TOKYO — If you don't want any spoilers before the Olympic wrestling tournament, stop reading here. Because Gable Steveson is pretty sure he knows how the freestyle heavyweight class is going to play out. And he isn't shy about revealing it.
He will get on a bus Thursday morning. Head to Makuhari Messe Hall on the eastern edge of Tokyo.Wrestle one enormous guy, then another one. Do the same thing Friday, until someone presents him with a gold medal.
"I'm just going to show up and do my job," Steveson said. "On August 6, I should be standing on top of that podium with a medal around my neck."
Where others dream about their Olympic moment, Steveson has been planning for his, with a confidence befitting a man named after an Olympic champion. The Gophers heavyweight from Apple Valley loves nothing more than to put on a show. At the Tokyo Games, he will perform on a stage as big as his ambition, before a global TV audience.
As the saying goes, it's not bragging if you can back it up. Steveson, 21, has been backing it up his entire life, from his four state high school titles at Apple Valley to last spring's NCAA championship. Not to mention his final tuneup for the Olympics, when he outscored opponents 50-0 at the Senior Pan American Championships to win his first senior-level international tournament.
He will have to conquer some very accomplished men to get the gold. Geno Petriashvili of Georgia, the top seed in the field of 16, has won the past three world heavyweight titles. No. 3 seed Taha Akgul of Turkey is the reigning Olympic gold medalist and a two-time world champ. Those two have owned the weight class since 2014, and they will be on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning Steveson could have to defeat both to earn the Olympic title.
He isn't the only one who believes he can do it. Brandon Paulson, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist from Anoka, thinks Steveson was made for this moment.
"Gable loves the spotlight," Paulson said. "He's not going to be scared of how big this is. He's not going to panic.
"I think he's the best wrestler in the world. Now it's just time to go out and prove it."
Attention to details
Named for 1972 Olympic champion Dan Gable, Steveson has moved steadily toward his own chance for gold. His international career has progressed on a parallel track with his high school and college success.
As a teen, he won two cadet world championships and a junior world championship. He embraced the hype that surrounded his arrival at the U, then proved it was well earned. Steveson is 67-2 with the Gophers and is currently on a 34-match win streak, which includes the 2021 Big Ten and NCAA titles.
Gophers coach Brandon Eggum, who is with Steveson in Tokyo, watched him become a more mature wrestler this year. Steveson has always worked with older training partners such as former Gopher Tony Nelson, who helped him build strength and tactical expertise. Eggum said Steveson now tending to details such as nutrition and sleep as he seeks any edge he can get.
"You can see the progress in his size and strength this year," Eggum said. "There's a lot of maturity in his mind, too, in the way he attacks on the mat, the way he stays focused.
"There are guys that can win matches before they even step out on the mat. Gable knows he's going to do the best he can to win in every way, physical and mental. He's put together all those pieces."
At the Olympic trials in April, Steveson showed he could dominate at a level beyond college wrestling. He drained all the drama out of a highly anticipated matchup against No. 1 seed Nick Gwiazdowski, routing the two-time world medalist to claim the Olympic berth. Steveson outscored his trials opponents 42-4, sweeping the best-of-three series against Gwiazdowski 10-0 and 10-4.
While Steveson is known as a dynamic, aggressive wrestler, Paulson said he is also very calculated. He loves to rack up points but doesn't take unnecessary risks on the mat.
"People talk about what a great athlete he is," Paulson said. "But his technique is awesome. He doesn't take bad shots, and he doesn't get out of position. He's really got it all: the strength, the conditioning, the technique, the confidence in himself."
Thriving on the hype
In addition to Petriashvili and Akgul, the Olympic freestyle heavyweight bracket includes two-time world medalist Zhiwei Deng of China and another heralded 21-year-old, Amir Hossein Zare of Iran. With only one senior-level international tournament to his credit, Steveson has little experience with the style of wrestling he will see from some Olympic competitors.
That works both ways, Paulson said. "They haven't wrestled a guy like Gable, either," he said. "I think he will exert his own will on his opponents, and if he does that, he'll do well."
Bill Zadick, coach of the U.S. Olympic men's freestyle team, called Steveson a "tremendous athlete" who should thrive in an Olympic atmosphere that not everyone can handle.
"He's no stranger to elite-level competition," Zadick said. "He likes the attention. He likes the hype. I think that's only going to enhance his performance."
Steveson could become the first Gophers wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal. Paulson's silver in Greco-Roman is the best finish among the 10 former Gophers who have competed at the Summer Games.
After the Olympic trials, Steveson said "there is no other option" but gold in Tokyo. The closer he gets, the more determined he is to write the ending he wants.
"I've prepared to wrestle on the biggest stage of my life every day," Steveson said. "This is really not new.
"The guys I'm going to wrestle, they're really good. World champs. Olympic champs. But it's the Olympic Games. Everybody's coming here to make a name for themselves. I know everything's going to pay off for me."