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Domination is the goal for Minnesota’s Gable Steveson at the 2021 NCAA Tournament

by Mike Willis, USA Wrestling

Feature photo courtesy of Sam Janicki.

Gable Steveson enters next week’s NCAA Tournament in St. Louis, Mo. as one of the biggest favorites to bring home a NCAA title. The Minnesota junior has bulldozed his way through the heavyweight field this season, compiling a 12-0 record with six technical fall victories, three pins, two major decisions and one injury default. For Steveson, winning isn’t enough. This season, he is out to assert his dominance over the competition.

“I think this year’s about proving that there’s a large gap between me and the rest of the field. I think overall just my preparation going into this was to score as many points as possible and put bonus points on the board, and I think that’s what is separating me right now from the pack,” Steveson stated in yesterday’s NCAA Pre-Championships Zoom press conference.

Steveson drove his point home in convincing fashion in the Big Ten Championship final with a 12-4 major decision over Michigan’s Mason Parris, a 2019 Junior World champion, and the No. 2 seed going into the NCAA Tournament. The duo also met in the 2020 Big Ten finals, which resulted in Steveson walking away with an 8-6 decision.

“I think my performance this year was a lot better than last year. Just the preparation, determination and knowing I can go out there and score a lot of points,” Steveson said while reflecting on the match.

Some might be surprised to know that one of the wrestlers that drives Steveson to dominate isn’t a fellow heavyweight, but rather Iowa’s Spencer Lee, a two-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds. Lee, the 2020 Dan Hodge Trophy winner, is 7-0 this season with five pins and two technical falls. His ability to inflict his will on his opponents is something that Steveson admires.

“I love watching Spencer Lee. The way he wrestles and how he takes care of his business on the mat is phenomenal. He has separated himself so deeply in the 125 pound field that there is literally no other person that can compete with him overall, and everyone believes it too. I wanted to take what he has done and put it into the heavyweight division and make sure that people can understand that I can do the same thing, and create that separation myself,” he stated.

While Gable’s immediate focus is on the NCAA Tournament, he also has his sights set on an even bigger goal, winning the Olympic Team Trials and representing Team USA at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The turnaround between the tournaments is quick, the NCAA Championships take place March 18-20, while the Olympic Team Trials are April 4 and 5. Steveson isn’t concerned. In fact, he’s looking forward to facing some college opponents before competing against the field at the Olympic Team Trials.

“I think it’s very helpful for me to have these matches at the NCAA Tournament, especially going into the Olympic Trials with a different field and a lot of older guys that are more mature than me,” he said.

“The turnaround for that is just get home, relax for a day, but I’ve got to get right back to it and go down to Texas to try to win the Olympic Trial spot too. So it’s a busy little schedule, but I’m ready for it.”

Steveson, a two-time Cadet and 2017 Junior World champion, is currently No. 2 on the Men’s Freestyle National Team at 125 kg. Prior to the NCAA season, he earned a big win over two-time World bronze medalist Nick Gwiazdowski, 4-1, at the RTC Cup in December. Gwiazdowski is currently the No. 1 wrestler at 125 kg for the U.S. and bested Steveson two matches to none to earn the World Team spot at Final X in 2019.

“I gained a lot of confidence from beating Gwiz (Gwiazdowski). I know he’s been a top heavyweight for a while, and I’ve trained with Gwiz since I was really young, like 16 years old. To be able actually compete with him and beat him in a wrestling match was actually a great confidence builder for me and shows that I can compete at a high level with these guys, especially on the World Team too,” Steveson said.

However, Steveson isn’t looking passed the NCAA Tournament. After a third-place finish as a true freshman in 2019, he missed the opportunity to cap off a perfect regular season with an NCAA title last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The significance of being crowned a National champion cannot be understated.

“Being able to win this NCAA Championship means the world to me and my family,” he said.

“I think this year, we’re all grateful to go out there and compete at the NCAA tournament. We’re going to have a great time. I’m going to enjoy myself, soak it all in, and do what I need to do at the end of the day.”