At the 2017 Junior World Championships in Tampere, Finland, Gable Steveson went to the mat as the final wrestler, knowing that if he won gold, Team USA would clinch its first title since 1984.
He wasn’t yet 18, so he required a waiver to even compete. He won and so did the United States, beating the Russians by a single point.
This week, Steveson pointed to that match as evidence of the practice he’s had focusing under public pressure. He has needed the skill since June, when he and Gophers teammate Dylan Martinez were arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. They were suspended from the team, with Steveson’s mug shot stripped across gossip sites.
He denied the allegations, and on the morning of Dec. 20, Hennepin County prosecutor Mike Freeman held a news conference to announce that no charges would be filed. Steveson was immediately reinstated by the Gophers. On Monday, he spoke extensively for the first time since June.
“I’m back. I’m healthy. I’m ready to do good for the university,” he said.
In what should have been a star turn of a sophomore season, Steveson’s image and role on the team collapsed into a black hole just as the NCAA was bringing its marquee wrestling event — the national championships — to U.S. Bank Stadium on March 19-21.
On Friday, fans will see Steveson wrestle at home publicly for the first time since the allegation. Ranked as the country’s No. 2 heavyweight, he will enter the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin, facing another national-caliber wrestler in the Badgers’ Trent Hillger.
Until recently, Steveson mostly enjoyed the benefits of fame as a crowd-pleasing favorite who soared to social media glory when he did a spontaneous back flip to celebrate his fourth high school state title.
He’s also treated fans to the Muhammad Ali shuffle — the scissor-stepping move of another graceful heavyweight. As a personal rule, Steveson said, he tries to accommodate all the selfie and autograph seekers.
“I’m still a show,” he said. “But the show is serious now. I came here to win a national championship, and we’re going to get it.”
Gophers coach Brandon Eggum has seen the difference in Steveson since last year. In his first return match last month, Steveson was noticeably stronger and brought more offensive tools to the mat, Eggum said.
“He looked as good as he ever has,” the coach added.
Throughout Steveson’s suspension, the coach said he encouraged him to focus on what he can control: his schoolwork and his training. When Steveson was reinstated the morning of Dec. 20, Eggum urged him to come to South Dakota State in Brookings for that evening’s match.
“Obviously, we were all excited for his return,” Eggum said, adding that not only does Steveson love getting on the mat, but he’s a fun, inspirational teammate.
Steveson jokes around with the guys, but he is dedicated to honing his technique and improving his strength.
“He understands he has a lot to work on and a lot to improve,” Eggum said. “That helps others understand there’s lots to work on.”
At 6-feet-1 and a solid 250 pounds, Steveson is well under the 285-pound limit for a heavyweight. He has grown his dark hair into distinctive bouncy curls that give him a playful look and that he can hide only by pulling up his hoodie.
The last half of 2019 made him more mature and cautious.
“People can make up stuff on you even though you did zero,” he said. “People want to see you fall.”
His circle of friends is tighter than ever.
“If you’re not trying to go after things and make yourself great with me, I can’t be around you,” he said.
Steveson said he’s never been a drinker and hasn’t been to a party since the arrest. He has cleaned up his diet, eliminating junk food. He’s hit the weight room harder than ever, and he feels the difference in his body and stamina.
Last year, he said he’d start to feel “sluggish” with two minutes left in his matches.
“Now I’m breezing through the seven minutes,” Steveson said.
Still dreaming big
He’s already qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials this spring and would become a legitimate medal contender in the Tokyo Games this summer. After Friday’s meet, he flies to Rome for an important international Ranking Series event.
“It’s a race to the top now,” he said.
If things go well, Steveson would like to have a career as a “face” in the WWE and possibly Ultimate Fighting like one of his idols, Conor McGregor. But he also said he doesn’t want to get his face repeatedly smashed in.
His other ideals: LeBron James, Kelly Oubre and Odell Beckham, whose outfits Steveson scrutinizes on social media. He lightens up and smiles more when he starts talking about his Nordstrom points and trips to the mall to scout the latest collections.
He likes the skateboarding brand Supreme, luxury label Off-White and Lululemon. Photography is another hobby that keeps him happy.
Steveson didn’t post on social media during his suspension. On the day he was cleared to return, he sent a single tweet: “I’m back ... Let’s get to it.”
He is 5-0 since rejoining the Gophers. He lost two matches last year after going undefeated in high school.
Eggum said Steveson wasn’t derailed by the arrest and suspension. Instead, he has maintained an ability to “manage the thoughts in his head,” which sets him apart.
Steveson will be tested Friday in a way he’s accustomed — against a competitor ranked fifth in the country.
But Eggum said one of Steveson’s strengths is that as the stakes increase and the spotlight gets brighter, he gets calmer.
“The bigger the dual, the bigger the match, the better he competes,” Eggum said.
For his comeback interview, Steveson wanted to dictate the ending, lending his advice for others living in the glare: “Watch who they talk to. Watch where they go. Watch who they befriend.”