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Gophers wrestling program growing in popularity after two alumni make US World Team

Former Gopher wrestlers Gable Steveson and Patrick Smith competed at Final X and earned a spot on the US World Team.
Image by Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Athletics.
The wrestlers

The Gophers’ continuous success is helping Minnesota build a reputable name for its wrestling program and making it a desirable destination for young talent.

Patrick Smith and Gable Steveson, two Gopher wrestling alumni, won their best-of-three matches at Final X on June 10 in Newark, New Jersey to claim a spot on the U.S. Senior World team. Smith and Steveson will represent Team USA at the 2023 World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, starting Sept. 16.

Before competing in this year’s Final X, wrestlers must qualify in one of three ways: be a 2022 Senior World medalist; be a 2023 U.S. Open Champion; or be a World Team Trials Challenge Tournament champion.

Smith, now wrestling for the Minnesota Storm — an international wrestling club where athletes compete for Olympic and World titles — earned his spot in the Greco-Roman category at the World Team Trials Challenge after he defeated Noah Wachsmuth of the New York Athletic Club.

Steveson earned his spot after beating 2-time world medalist Nick Gwiazdowski of Titan Mercury Wrestling Club in the Freestyle category at the U.S. Open. 

“After the World Team Trials, you know exactly who you’re up against and train for one guy,” Smith said. 

The few weeks leading up to Final X involved cleaning up mistakes and prepping for his opponent.

“You don’t really want to change how you wrestle ever,” Smith said. “You make small adjustments in order to get the best out of yourself.”

One of the pieces that come into play when competing at a high level is maintaining a healthy mentality. Smith said it is important for him not to overthink his opponent.

“You want to make him [the opponent] react to you,” Smith said. “You want to set the tone yourself.”

Smith matched up against Justus Scott from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (Army WCAP). He dropped the first match via criteria decision 3-3 but bounced back to even the series at 1-1. Smith won the series in the final match in a 7-5 decision.

On the other hand, Steveson recently returned to amateur wrestling as a representative of the Gopher Wrestling Club in the U.S. Open. Before returning, Steveson was last seen at the 2020 Olympic finals when he defeated three-time World Champion Geno Petriasvili.

At 23 years old, Steveson proved nothing changed since his last time on the mat. He scored 44-1 over his opponents at the U.S. Open before posting a 6-2 victory in the first matchup at Final X. He finished with a 5-0 shutout in the second match.

Steveson credits “staying focused” for being able to keep up with amateur wrestling during his 13-month hiatus.

“Winning the Olympics is not an easy task and winning it in 2024 is not going to be an easy task either,” Steveson said for USA Wrestling.

Steveson’s development since the Tokyo Olympics and training in the WWE gave him a competitive edge over his opponents in amateur wrestling. Since Tokyo, he said he made significant progress and is staying motivated.

“I feel like the first match [in Tokyo] — getting taken down — I fell out of position. I tried to do some funky stuff that wasn’t me,” Steveson said. “I feel like my gap is getting wider and wider by everyone else and I got to go out there and prove it.”

With Smith and Steveson now competing on the global stage, the Gophers wrestling program is viewed as a more desirable option for young wrestlers.

Head Coach for the Gophers, Brandon Eggum, said both Smith and Steveson have been great selling points for the program, specifically in terms of recruiting.

“They’re [recruits] looking at the dream of making the World or Olympic team and continuing to wrestle after college,” Eggum said. “To have some guys that are legitimately making those teams — competing at that level are just really good sells.”

Eggum recently added four-time Minnesota state champion Tyler Wells to the 2023 recruiting class. The native out of Princeton holds a career record of 162-1 and went undefeated in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, according to the Star Tribune.

Coming into the program, Wells already has experience wrestling on the national stage. He won the 2019 United World Wrestling Championships U15 freestyle title at 41 kilograms (roughly 90 pounds) and finished third at the 2021 USA Wrestling Nationals 16U freestyle at 120 pounds.

“He’s a guy we’ve watched wrestle his entire high school career and have always been impressed,” Eggum said. “We have really big expectations for what he could accomplish for the program.”

Smith complimented the Gophers’ ability to get wrestlers to the next level after college. 

“There are avenues here [in Minnesota] for people to continue to go chase their World and Olympic dreams,” Smith said. “I think it shows the next generation that World and Olympic dreams are still alive in Minnesota.”

Stevenson’s time on the college wrestling mat is not over, telling FloWrestling he intends to use his final year of NCAA eligibility.

University of Minnesota’s Director of Athletics Mark Coyle spoke on the possibility of Steveson returning to the Gophers on Wednesday.

Gable is a generational talent and one of the most accomplished athletes — regardless of sport — in school and state history,” Coyle said. “We are thrilled about the possibility of being able to watch him compete once again as a Gopher.”

Before any decisions are made, Steveson must sort out any potential scheduling issues with his current employer: the WWE.

“The WWE really has to make the final decision,” Eggum said. “So making sure that between Gable and the WWE, that is something that they would approve of.”

For now, though, Steveson and Smith will row the boat to the World Championships representing not only the U.S. but the success of the Gophers wrestling program as well.

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