Olympic wrestling gold medalist Gable Steveson returned for a celebration Thursday to the Apple Valley High School gym where just three years ago he would have been sitting among the school's 1,600 students.
Steveson, 21, spent the last two years wrestling for the University of Minnesota before becoming a bona fide global sports star in August with a come-from-behind victory in the final second of the gold medal match in Tokyo.
"Life's been crazy for me," Steveson said in brief remarks at a 15-minute "welcome home" rally. "Never give up on your dreams. Your life can change in a second just like mine did. ... Happy Gable Steveson Day!"
Since winning the gold, Steveson gets recognized and stopped everywhere he goes. He's been weighing numerous lucrative opportunities, ranging from the NFL and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to staying at the U and wrestling for the Gophers, where he can now profit from his own name, image and likeness under recent NCAA rule changes.
In an interview, Steveson said he's "90 percent" decided on his next step and will make an announcement in a week or two. But Thursday was all about soaking up the hometown love in his old gym among people who knew him before the rest of the world did.
Mayor Clint Hooppaw proclaimed "Gable Steveson Day" in Apple Valley, a pep band played and selfie-seeking students and many of his former teachers wore T-shirts that read "Gable. Tokyo 2021. Enough said!"
Hooppaw called Steveson an inspiration "for us all" and praised his resilience and perseverance.
"He didn't give up," the mayor said. "He was passionate about it and gave his all to the very end."
With Apple Valley's numerous state championship banners hanging from the gym rafters, Steveson's former coach Josh Barlage recounted how the wrestling team was tied in two of the Eagles' state championships before Steveson took to the mat for the final match and brought home both victories.
Varsity cheerleader Elle Yeager, a freshman, didn't know Steveson, but said it was an inspiration to walk the same hallways. Students were excited for his return, she said: "A lot of people were talking about him all day."
Robel Teferi, a senior who plays football, wrestles and runs track, said Steveson remained close to some of the wrestlers on the team and was part of a high-achieving era at Apple Valley High that included basketball stars Tyus and Tre Jones.
Teferi said it was inspiring to see Steveson succeed on such a grand stage. "It's amazing that someone from Apple Valley is this famous," he said.
After the rally, senior Jacob McDermott, who said he dreams of being a wrestler, had a one-on-one conversation with Steveson and came away with a big smile.
"He said, 'Never give up and follow my dreams,' " McDermott said.
The teachers waited for their own reunion until Steveson was done talking to students. Known for his intimidating bravado on the mat, Steveson was just a big grinning kid as his former teachers playfully teased him.
"He was a fun kid to have in class," French teacher Miranda Godfread said.
She proudly noted that Steveson, who took three years of French, has a tattoo on the inside of his right wrist that reads "Je suis le meilleur" — "I am the greatest."
Steveson signed T-shirts, a stack of photos and scrawled his cellphone number for the teachers as they planned another reunion over pizza and brownies, joking about who would pay for the pizza.
Michelle Lundquist, who taught Steveson for two years in advanced algebra, said the teachers had the T-shirts made at the school as a boost for themselves while trying to stay upbeat this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic. "He is such a good kid," she said.
Steveson's parents, Laticia and Robert Steveson, accompanied their son and sat beside him on the stage. Afterward, Robert Steveson stood off to the side and admitted to feeling emotional about being back in the gym with his son.
"Good thing I'm wearing a mask," he said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747