friday morning with a thrilling, come-from-behind, you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it 10-8 victory over Petriashvili in the finals at 125 kilograms (275 pounds). His improbable comeback capped a week where he went 4-0, beat two world champs, and collectively outscored his opponents 33-8.

In doing so, Steveson became the first American freestyle heavyweight to win an Olympic gold medal since Bruce Baumgartner won in 1992 - eight years before Steveson was born. His performance will go down in USA Wrestling history, his spot reserved forever as an Olympic champion.

"I don't know how I did it," Steveson said in a TV interview afterward. "Somehow, I did it, but I have no clue how I did that."

There were 13 seconds left.

How did Gable Steveson do that?

The march toward Gable Steveson's Olympic moment, you could argue, began when he was born. His full name is Gable Dan Steveson, after the famous Iowa State wrestler-turned-Iowa Hawkeye coach Dan Gable, an Olympic champion himself in 1972.

But Steveson's ascent from really good wrestler to Olympic gold medalist didn't truly start until 2019. He took four losses in the span of three months that ultimately reset the course of his wrestling career.

Gable Steveson was a freshman back then, a highly-touted youngster with grand plans to take over college wrestling after winning four Minnesota state titles and three age-level world championships. Expectations were large.

Nobody is perfect, not even mighty Dan Gable, and Gable Dan learned the hard way that March. He lost twice that month, both to Penn State's Anthony Cassar - once at the Big Ten Championships, then again at the NCAA Championships.

Rewatching those matches now, Gable Steveson looks like an entirely different person. No facial hair, some baby fat, and his tummy was far more noticeable. He was fast, yes, but not as quick as he is now. He controlled ties, sure, but not as consistently. He scored points, but he just wasn't dynamic, wasn't powerful, wasn't Gable quite yet.

Those losses changed things.

He hadn't lost a folkstyle match since eighth grade, then lost twice in 12 days. They made him look inward, humbled him, taught him that he wasn't always going to be the biggest, baddest man in the room. He needed to get bigger, faster, stronger. He needed to grow up, to learn more about himself. He needed to get better at wrestling.

So Steveson went to work, quietly at first, but then he let us in on the journey. Those of us who follow him on his social channels can see what he does now, the weight room regimens, the sparring sessions. His baby fat was replaced by pure muscle, his grip strength now something fierce, his feet light and quick, like a champion boxer.

The new Gable Steveson, the one we've all watched over the last year, first appeared at the 2019 world team trials. He beat Nick Nevills, Dom Bradley, Anthony Nelson and Adam Coon twice by a combined 43-8. He advanced to Final X at Rutgers, where he wrestled Nick Gwiazdowski for a spot on the U.S. men's freestyle world team.

Gwiazdowski swept Steveson, winning both bouts on criteria, 4-4, 3-3. But Steveson showed glimpses of the wrestler he was becoming - quicker, stronger, smarter, with faster feet and powerful, explosive motion. He set up shots and wrestled through positions. His persona emerged, applauding Gwiz after he scrambled out of an ankle-pick.

"As you get older, and more knowledgeable and more experienced," Gwiazdowski said afterward, "you learn there are different ways to become a master at this sport."

He was talking about himself, but he could've just as easily been talking about Gable Steveson.

By then, Steveson had fallen in love with the process of hard work. He realized all of his previous accomplishments, while great, were just small peeks into what he could truly become. History reserves a spot only for those willing to chase it, so he made an internal decision to seek the best version of himself, on and off the mat, because he knew those heights meant wrestling success.

Fast-forward a year, November 2020, at the RTC Cup. Steveson went for a singular purpose, a rematch with Gwiazdowski. He got his wish and won, 4-1. More than that, it was confirmation to Steveson that his new process worked. Beating a two-time world bronze medalist was a mental hurdle he felt he needed to clear.

"You show up to wrestle the best," Steveson said afterward. "I showed that I can compete with him, that he's not on an island by himself. I've been working, man, on my mentality, my strength, the person I've become - I love the game, I love the hustle.

"All love for Gwiz, but the young dog is here to step up to the plate, and this was a big stepping stone."

Three months later, Steveson won an NCAA championship. Two weeks after, he swept Gwiazdowski in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials, 10-0 and 10-4. It was legitimately frightening to watch him up close and in-person because of how quickly he moved and how efficiently he attacked.

But one thing became abundantly clear to everybody watching during those two days in Texas. He not only had the talent and necessary tools needed to win an Olympic gold medal, but he had the knowledge and belief that he would, too.

"To be the best, you have to beat the best," Steveson said that weekend. "Last time, it was just about getting the win. This time, I wanted to make a statement."

Forty-nine years after Dan Gable won Olympic gold in Munich, Gable Dan did the same in Tokyo. He nearly did it the same way, too. Gable went 6-0 and didn't allow a point. Steveson won his first three matches by a combined 23-0, punctuated by his 8-0 win over Turkey's Taha Akgul, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist, in the quarterfinals.

"He's one of the best wrestlers I've seen for someone his size," said David Taylor, himself an Olympic gold medalist this week in dramatic fashion, at 86 kilograms. "We've all thought it, and now the world is seeing it."

Against Petriashvili, the three-time reigning world champion, Steveson looked like he might roll again. He led 1-0 after a shot-clock point, then scored a takedown out of a snatch-single. A push-out - that maybe should've probably been a 4-point throw on the edge - made it 4-0 at the break.

But Petriashvili is a wily 27-year-old veteran, a 2016 Olympic bronze-medalist and now seven-time total Senior-level world and Olympic medalist. His rally began with a crotch-lift exposure off of Steveson's shot, making it 5-2. Then he scored his own takedown, which led to two gut-wrenches and an 8-5 lead with 49 seconds left.

Back they went to the center of the mat. They tied up, Steveson trying to set up a shot on the left side, but Petriashvili hand fought it away. Now 39 seconds left. Steveson lowers his level and pops back up, but Petriashvili stays low and dives at Steveson's left ankle. He had no intention of finishing.

The whistle blew. There were 24 seconds left.

Restart, and Petriashvili dove in for another shot, again with no intention of finishing. He clamps hard and kills time. Steveson tries to break his grip, but can't. He looks to his corner, where Eggum sits back down and adjusts his mask.

There were 13 seconds left.

Steveson lined up for the restart. All the growth and maturity from the last two years led him to this moment. The commitment he made to himself reminded him of why he loved wrestling in the first place, why he burned so badly to be here, on the brink of Olympic glory, and how he was determined to do everything to try and win in the time he had left.

The whistle blew. Petriashvili shot in, and Steveson ran behind, takedown. Back up, a whistle, a shot, underhook, another shot, circle, circle, circle … two, takedown. Horn.

How did Gable Steveson do that?

"I gave him a quick outside step," Steveson said, "and he bit it a little bit and after that, he went down, I circled, I kept circling, and the rest is history."

History reserves a spot only for those willing to give chase. Gable Steveson chased it, emphatically, dramatically and, ultimately, successfully, taking an 8-5 deficit and turning it into an all-time sports moment in just 13 seconds. His spot is reserved, an Olympic champion, now and forever.


Login or Register to post a comment

ban basketball (1) about 3 months ago
JBaranik (1) about 2 months ago
Excellent writing by Cody Goodwin on Gable Steveson! The World needs to know this story, not just wrestling fans. Get Gable an Agent Quick!