Gophers' heavyweight champs past and present could meet at U.S. Olympic trials

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Rachel Blount, Star Tribune
·4 min read
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He wasn't interested in an autograph or a photo, or any of the other tokens a kid might want from an idol. When Gable Steveson showed up at the wrestling room after school, looking to meet Gophers heavyweight Tony Nelson, he had something much bigger in mind.

Steveson was a seventh-grader then, an Apple Valley wrestling prodigy with grand plans. He remembers thinking Nelson — the 6-4, 250-pound reigning NCAA champion — looked "just huge." But there was only one thing Steveson wanted that day: to get on the mat with the Gophers star and see how he measured up.

"Tony was the man," said Steveson, who became the Gophers' latest NCAA champion last month. "All the heavyweights looked up to him. He was one of those guys that just dominated everyone, and that's how I wanted to be."

Since that first practice bout, the two have wrestled hundreds of times, pushing each other toward their shared goal of making the U.S. Olympic team. But only one heavyweight will wrestle in men's freestyle at this summer's Tokyo Games, and the longtime training partners could find themselves grappling for the same prize at this weekend's Olympic wrestling trials in Fort Worth, Texas.

Steveson enters the trials as the No. 2 seed, two weeks after the Gophers junior won his first NCAA title. Nelson, a member of the U.S. national team, is seeded No. 5 and finished second at a major international tournament in Italy last month.

As soon as Nelson returned home — and tested negative for COVID — he hustled back to the Gophers wrestling room to get Steveson ready for the NCAA meet. Like every practice session before and since, he got as much out of it as he gave.

"To have two of the top heavyweights in the country being able to wrestle each other on a daily basis, it's going to make both of you a lot better," said Nelson, the NCAA heavyweight champion in 2012 and 2013. "It's a fun thing to have.

"If we wrestle at the trials, I think it will be a hard-fought match. Gable is an extremely talented kid, but I've been doing this a long time. I'm just excited for this opportunity, and I'm going to be ready to battle, no matter who I wrestle."

The two Minnesotans are among 17 state natives or residents competing in the two-day tournament, which will crown six champions each in men's freestyle, women's freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Nelson participated in the 2016 Olympic trials, dropping a close match in the quarterfinals, while Steveson is a trials newcomer.

Steveson arrives in Texas on a wave of hype, after a 17-0 season that made him co-winner of the Hodge Trophy as the nation's top college wrestler. Nelson is a decade older, a 30-year-old father of three still chasing his Olympic dream. They have found common ground in the wrestling room.

Wrestlers love to say "iron sharpens iron," and the two Gophers have taken that proverb to heart. Though Steveson recalled Nelson "used to whup me up all the time" when they first met, Steveson was pushing back hard by his sophomore year of high school. It's been a mutually beneficial relationship ever since.

"Being able to be in the same room with Tony was important for me," Steveson said. "The main goal for me was to not get crushed for six minutes, and the main goal for him was to crush me for six minutes. As I kept growing up, and we kept practicing, it's been an advantage for both of us."

The key, Steveson said, is that he and Nelson value improvement so much they can set their egos aside. They will have to put all their feelings on the shelf if they wrestle during this winner-take-all weekend.

Nelson and Steveson have competed in tournaments only a few times. Their complementary styles — Nelson is known for defense, while Steveson favors a bold attack — make for an intriguing potential matchup at the Olympic trials. Those hundreds of practice bouts would add a twist, too.

Both said it is especially hard to wrestle someone so familiar, an opponent whose strategies and strengths and moves they know as well as their own. "You can't really think about, 'I've wrestled this guy a thousand times,' " Nelson said. "You just have to wrestle through every situation and stick to your plan."

No matter what happens at the trials, they know they will pick up where they left off before the weekend: in the wrestling room, trying to make each other better every day.

"It's only six minutes," Steveson said. "Six minutes doesn't define me and Tony. We have nothing against each other when we go out there. We'll just wrestle."