The coronavirus pandemic hit high-level wrestling hard this year, with the NCAA championships at U.S. Bank Stadium wiped out, the Olympic Games in Tokyo moved to the summer of 2021 and the college season delayed.
For Gable Steveson, gone was the chance to win an NCAA heavyweight title in his backyard, and on hold was the opportunity to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Things, however, are looking up for the Gophers standout from Apple Valley as 2021 approaches. He made sure of it by seizing his latest opportunity.
On Dec. 4 in Cincinnati, Steveson posted a key victory in his young career, defeating Nick Gwiazdowski, the nation's top-ranked freestyle wrestler at 125 kilograms (275.6 pounds). Steveson used a pair of takedowns to top Gwiazdowski, a two-time world championships bronze medalist, 4-1 in the RTC Cup, a matchup of teams from regional training centers.
"My reaction was not really relief, but I felt I had it in me to do it and now was the time to do it," said Steveson, who was wrestling for the Gopher Wrestling Club. "Gwiz is a really good competitor, but I felt my time to step to the plate was next up."
The victory — the first for the 20-year-old Steveson in three meetings against Gwiazdowski, 27 — served notice that a changing of the heavyweight guard might be happening. Gwiazdowski, the NCAA heavyweight champion for North Carolina State in 2014 and '15, will be the top seed for the U.S. Olympic trials on April 9-11 in State College, Pa. Steveson is poised to dethrone him.
"We really felt strongly that this would be the result that you would see," said Gophers coach Brandon Eggum, who coached Steveson in Cleveland along with Dustin Schlatter, head coach of Gopher Wrestling Club. " … It's awesome to see Gable take ownership of that spot and make that move into the pole position."
A Steveson-Gwiazdowski rematch in the Olympic trials isn't certain because there are other strong heavyweight contenders. Still, the ascension of Steveson, who has one world junior championship and two world cadet championships, was apparent in the RTC Cup and shows he's deep in the mix for that coveted Olympic spot.
Steveson won in Cleveland by getting two takedowns on strong counters to shots by the burly Gwiazdowski.
"The toughest thing about wrestling him is just his athletic ability," Steveson said. "He's 27 years old, he's a seasoned veteran in wrestling. He knows the ins and outs."
When Steveson and Gwiazdowski first met — at the best-of-three Final X for a spot on the U.S. national team in June 2019 — the matches ended 4-4 and 3-3, but the veteran won both on the criteria of more takedowns. This time, Steveson, up about 10 pounds to 260 and as quick as ever, finished for the takedowns.
"Going through those matches and going 0-2 at the Final X was a big gain and a big boost," Steveson said. "Now, a year and a half later, I feel that I picked him apart really well and showed him that I can match levels."
Eggum saw his prized pupil grow through competition.
"Just as young as he was and still is, he's getting stronger and maturing," Eggum said. "He's understanding competing even though his 'X' factor is his love to compete. How he feels in an arena with the lights on — he thrives in those environments. He really enjoys it."
Next up for Steveson is the collegiate season, which is expected to start around Jan. 9, and the quest for an NCAA title. Then come the Olympic trials in early April.
"I'm happy with my result," Steveson said, "but I've got to go into this season and the Olympic season knowing that I've got to keep winning."