Gable Steveson loves to put on a show — during and after his biggest matches.Moments after he won at the U.S. Olympic trials at 125 kilograms to qualify for the Tokyo Games, he was taking down the strap on his singlet when he heard the crowd chanting.“Backflip! Backflip!”Steveson had celebrated wins with backflips before — quite a feat for a man who weighs about 275 pounds. And though he was drained after qualifying for his first Olympics, he couldn’t help himself. The man who aspires to be a World Wrestling Entertainment superstar like his mentor, Brock Lesnar, had to deliver.“So, I just pulled the strap up and I was like, ‘Forget it, let’s go.’” he said. “I just did the flip, and now everybody requests it everywhere I go. And it’s like my trademark. Like, people are waiting for me to do a flip. And who knows when the next one will be.”Steveson, 21, hopes to transfer that swagger into becoming one of wrestling’s youngest U.S. Olympic gold medalists. He wants that stage to help launch a career in WWE. Eventually, he hopes to cross over into movies like former WWE star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he said. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”Steveson’s stardom was seemingly planned. His mother named him Gable Dan — after wrestling icon Dan Gable. Gable was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.Steveson, who is from Apple Valley, Minnesota, said Gable’s name was known around the area.“My mom didn’t have a name for me yet, and she kept hearing the name Dan Gable, and Dan Gable’s like a wrestling legend to us,” Steveson said. “He’s one of the best to do it. And she kept hearing his name over and over.”Steveson has handled the pressure that comes with having that name in the sport. He followed in Lesnar’s footsteps by winning a national championship as a heavyweight for the University of Minnesota. He was the Dan Hodge Trophy winner as the nation’s best college wrestler after a 17-0 season. Then he won the Olympic trials. Now, he could add to his resume in Tokyo.But for all the showmanship, Steveson is most special on the mat. He has the expected power of a big man, but possesses unusual quickness and agility for a someone his size, allowing him to wrestle differently than most of his opponents.“Seeing his athleticism and speed, his quickness, his positioning, the way he can turn and create angles — you don’t really see that at heavyweight,” fellow U.S. Olympian Kyle Dake said. “Most of the time, it’s big, strong heavyweights, push, push, push and, you know, they kind of win by having the stronger defense and not making mistakes. Gable’s going out there to wrestle and wrestle a bunch of positions.”Steveson’s star is rising rapidly. He was photographed with WWE star Roman Reigns and his manager, Paul Heyman, at this year’s WrestleMania — an event Steveson calls the Super Bowl of professional wrestling. He threw out the first pitch at a Minnesota Twins game on June 11. And he said he’s getting used to kids wanting his autograph when he goes to the grocery store.But he wants to keep things in perspective. In his path to win gold is Turkey’s Taha Akgul — the 2016 Olympic gold medalist. Steveson quoted another WWE icon — “Nature Boy” Ric Flair — when describing what might be ahead.“He’s the man,” Steveson said. “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”Steveson said Geno Petriashvili of Georgia also is a dangerous opponent who is “just as good” as Akgul. Petriashvili defeated Akgul to win the world championship in 2019 and is the No. 1 seed.“It is the Olympic Games,” Steveson said. “Everybody is good. Things can happen. And I’m coming for that gold medal, obviously, just like they are. So it’s going to be it’s going to be a battle.”———Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.
Kyle Dake finally broke through at age 30 to beat 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion Jordan Burroughs at the U.S. Olympic trials and qualify for the Tokyo GamesBy CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports WriterJuly 7, 2021, 10:26 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleFive years ago, Kyle Dake was injured and ready to retire.Though he had been one of America’s most successful freestyle wrestlers, he had come up short of his most lofty goals many times. Injuries to his labrum, bicep, hand, shoulder and foot played a significant role in his struggles.He also was trying to get past Jordan Burroughs — widely considered one of the best freestyle wrestlers of all time. Burroughs won an Olympic gold medal in 2012 and has claimed four world titles at 74 kilograms.In 2017, Dake shifted his approach to rehabilitation and working out with help from a company called Functional Patterns. After changes in fitness training helped him recover from his injuries, he finally got the result he had sought for so long. He beat Burroughs at this year’s U.S. Olympic trials to qualify for the Games for the first time.At age 30, Dake feels his time finally has come.“I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I feel like I did when I was a young teenager. I just feel nimble. I feel that I’m making all the right decisions. And I know I’m making the right decisions because I’m not really in pain anymore.”Dake said beating Burroughs gives him confidence heading into Tokyo, but he knows that doesn’t guarantee anything.“I had to go out and perform at a level that was better than anyone’s ever seen,” Dake said. “Having done that is great, but that was never the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to go out and be an Olympic gold medalist.”Dake became a world champion twice at the non-Olympic weight of 79 kg before dropping down to 74 to defeat Burroughs. To earn gold in Tokyo, Dake likely would cross paths with Italy’s Frank Chamizo and/or Russia’s Zaurbek Sidakov. Chamizo was a bronze medalist at 74 kg in Rio in 2016 and is the No. 1 seed in Tokyo. Sidakov won the world title at 74 kg in 2019.“I feel like I’m just a better wrestler than all these guys,” Dake said. “I feel like I’m more fluid in different positions and understand different aspects. In my opinion, the only way I really lose is if I decide not to wrestle and I just stand in front of a guy.”Dake’s swagger comes from a long run of success. At Cornell, he was a four-time NCAA champion, each coming at a different weight class. He placed third at the Olympic trials in 2012 and second in 2016 before winning his two world titles.Dake’s confidence started to climb when he beat Chamizo last July. Dake believes his approach would give him an edge.“His execution and plan leading up to an event is much different than mine,” Dake said. “I think that his is a little bit more laissez faire. Mine is more regimented, like making sure that I hit all these all these milestones before I get to a competition.”Dake has never faced Sidakov. He has great respect for him and would welcome the matchup.“I think I’m a really, really tough matchup for him,” Dake said. “He depends on being strong and hand-fight and push guys, but having some pretty good size of my own and strength of my own, I feel I can hold my own in those positions.”Dake said his mental approach is the only thing that can stop him in Tokyo.“My sole focus to go out dominate and really just force the action, not by getting extended, not by taking bad shots or taking unneeded risk, but not allowing them to just stand and play pattycake,” he said. “And I want to go out and put them in a position where they feel threatened. I need to go wrestle.”———Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Odicci Alexander became an overnight sensation at the Women’s College World Series.James Madison’s dynamic, endearingly humble pitcher was well known among die-hard softball fans, but she introduced herself to a national audience by throwing a complete game to help her unseeded squad stun tournament favorite Oklahoma in the opening game earlier this month. She threw another complete game the next day in a victory over Oklahoma State and a star was born.As her team was being eliminated in the semifinals, Alexander drew a standing ovation when she left the field. Fans watching on TV and streaming devices were sorry to see her go — and so was ESPN, which has been broadcasting the WCWS since 2000.Nick Dawson, ESPN’s vice president of programming for college sports, called her emergence and her battles with Oklahoma “the overarching story of the event,” and said she set the tone for a memorable week.”It just so worked out that she, as a dominant pitcher, ended up paired against arguably the greatest offensive softball team in the history of the sport in the opening game of the Women’s College World Series,” Dawson said. “To me, a lot of that’s luck. It just falls in your lap. The win is that we’re positioned based on our commitment to the coverage of the event.”Coverage of Division I women’s sports has been in a particularly bright spotlight in 2021 and the record-setting WCWS was just the latest example of growing interest — and growing demands for a more equitable playing field when compared with men’s events.ESPN’s has been experimenting in recent years with showing more women’s sports on its various platforms, and good numbers have led the network to become more aggressive. Television viewership was up significantly compared to 2019 in the four most popular women’s college sports — basketball, softball, gymnastics and volleyball. The network expanded its volleyball coverage this year to include every match of the championship on an ESPN platform.The Walt Disney Co. owns ABC and ESPN, and Dawson said ESPN is pushing to get more sports programming onto Saturday afternoon spots on ABC. This year, ABC broadcast women’s basketball games and a women’s softball game for the first time.The women’s gymnastics final on ABC averaged 808,000 viewers, a 510% increase over the 2019 final on ESPNU.Ripples of the increased exposure are being felt. According to the Social Blade social media analytics site, Alexander gained more than 50,000 Instagram followers within a week of her win over Oklahoma. She has since signed a professional contract with the USSSA Pride.“There were enough places where that story was told this time around that she’s reached a certain critical masse,” said Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture. “She’s penetrated the culture. That is the important part of that story.”Alexander’s story resonated on various levels. She’s a Black player in a largely white sport who knocked off the eventual national champion while playing for an upstart school.“I’m sure there have been great stories filled with all of these great narrative flourishes like hers that have been going on in women’s sports for years,” Thompson said, “but people who would have loved those stories never hear them because there hasn’t been a lot of space given.”The average number of viewers for the three championship final games between Oklahoma and Florida State was a record 1,840,000, up 15% over 2019. The average for the 17-game WCWS was 1,203,000, up 10% over 2019 and numbers comparable to those from the men’s College World Series in 2019.“Finally, there is this recognition that if you show it, people will watch it,” Thompson said. “And there’s been a lot of resistance to that to women’s sports, probably because a lot of the people managing the media outlets, a lot of the people managing the various sports venues and so forth just assumed they couldn’t get the kinds of numbers that they wanted.”As the viewership numbers climbed, coaches used the broader platform to speak up.Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said changes were needed to make sure the sport makes positive strides as its popularity grows. She pointed out issues she had with t he WCWS format, saying adding off days, eliminating doubleheaders and ensuring that games end at reasonable times should be among the changes considered. Though ESPN and the NCAA converse on those issues, the NCAA Division I Softball Committee oversees the format and scheduling for the event.Ratings also were high for the women’s basketball Final Four. The championship game drew 4,077,000 viewers — the highest total since 2014 and up 9% from 2019. The semifinals averaged 2,850,000 viewers, the best numbers since 2012 and a 20% jump from 2019. The Final Four weekend numbers overall were up 14%.The volleyball championship match between Kentucky and Texas averaged 696,000 viewers, up 28% from 2019. Kentucky’s victory was the most-viewed telecast on ESPN2 for the month of April.The growth includes the number of sports getting exposure. ESPN added ice hockey, field hockey and cross country to the women’s sports championship schedule in the spring, bringing the total number of women’s championships the network broadcasts to 15.Dawson said ESPN will remain aggressive about expanding programming opportunities for women’s sports. Thompson said that makes sense.“For women’s sports, there is lots and lots and lots of room for lots and lots and lots of growth,” he said. “If I were looking to invest in a genre of futures of American entertainment, women’s sports would be close to the top of my list.”———Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.———More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports