Olympic wrestling star Gable Steveson: ‘Never give up because your life can change in a second’

It’s been more than a week since he conjured one of the indelible moments of the Tokyo Olympics out of nothing and the reality is still no closer to hitting home for Gable Steveson.

It’s not just that Steveson upset the odds to become America’s first heavyweight gold medalist in freestyle wrestling since 1992, defeating three-time world champion Geno Petriashvili of Georgia in the 125kg final. Dit is how the 21-year-old Minnesotan did it: trailing by three points with only 10 seconds remaining, then scoring a pair of late takedowns, the second as time expired, to dramatically turn an 8-5 deficit into an 10-8 victory that will go down in Olympic wrestling lore.

“You’re probably going to ask about how I pulled it off in 13 seconds, and I really can’t tell you how I did it,” a positively upbeat Steveson told the Guardian last week. “It was just pure heart and pure determination, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s something crazy. The best advice I could give anybody after (Tokyo) is to never give up, because your life can change in a second.”

​​Steveson’s star-making run to the gold medal at the Makuhari Messe convention hall, which included the 8-0 disassembly of 2016 Olympic champion Taha Akgül of Turkey in the quarter-finals, came in only his second senior-level international tournament. And his last-second win in the final was the cherry on top for a USA Wrestling team that brought home a total of nine Olympic medals from Japan (three gold, two silver, four bronze) – the most of any non-host nation in history – after only 11 medals combined at the 2008, 2012 en 2016 Games.

Steveson touched down at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport last week to a hero’s welcome, personally making sure any of the hundreds of well-wishers and fans who came in hope of getting an autograph or a selfie went home with one. Then he drove straight to Raising Cane’s chicken restaurant in the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley where he grew up to polish down a beloved Caniac Combo: six chicken fingers with extra sauce, crinkle-cut fries and Texas toast, hold the coleslaw.

“People look at me as an inspiration to them now,” Steveson said. “They’re looking at me like the American hero that helped the USA get a gold medal and brought pride back to my state of Minnesota and to the University of Minnesota, ook. It’s definitely a life-changing experience and I’m going to grasp it all, and then do good with it.”

His success on the mat was seemingly preordained. Born into a family of wrestlers, Steveson was named after Dan Gable, the two-time national champion wrestler from Iowa State who captured gold in the 68kg category at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He showed promise from a young age, accumulating the tricks of the trade over hours upon hours of training with his brothers: “I was always younger than them, so they would beat me up mostly. But it’s cool to have brothers that have done it before you, so they can teach you how to do it in a better way.”

Steveson went on to accept a scholarship to compete for the University of Minnesota among the storied NCAA wrestling programs of the Big Ten Conference, where the bigger home meets routinely draw crowds of 10,000 or more. There he blended the raw strength of a traditional heavyweight with a quickness and agility uncommon for his 6ft 1in, 260lbs frame. In Maart, he capped an undefeated junior season for the Golden Gophers by following in his mentor Brock Lesnar’s footsteps and winning an NCAA championship at heavyweight, punctuating the victory with the same backflip he’d do in Tokyo.

“I just have no clue where it came from,” Steveson when asked about his sense of showmanship. “I’ve always been overly confident in some way. I’ve just always had that charisma to go out there and put on a show. Soos, why would I go to a big tournament and millions of people are watching me and I’m going to give half effort? I’m always going to give 100%. I’m going to go out there and give you emotion and give you a backflip. People remember that. People remember a show. People are going to remember a winner. And that’s what I wanted to be.”

“There’s a lot of people I admire, but I like The Rock. He’s done everything. Everybody knows The Rock, jy weet? He’s done what I want to do. I want to be in the movies just like him. I want to be that figure that people look up to and say, ‘Ag, he’s an amazing person. We want to go watch him do his thing.’ That’s what I want to be, too.”

Steveson has returned to Apple Valley to no shortage of opportunities. Though he formally turned down an automatic bid to compete at the forthcoming world championships in Norway, he has left open the door to defend his Olympic title at Paris 2024. He says he’s been approached by more than one NFL team with tryout invitations despite never having played a down of football. He’s also made inroads with World Wrestling Entertainment – his brother, Bobby, is already a part of the company’s talent developmental pipeline at its Orlando performance center – and is due to appear at WWE’s SummerSlam pay-per-view show on Saturday in Las Vegas. There’s also the mixed martial arts circuit, where both the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator have shown interest.

“All the paths are very attractive to me,” Steveson said. “I’m going to think about all my options. Another gold medal would add to the legacy I’ve already brought about. I’ve been approached by UFC, I’ve been approached by WWE. I’ve been approached by a few NFL teams, ook. It’s crazy to see these doors open and I’ll make the best decision. Do I know what I’m going to do now? I have no clue.”

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