Two weeks ago, when Gable Steveson won his first NCAA championship, he spent little time celebrating. The Gophers wrestler had a bigger job ahead: trying to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Steveson moved a step closer to that dream Friday, breezing into the freestyle heavyweight finals at the Olympic wrestling trials in Fort Worth, Tex. The Gophers junior from Apple Valley scored a pair of technical falls in Friday's challenge round, with 11-0 victories over Tanner Hall and fellow Minnesotan Greg Kerkvliet. He will meet Nick Gwiazdowski, a two-time world championships bronze medalist, in a best-of-three finals series Saturday.
Five Minnesotans made it to Friday night's semifinals at Dickies Arena, but Steveson was the only one to move on. The state's long streak of Greco-Roman Olympians ended after semifinal losses by Pat Smith at 77 kg and Leslie Fuenffinger at 60 kg. At least one Minnesotan had made the U.S. Olympic team in Greco-Roman in every Summer Games since 1968.
Smith, a Chaska native and the No. 3 seed, fell 5-3 to No. 10 seed Jesse Porter. Fuenffinger, a two-time NCAA champion for Augsburg, dropped a 3-0 decision to Ryan Mango. The Hibbing native was the top seed at his weight.
Hayden Zillmer of Crosby reached the semifinals in the men's freestyle 97-kilogram class, but the No. 2 seed lost a 2-2 decision on criteria to Mike Macchiavello. Smith, Kerkvliet, Zillmer and Fuenffinger will wrestle in the consolation bracket Saturday. The winners of each weight in the consolations will join the two finalists on the U.S. senior national team.
According to wrestling historian Jason Bryant, no Minnesotan has made the U.S. Olympic team in men's freestyle wrestling since at least 1952. Steveson, who beat Gwiazdowski 4-1 at the RTC Cup last December, predicted "a brawl'' in the rematch.
"I see high scoring matches,'' said Steveson, who went 17-0 for the Gophers this winter to run his college record to 67-2. "We're going to let it go for the crowd. It's going to be six minutes of us straight going at it, and may the best man come out on top.''
The first day of the trials featured plenty of drama, with one of the biggest surprises happening before the matches started. Two-time world champion J'Den Cox, who was to wrestle in the 97 kg men's freestyle class, was not allowed to compete. According to a statement from USA Wrestling, Cox—who had an automatic berth in the semifinals--failed to make weight.
NBC Sports reported that Cox filed an appeal, but no additional information was provided Friday.
Steveson's path to the finals was decidedly undramatic. His quarterfinal bout against Hall lasted only one minute, 59 seconds, and he was nearly as dominant against Kerkvliet, a former Simley High School star now wrestling for Penn State. Steveson, who beat Kerkvliet in the NCAA quarterfinals, rolled to a 7-0 lead after the first period and added four more points in the second.
"I'm feeling good,'' Steveson said. "It's one match at a time. I'm going to put on the best show I can for everyone watching and hopefully come out with two wins (Saturday).''
Gwiazdowski, 28, won two NCAA championships at North Carolina State. The No. 1 seed at the trials, he is the top-ranked men's freestyle heavyweight in the U.S.
He beat Steveson in their first two matches, in a best-of-three series in 2019 that put Gwiazdowski on the U.S. team for the world championships. Gwiazdowski won both on criteria, 4-4 and 3-3. In December, Steveson turned the tables at the RTC Cup, in a decision that gave him a major shot of confidence heading into the college season.
"He's a great competitor, a good wrestler,'' Gwiazdowski said. "He beat me in December, but I've made adjustments since then, and I've beaten him before.
"I've tightened up some things in my wrestling. I'm excited for it.''
Smith, a former Gopher, faced an opponent on a hot streak. Porter claimed the final spot in the trials field, making a big impression with a second-place finish at last weekend's Last Chance Qualifier.
Porter upset second-seeded RaVaughn Perkins 10-0 to reach the semifinals, while Smith had a tough 2-1 win over No. 6 seed Mason Manville. In the semifinal, Smith jumped to a quick 3-0 lead, but Porter rallied for the victory.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.