Gable Steveson was all smiles ahead of the Gophers' wrestling team's dual against Ohio State on Sunday. Sitting in the stands an hour before the dual, he posed for photos as young fans jumped at the opportunity to get a picture with the top-ranked heavyweight.
While the Gophers would go on to lose the dual 22-13, Steveson shined. Within 10 seconds of the first period, he landed a takedown and would eventually earn a 13-2 major decision to stay undefeated on the season. His victory momentarily put the Gophers back within reach of a dual victory against a loaded Ohio State team.
In his own words, "the atmosphere hasn't left" inside Maturi Pavilion. It's been just over a month since Steveson's return to the mat and the fan atmosphere inside the Pav, after a less-than-ideal start to the 2019-20 campaign, remains strong. A suspension had sidelined Steveson following his June arrest on suspicion of criminal sexual assault. On Dec. 20, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced there would be no charges in the investigation. Steveson was immediately reinstated.
Since his return, Steveson has only built on the success from his impressive freshman season. Undefeated in his sophomore campaign, he's off to a 7-0 start, two wins coming from pins. He's currently ranked as the No. 1 heavyweight in the nation and his collegiate success is only the beginning. He's also prepping for the Olympic trials in April.
The Olympic trials consist of a two-part process. The first determines who wrestles the Team USA competitor from the latest World Championships, and the second part is a best of three-match with that representative. If Steveson survives both, he'll represent Team USA in the 2020 Olympic Games.
"I think I got a real good shot to be on the team, and it's just a matter of time now until I get to show what I'm capable of," he said.
After he qualified for the Olympic trials, Steveson had the opportunity to take an Olympic redshirt. But with the NCAA Championships taking place in Minneapolis, he declined. He believes the grind of his Gophers' season will only help him prepare for April's trials.
"I think it helps real well because I can give myself a chance to wrestle different body styles. The Olympic trials is full of guys that are 10 years older than me, 13, 12 years older than me," he said. "Some guys are just grown men and I think wrestling season gives me a feel on everybody who's here and just making sure I'm okay in all spots."
While the Olympic trials are on the horizon for the sophomore heavyweight, that isn't his primary focus. He's more concerned with the NCAA Championships in March. They take place at U.S. Bank Stadium, just over the river from the Pav.
"I think it was a big deal to compete for a national championship in Minneapolis, by one of my home cities," Steveson said. "Now the main goal is focused on winning a national championship in March in U.S. Bank."
If the Gophers want to win a national championship in March, they'll need the help of the nation's top-ranked heavyweight. His coaches and teammates are glad to have him back on the mat.
"It makes our team feel whole again," said redshirt senior Devin Skatzka. "It's always nice having Gable wrap up the lineup, he's ranked No. 1 in the country. He's always getting bonus points and winning big ranked matches for us, gives us a little extra confidence. Fans come down for Gable."
After dropping the last two duals, there is certainly progress to be made as the Gophers look towards a national championship in their city. With five conference duals and the Big Ten Championships remaining, they'll have plenty of time to get ready for March.
"There's always improvements in each weight class, especially me. We can always improve," Steveson said. "Our main goal is to win a national championship in March. Our main goal is not to win a Sunday night dual."