The champ is home. Gable Steveson returns to enthusiastic airport welcome

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Gophers wrestler Gable Steveson touched down in the Twin Cities from the Tokyo Olympics late Sunday with a giant smile on his face and a shiny gold medal around his neck as he raised his arms to a gathered crowd chanting: "USA! USA! USA!"

Steveson, 21, was celebrated for his improbable trouncing of the competition, culminating in a comeback that saw him get two takedowns in 13 seconds against the three-time world champion Geno Petriashvili for gold in the freestyle heavyweight final.

Before stepping into the enthusiastic crowd at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Steveson reunited privately with his parents, Robert and Laticia Steveson, and older brother, Bobby, whom he hadn't seen since July 17. Then he turned his attention to the crowd that was chanting "Gable, Gable, Gable" as he walked through the electronic doors.

He called the experience "surreal" and said he'd stay until everybody got what they wanted — a photo or an autograph. Afterward, he said he planned to get home, relax and sleep in his own bed.

Several wrestlers from St. Paul's Humboldt High School were in the crowd: Tha Gay got an autograph and a photo with the beaming gold medalist. "I'm so happy," Gay said as he showed off the photo.

Gay and his teammates never lost faith in Steveson's championship run, he said. "He made college look too easy," Gay said.

Recently graduated Humboldt wrestling captain Hsa Loo got Steveson's signature on a pristine white shoe. "We took a lot of inspiration from him throughout our year in wrestling," Loo said.

Apple Valley High School coach Josh Barlage, who coached Steveson in high school, brought several wrestlers for the airport greeting. "It doesn't get more exciting than this," he said. "This is the pinnacle of the sport of wrestling."

Barlage said seeing Steveson's family celebrate his video is "why you coach, for moments like that."

Before he left Japan, Steveson had delivered one last message via social media: "Moral of the story: NEVER GIVE UP!!!"

Steveson's parents and brother watched his victory on television with other wrestlers at the U.

After the hugs and hoopla, questions will turn to Steveson's future. The wrestler declined to make any announcements at the airport, but his parents will be lobbying him.

"Mom and dad want him to definitely finish his education and sell out the place for one more year," Robert Steveson said, referring to Maturi Pavilion where the Gophers wrestle at home.

Robert Steveson said another year with the Gophers would be good for his son and the program where he has flourished under coach Brandon Eggum and assistant Trevor Brandvold, both of whom were with him in Japan and at the airport Sunday.

Gable Steveson has plenty of options. He's on track to finish his business degree in the spring. He has two years of wrestling eligibility remaining and attracted attention from the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) juggernaut where his brother is already training.

His dad said he's pushing for his son to wrestle in the world championships this fall in Oslo and possibly the Paris Olympics in 2024, when Steveson will still be only 24.

"How many people can say they're the best at what they do?" his dad asked.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson