Minnesota wrestler, recognized nationally, nears state prep record
APPLE VALLEY, Minn.—Gable Steveson has won 167 consecutive matches, and another victory lap at the high school wrestling state tournament would leave the Apple Valley star with the highest winning percentage in prep history before he takes his heavyweight prowess to the University of Minnesota.
Some clashes were memorable, like his viral takedown of Daniel Kerkvliet, who was ranked No. 2 in his weight class nationally, during a Feb. 2 dual meet with Simley. Most are a blur. But Steveson has never forgotten his last high school loss to Justin Cumberbatch of Alexandria, Minn., in the 2014 state tournament final.
He was ranked No. 1 in the state, Cumberbatch No. 2. Steveson recalled granular details of that pivotal moment at Xcel Energy Center when teammate Jamal Tidwell lit a competitive fire in him that burns intensely.
"I remember sitting down on the mat in the back of Xcel and was like, 'whatever,' " Steveson recalled. "Tid came up to me and said, 'You just lost!' I was like, 'Yeah, I noticed.' I also told him it's not going to happen again — ever. It hasn't happened again."
Steveson went 39-3 that season as an eighth-grader exclusively wrestling upperclassmen. Add it all up and he has won 206 of his 209 high school matches. He has pinned 44 of his 46 opponents this season.
All that remains is defining his national and mythical legacy.
"I don't know how he wouldn't be considered the greatest of all time, someone of that magnitude," said Apple Valley coach Joshua Barlage. "He's No. 1-ranked pound-for-pound nationally and arguably the greatest high school wrestler ever — any weight class, any state. How can you get better than this kid?"
Steveson's résumé flows with national and international accolades:
•Winner of the 2016 Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award;
• Three Minnesota State High School championships;
• Led Apple Valley to five straight state team titles;
• Three-time junior world champion (once as a junior, twice as a cadet);
• No. 1 heavyweight recruit of 2017.
Steveson has surpassed the accomplishments and expectations of his mentor and former Apple Valley star, Mark Hall.
"He's the man, there's no other way around it," said Hall, an 2017 NCAA champion as a freshman at Penn State wrestler and Steveson's former teammate. "Not only is he the man, but he's just a kid. I don't think he's 18 years old yet. Knowing that he's accomplished so much at such a young age is special. You don't see athletes like him anywhere. Maybe Rob Gronkowski or J.J. Watt. That's how amazing he is."
Apple Valley football coaches tried hard to get Steveson to play; strong hands and quick feet on his 6-foot, 285-pound frame would make him a terrorizing pass rusher. But Steveson stayed true to his roots and never left the mat.
"I don't think he's the typical heavyweight that goes out there to tie you up, move slow and have a low-scoring match," said Barlage. "He breaks the mold. He's going to go out and attack your legs. Sprinkle in the factor how big, strong and quick — (opponents) aren't used to wrestling anyone with that skill set."
Apple Valley did not qualify for the state team tournament, so Steveson's curtain call starts Friday morning against Minnetonka heavyweight James Johnson in the first round of the individual Class 3A tournament.
"Fifth state finals, it's been a long journey," Steveson said last week. "It's going to be a bittersweet ending. Just my last couple of weeks I was trying to make the most of it. I'm going to soak it all in. Normally I don't, but I'm just going to make sure that I get that feeling one last time."
Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State recruited Steveson, but his heart remained in Minnesota, where next fall the incoming freshman will join older brother, Bobby, who will be a junior for the Gophers.
"We planned this a long time ago," Gable said. "When he committed, I was going to go there, too. A lot of people were coming after me, but I just had to stay home."
Steveson was born to be a wrestler — his mother named him after legendary Iowa State wrestler and Iowa coach Dan Gable — and has spent the past five years shaping his destiny as one of the country's top international competitors.
He helped the United States win its first junior team title at the 2017 world championships in Finland, earning an individual gold medal along the way, and is a lock for the junior world team that will compete in September in Slovakia.
But Steveson is hunting bigger game.
Senior world team trials are in June at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., featuring the country's best Olympic-caliber freestyle wrestlers. Steveson has the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in his sights and is not shy about targeting it.
"I'm ready. I just want it. That's mine," he said.
If winning sows confidence, dominance breeds bravado. Steveson has that in abundance. When someone this talented wants something badly enough, they tend to get it.
"He's not OK with not getting his hand raised," said Barlage. "Put him against college kids, the best in world, his expectation is same, and that is to win. It's a different mindset than your typical high school wrestler, and then his skills are just incredible."
Before the sectional tournament last week at Shakopee High School, Steveson was entertaining a grade-schooler who tailed him from the weigh-in to the locker room. The boy was lapping up the attention.
It was not that long ago when Steveson was chasing down Iowa star wrestlers Brett Metcalfe and Matt McDonough for pictures and autographs.
"Someday, one of those kids will be in my shoes, so hopefully he treats the kids like I do," said Steveson.
Someday one of those kids might be chasing Steveson's records, too.
"Yeah ... we'll see," he said.