When Gable Steveson took to the mat during the high school wrestling season, a dominant performance usually followed. After all, the Apple Valley senior heavyweight stretched his winning streak to 173 matches and won his fourth consecutive Class 3A championship by pinning his four state tournament opponents in a combined 2 minutes, 11 seconds.
It was clear the Gophers-bound Steveson was ready to face a higher level of competition. And on Friday and Saturday, he’ll get that challenge in the Marine Corps U.S. Open wrestling championships in Las Vegas.
Steveson, 17, is moving up to the senior freestyle division — the sport’s highest — and will compete at 125 kilograms (275.5 pounds), with an opportunity to advance to the World Team Trials from May 18-20 in Rochester, Minn., if he finishes in the top seven.
Will he have jitters, nerves? Not likely. Steveson will be playing with house money in Vegas.
“I’m just going to go out there and let it fly. I’m not holding back,” he said. “I’m just a young kid in the bracket with nothing to lose.”
This will be Steveson’s debut at the senior level — by age, he’s still eligible to wrestle in the junior division — and the field in his weight class is impressive. The top three pre-seeds announced Monday are Dom Bradley, 29, a two-time U.S. Open champ; Zach Rey, 29, a runner-up at the Olympic team trials in 2016; and Jake Varner, 32, an Olympic gold medalist in 2012. Steveson was pre-seeded fifth, just ahead of Minnesota Storm club teammate Tony Nelson, 27, a two-time NCAA champion for the Gophers.
“For him to be at the age he is — and he’s wrestling at the heavyweight division — it’s really tough,” said Gophers head assistant coach Luke Becker, who works with Steveson during training with the Storm. “Most of the time, it takes guys to really develop into men before they can compete [at that level]. He’s done a great job and is one of the best out there right now.”
Added Josh Barlage, Steveson’s coach at Apple Valley: “It tells us what we’ve already known — how good he is. For him to be throwing his hat in the ring against those caliber of wrestlers is great.”
Elevating his game
Steveson, who won his final two prep state championships by pinning his opponents in 11 and 17 seconds in the finals, turned his focus to the U.S. Open after the high school season ended in early March. He regularly practices with Nelson and Hayden Zillmer, a former North Dakota State All-America who’s ranked No. 2 by Team USA at 98 kg in Greco-Roman wrestling.
“It’s been pretty seamless,” Becker said of Steveson’s transition. “He really doesn’t get pushed in the high school [wrestling] rooms; there’s nobody who can make him wrestle. We have a really good room. … That’s really helped him elevate his game.”
Steveson has been dominant on the international stage, too, winning titles in the World Junior Championship last summer and the World Cadet Championships in 2015 and 2016. He won a U.S. Open junior title last year and sees that experience as beneficial.
“It’s prepared me well,” he said. “It’s helped me know what to expect this weekend.”
What Steveson’s opponents can expect this weekend is a quick, aggressive and active wrestler who isn’t afraid to push the pace.
“Sometimes, heavyweights can get slowed down a bit, and it’s more of a match of positioning,” Becker said. “But he has great attacks, he likes to create scrambles, he likes to be physical with his hands. He just creates a lot of scoring opportunities for himself.”
If the seeds in the heavyweight class hold, Steveson would have a quarterfinal match against No. 4-seeded Adam Coon, the Michigan heavyweight who just completed his senior season with an NCAA runner-up finish. Earlier this season, the 6-5 Coon handed Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist and three-time NCAA champion, his first collegiate loss since 2015.
“I’ve been watching these guys since I was real young. To enter a tournament that they’re in is exciting,” Steveson said. “Jake Varner, I watched him win the Olympic championship in 2012, and for him to enter this is really cool to me.”
Barlage doesn’t expect Steveson to be awed by such a big stage.
“I don’t know that there’s anybody that can stop what he does when he’s at his absolute best,” he said. “It’s gonna be a test. … Obviously, he’s not favored when you look by seeds, but he’s in the conversation. That’s pretty impressive in itself that we’re talking about a 17-year-old kid here.”
Becker sees a youngster brimming with confidence as he takes his career to the next level. Steveson isn’t there just for the experience.
“He’s going in to win it, there’s no doubt about it. That’s his goal,” Becker said. “He’s had the opportunities at national team camps and even in our room to wrestle these guys who are at the top level, and he’s done really well with them. He believes, and if he goes out and wrestles the way he’s capable, he can do well against these guys.
“… He really is the real deal.”