TOKYO — Gable Steveson knew how little time he had. After he took down Geno Petriashvili in the waning moments of their gold-medal match, cutting his opponent’s lead to a single point, Steveson glanced at the clock at the edge of the wrestling mat.
“I saw there were about 10 seconds left,” Steveson said. “I got off of him. The ref blew the whistle. And I just knew that after that point, it was do or die. And I just had to go.”
The Minnesota Gophers wrestler from Apple Valley, Minn., could describe the final seconds of his wild, come-from-behind victory with complete clarity Friday. Trailing 8-5 in the second period, Steveson recorded two takedowns in the final 11 seconds against the three-time world champion to claim the Olympic gold medal.
Steveson scored his final points with 0.2 seconds remaining, winning 10-8 to complete one of the most dramatic victories of the Tokyo Games.
What Steveson could not describe was the feeling of wearing gold around his neck. A man who is usually full of words could find none adequate to the task of summing up his emotions, after winning the Olympic freestyle heavyweight title in stunning fashion at Makuhari Messe.
Steveson, 21, is only the second American man to wear that crown, joining two-time Olympic gold medalist Bruce Baumgartner. The first Gophers wrestler to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic team in freestyle, Steveson is now the first to win an Olympic gold medal.
“Everybody talks about bringing home a gold medal, and I did it,” Steveson said. “This is a very indescribable feeling for me to come out here and win a gold medal. It’s crazy, for real. I put on a good show. People are going to remember the name Gable Steveson, that won the Olympic heavyweight championship.”
The medal was the first in Olympic competition for a Gophers wrestler since 2000, when Garrett Lowney won bronze in the Greco-Roman 97-kilogram class at the Sydney Games. It extends a memorable year for Steveson, who won his first NCAA championship in March, went 17-0 during the college season and outscored opponents 42-4 at the Olympic trials.
At the Olympics, Steveson did not surrender a point until Friday’s final. He outscored opponents 23-0 in his first three matches and defeated Taha Akgul of Turkey, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist and a two-time world champion, in the quarterfinals. Defeating a man he called a legend filled Steveson with confidence entering the gold-medal match.
Petriashvili fit the description, too. Winner of the past three world championships, the Georgian is quick and fierce, like Steveson, which built anticipation for the match.
Steveson seized a quick lead. Petriashvili got two warnings for passivity and was put on the clock; when he failed to score, Steveson got his first point. He later flipped Petriashvili to the mat hard with a single-leg takedown for two more points, and collected one more when he pushed Petriashvili out.
Gophers coach Brandon Eggum, who was in Steveson’s corner at the Olympics, was almost ready to celebrate.
“At halftime, I was like, ‘This is it,’ ” Eggum said. “You got it. It’s over. He’s dominating, and I felt really comfortable.
“And then all of a sudden, in seconds, he’s down 8-5.”
Petriashvili got on the board with a two-point exposure early in the second period, and Steveson countered with a reversal for a 5-2 lead. Energized, the Georgian took another shot and got a single-leg takedown to pull within 5-4. Within seconds, he clasped his arms around Steveson’s midsection and rolled him twice, a quick four points that gave Petriashvili an 8-5 lead.
At that point, Eggum said, it felt impossible for Steveson to rally. With about 11 seconds remaining, Steveson scored a takedown to make it 8-7.
He sensed Petriashvili was in “panic mode” and moved swiftly to take advantage. With 6.5 seconds left, he feinted, with a quick outside step designed to get Petriashvili off balance. Petriashvili was fooled, and Steveson spun around and took him down.
“In those last final seconds, I was just like, ‘I’ve got to fire something off,’ ” Steveson said. “I was guaranteed a medal, but I knew I could fire that last shot off and give him that last trick.
“He bit it, and I spun the corner and looked at the clock and it was like 0.3. And I was like, ‘Ain’t no way.’ My head just flushed with everything, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ And I looked to Eggum, and he was jumping, and my face was stunned. I can’t describe it.”
Petriashvili’s corner challenged the takedown, arguing it came after time had expired. Eggum, whose emotions had veered wildly back and forth for six minutes, wondered if things would take another sharp turn.
He was already up on the mat, ready to congratulate Steveson and hand him an American flag. “Yeah, there was doubt,” Eggum said. “I didn’t know where we were at. I was watching the mat, not the clock. It was close.”
Close, but still good. After the challenge was rebuffed — and Steveson was awarded another point for the failed challenge — Petriashvili knelt motionless at the center of the mat. Steveson beat his chest, raised his fists in triumph and took that flag from Eggum, wrapping it around his shoulders.
Steveson let the feeling wash over him for a bit, then celebrated with his most popular move: a backflip.
Eggum still was in disbelief an hour after the match. “I’ve never, never seen that,” he said. “I can’t believe I’ve seen a single situation like that, where they score two takedowns. Especially at this level.
“It was exciting. I’m proud of him, and happy for the opportunity we had to come here and compete.”
Steveson still had a hard time believing it, too.
“I don’t know what I’m really feeling right now,” he said. “It hasn’t hit. It’s a crazy feeling, that I’m sitting here with a gold medal around my neck. It’s something that will sit with me forever.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.