Photos: There was plenty of buzz between Penn State (left) and Iowa...
Tokyo Rewind: Three Olympic champs won titles through hard work, love for sport
Written by Bryan Van Kley
Photos by John Sachs
There’s not one blueprint to winning an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. But the three U.S. 2020 Olympic champions — David Taylor, Gable Steveson and Tamyra Mensah Stock — showed there’s a couple essential ingredients to success: a true love for the sport and an immense amount of work.
Taylor won the 86-kg title in freestyle over international super-star Hassan Yazdani of Iran 4-3 off a double-leg takedown with only 17 seconds to go in an epic come-from-behind win fans will be talking about for decades.
Back to winning Cadet National titles as an eighth grader, there has not been an American wrestler who has been in the media spotlight at all levels more than Taylor. He’s frequently stated his goals that he set at age 8: four-time state champ, four-time national champ, World champ and Olympic champ.
The biggest of those dreams became a reality on August 5 in Tokyo with the win over Yazdani. Was Taylor simply destined to be on top of the Olympic podium?
Looking back at his wrestling career, probably. However, it started as a young elementary-aged wrestler in Wyoming who would have his wrestling gear packed and ready at the top of the steps for his pilot dad Dave to get home from a trip to take him to practice. A long-time columnist for WIN, Taylor often talked of his love for the sport.
“As a kid, I just loved to wrestle,” Taylor said. “My dad and parents saw that and how I was motivated that way.”
Taylor said there were times his father would drive him three and half hours round-trip for two-hour practices as a little kid. Then on weekends, they would drive or fly all over the country to get him to tournaments, often times wrestling double brackets at multiple weights or styles.
“I never ever remember hearing my parents say they were tired,” David said. “It was always what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the best and they held me accountable every step of the way. Without their sacrifices and all their time, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I can honestly say there was never a time where he didn’t have the (wrestling practice gear) bag packed and at the top of the stairs,” said Dave Taylor about David’s pure love for the sport. But he also stressed to parents, the kid has to be the one wanting to wrestle or they won’t make it to the end of their career and you risk burn out. “I think there has to be balance. It’s about the journey. My wife (Kathy) was the most instrumental with that.”
Taylor had a road-map to follow growing up not far from the Cael Sanderson, Cael’s father Steve and brothers, and Wasatch High School across the border in Utah. Taylor watched Cael put together an undefeated 159-0 record at Iowa State, becoming only the second wrestler to win four national titles. And in the process, the future Penn State coach was named Outstanding Wrestler four straight years at the NCAAs and won the Hodge Trophy three times. He then went on to win an Olympic title in 2004.
The impressionable young Taylor didn’t just want equal accolades to his boy-hood hero. He wanted to wrestle like Cael by always scoring points and dominating opponents. The 30-year-old Taylor, who went on to win two NCAA titles and two Hodges himself at Penn State while wrestling for Sanderson, estimated that he’s scored bonus points in 90 percent of his matches since he was a little kid.
However, Taylor’s path to Tokyo gold had some serious obstacles, including injuries and key losses in big matches in the NCAA finals and at World Team Trials and Olympic Trials. Taylor said he thinks having to battle through those things was key to him being able to come from behind to win the 2020 Games.
In his first shot at an NCAA title his freshman year at Penn State, Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins pinned Taylor, ending any chance he had at becoming the sport’s third four-time champ. It was a crushing defeat, one that Taylor said stung the most.
Taylor also fell short of making numerous U.S. World/Olympic teams early in his Senior-level career, losing to guys like Jordan Burroughs at 74 kilos, Dake and J’den Cox, who went on to win Olympic bronze at 86 kilos in 2016.
“Those moments of letting some of those matches slip away hurt really bad at the time. But, looking back, I’m thankful for them,” Taylor said.
The former Ohio prep also added that almost every time he’s been knocked into the consolation side of the brackets, he’s dug deep and wrestled back to get third, often times beating opponents he’s not beaten before.
“But I’ve had to have some gutsy come-from-behind victories. I’m really proud of those. (The win over Yazdani) was one of those. That was full circle for me.”
Like Taylor, the much younger 21-year-old Steveson has been a wrestling phenom for years. He won WIN’s Junior Hodge Trophy as the top high school wrestler in 2018. This March, he was also named co-winner of the Hodge with Iowa’s Spencer Lee after his first NCAA title at heavyweight.
Coming up through the age-group ranks, Steveson dominated in freestyle as well. He won two Cadet World titles and a Junior World title prior to him making his first U.S. Senior World/Olympic Team this year.
Steveson’s warp-speed improvement to be the best in the world at heavyweight at the Senior level really happened in the last two years. In 2019, the Gopher finished second at the Final X World Team Trials to multiple-time team member Nick Gwiazdowski.
“I changed a lot of things that next year,” Steveson said. “I worked every day. People close to me weren’t surprised by the results (at these Olympics). Two years ago, I was second string and now I’m on top of the world.”
The incredibly explosive, athletic Steveson had to beat the two best 125-kg wrestlers in the world for Olympic gold. In the second round, the unseeded Gopher dominated No. 3 Taha Akgul of Turkey, 8-0. Akgul was the reigning Olympic champ. Steveson said that quarterfinal Olympic win gave him the needed boost of confidence that he could beat anybody in the world.
After posting a 5-0 semifinal win over Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia, Steveson recorded possibly the most dramatic U.S. wrestling win in history. Down by three points with 13 seconds to go on a restart, Steveson got two straight takedowns on Georgia’s three-time defending champ Geno Petriashvili to win the Olympic title. The last takedown came with four tenths of a second left.
Steveson said the extra work he put in over the last couple years put him in a position to break an opponent like Petriashvili in the six-minute final.
“I put in a lot of work, two-a-days. I grinded for this,” he said. “To be able to push someone of that caliber to the end is something different. For me to pull that match out, I had to push him to that wall and I had to fight myself through my own wall too. That’s what I did. I tried to push myself the best I can and it paid off.”
Brandon Eggum, Steveson’s personal coach and Minnesota head man, said what separates Steveson is his love for the sport and his mentality towards competing.
“He said, ‘I love everything about it,’” Eggum recalled of a Steveson interview about the sport from when he was young. “I reminded him, ‘Remember that is what makes you special. It’s your love and your passion. That’s something that kids see. That inspires all of us.’”
In addition, Eggum said Steveson just loves to compete.
“Guys who are the greatest have something special mentally in the way they like to compete,” Eggum said. “For guys that are exceptional wrestlers, they wrestle great in the room. When they go on the mat (for actual competition), they compete at an equal level. But the great ones compete at an even better level.
“He’s at home under the lights. You can see it almost get easier for him. When he’s out on the mat, he’s free and loving the moment.”
Tamyra Mensah Stock
When Mensah Stock was a sophomore in Katy, Texas, at Morton Ranch High School, she finished second in state. She knew she should have won the state title. Shortly after, she told another female athlete friend of hers they were going to be Olympic champions someday.
That dream became a reality on August 3 as she outscored four opponents 34-5 in four wins for the Olympic title at 68 kg. That included a 5-1 victory over Nigeria’s Blessing Oborududu in the final.
Mensah Stock became just the second U.S. woman to win Olympic gold, joining 2016 champ Helen Maroulis.
The two-time WCWA college champion, whose love for life made her a fan favorite among fans back in the States during the Olympics, said from the beginning that she wanted to be a role model other for young girls.
“When I first started wrestling, I wanted to be an emblem and a light to younger women and show them, ‘You can be silly, you can have fun, and you can be tough and strong.’ It doesn’t have to be like, ‘I’m going to be mean to you,’” she said.
A key point in Mensah Stock’s run to Olympic gold came in the semifinals against Ukraine’s Alla Cherkasova. The Ukrainian tested the American, taking Mensah Stock down and turning her with a gut-wrench 30 seconds into the second period for a 4-2 lead.
However, Mensah Stock stayed poised and broke loose offensively, scoring eight straight unanswered points off two takedowns and two turns for the spot in the Olympic final. The now two-time World/Olympic champ said after the semis that she was happy she got tested in that bout.
“I actually appreciated my semifinals because I didn’t want to come out unscathed. To be able to battle and now be in the finals would have meant more than getting techs and pins. I fought for that. It was awesome and I appreciate that,” she said. “This is a dream come true. This is what I’ve been working for.”
U.S. women’s coach Terry Steiner joked with reporters that he’d be OK with Mensah Stock sticking with 10-0 first-period techs like her first two Olympic matches. However, he said he was pleased that she responded to the adversity of being down in a match.
“It’s the Olympic Games. You’re going to be tested,” Steiner said. “Anyone can keep going forward when everything is going right. Can you keep going forward when things aren’t going right? That’s the sign of a true champion.”