The chant started quickly, almost before Gable Steveson had fully absorbed what had happened. He strolled around the mat at Dickies Arena, soaking in the feeling of winning an Olympic berth, when the crowd began calling for him to do his now-famous backflip.
The Gophers junior gladly gave the people what they asked for. "I'm an entertainer,'' he said. "But first, I win matches.''
Steveson did it all Saturday, routing heavyweight rival Nick Gwiazdowski at the Olympic wrestling trials to earn a place at this summer's Tokyo Games. The reigning NCAA champ swept their best-of-three championship series in Fort Worth, Texas, winning the first match in a 10-0 technical fall and the second in a 10-4 decision. At age 20, Steveson became the 11th Gophers wrestler to make an Olympic team and the first in men's freestyle.
In the past 28 days, Steveson, of Apple Valley, captured a second Big Ten title, a first NCAA championship and the Olympic spot he has long coveted. At the trials, he outscored his opponents 42-4 and won three of four matches by technical fall.
His championship series against Gwiazdowski, the top U.S. freestyle heavyweight for the past few years, was expected to be tightly contested. Steveson balanced his usual dynamic offense with superb defense, becoming the first of 18 wrestlers to win Olympic trials titles Saturday in men's freestyle, women's freestyle and Greco-Roman.
"To go out and compete on this big stage and put my heart out there, and show my skill, was the No.1 thing to me,'' said Steveson, the first Gophers wrestler to earn an Olympic berth since Jake Deitchler in 2008. "This weekend, I showed I'm the best.
"I feel great. For me to be here is just, wow. Tokyo, we're coming.''
In another highly anticipated match Saturday, Kyle Dake swept Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion Jordan Burroughs 3-0 and 3-2 to earn the Olympic berth in the men's freestyle 74-kilogram class. The U.S. has qualified for the Olympics in 15 of 18 weights; the trials winners in Greco-Roman 77 kg and 130 kg and men's freestyle 65 kg must compete at the final Olympic qualifier in Sofia, Bulgaria, in May to earn spots at the Tokyo Games.
Gwiazdowski, 28, won two NCAA titles at North Carolina State and is a two-time bronze medalist at the world championships. He held a 2-1 record against Steveson and said he had made adjustments since their match at the RTC Cup last December, when he lost 4-1.
Wrestling in his second major tournament in two weeks, Steveson said he felt strong mentally and physically. While some post-collegiate wrestlers have scrambled to find competition during the pandemic, Steveson wrestled 17 matches for the Gophers, building his endurance while going undefeated.
He appeared loose but locked in on Saturday. In the first period, Steveson received two warnings for passivity and was put on the clock. That forced him to score within 30 seconds to avoid giving a point to Gwiazdowski.
Steveson quickly took Gwiazdowski down for two points, then added a leg lace for two more. He got another takedown — and another two points — when Gwiazdowski took a shot to score but failed.
With a 6-0 lead after the first period, Steveson kept the pressure on. Another takedown put him up 8-0, leaving him two points away from winning by technical fall. When Gwiazdowski took another shot, Steveson grabbed his leg, then used his foot to knock Gwiazdowski down for the 10-0 victory.
"I knew he was going to take that outside shot,'' Steveson said. "I've seen it many times. The goal was to not let him get that shot, and to score as many points as I could.''
In the second match, Steveson continued to parry every move Gwiazdowski attempted in the early going. Gwiazdowski remained aggressive, and he finally scored a point on a step-out to end Steveson's run of 14 consecutive points.
After his victory, Steveson delivered a backflip worthy of an Olympic medal. Winning one in wrestling is next on his list.
"I want to go to Tokyo and get gold,'' he said. "There's no other option besides gold.''
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and interviews before and/or after the event.