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How WWE’s Gable Steveson became your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler

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How many 275-pound men do you know who can do a backflip?

While you’re ruminating on that seemingly trivial question, let’s take this thought exercise a step further: How many 275-pound men do you know who can backflip, capture the attention of Triple H and Ric Flair with their athletic prowess, win an Olympic gold medal and sign a multiyear deal with WWE before graduating college?

I reckon not many aside from Gable Steveson come to mind.

That’s because the tantalizing heavyweight freestyle wrestler is one-of-a-kind, a bona fide original.

“When and if I can win, put on a good show for America, that flip is coming,” Steveson teased to NBC Chicago of his signature post-victory backflip ahead of his awe-inducing run at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

In due time, the ultimate showman made good on his promise.

There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and Steveson walks it masterfully. The 21-year-old’s keen sense of self and his belief in his otherworldly abilities is what enabled him to cruise through the first three matches of his Olympic debut without giving up a point.

It’s a feat that’s particularly impressive when you consider one of his opponents was Taha Akgul of Turkey, the defending Olympic champion. Steveson — The University of Minnesota Gophers’ heavyweight, reigning NCAA Division I National Champion and winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy — made light work of Aiaal Lazarev of Kyrgyzstan in his opening match, taking only 2 minutes, 2 seconds to win 10-0. He followed that up with an 8-0 drubbing of Akgul before winning his semifinal match against Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia 5-0 to advance to the men’s freestyle 125kg wrestling final.

“He’s the best heavyweight wrestler to probably ever step foot (on the mat),” Steveson said of Akgul after their quarterfinal showdown last month. “But his time is up. I came here for business. I came here to win. … Ain’t nothing going to be given to me. I’ve got to go get it.”

And that’s exactly what he did in an incredible comeback win over Geno Petriashvili — the 2016 bronze-medalist and three-time world champion (2017-19) of Georgia — in the final.

Steveson was born in 2000, and America hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s heavyweight in his lifetime (Bruce Baumgartner, 1992). If you know his story, it’s not surprising that the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native would be the one to get it done.

That is not to say the Team USA standout’s mom set this all in motion by choosing to name her son after wrestling legend Dan Gable (Steveson’s middle name is Dan), who was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.

Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The whole thing felt preordained. Maybe that’s why the charismatic superstar was so fearless and brash about what he intended to do. He was born for it.

“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he told the Associated Press. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”

If the wrestler choosing to address himself in the third person and the above quote gave you strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vibes, you’re on the right track. The pinnacle of athletic achievement, winning an Olympic gold medal, was just the first item on a long list of aspirations for Gable — a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal: Becoming a WWE superstar.

It’s not presumptive to say the wrestler’s plan to use the accomplishment to springboard his WWE career was a resounding success. On Thursday, Steveson signed a NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend the University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I national championship at heavyweight. WWE will also set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

While only time will tell if he will eventually be afforded opportunities like The Rock or Steveson’s mentor, fellow Minnesota great and WWE champion, Brock Lesnar, his ascension to superstardom feels about as certain as a post-victory backflip.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how to make it to the WWE, but when I got to the University of Minnesota, I learned how Brock went about things and how to make connections,” Gable told Gopher Sports.

“My relationship with Brock has been awesome. It’s outstanding that a guy like that has noticed me and has gone out of his way to be there for me and guide me in the right direction.”

It was never a matter of if Steveson would go down the professional wrestling route, but when. Which is the same energy I’m bringing to the question of whether we will ever get to see him face off with Lesnar.

Steveson has already made a ton of noise in the professional wrestling space without ever stepping in the ring. From appearing in the crowd at NXT TakeOvers and WrestleMania to waving at Vince McMahon on Twitter (and eventually meeting up with him at SummerSlam 2021 after his Olympic victory), Gable kept his name top of mind among the WWE brass and stars alike.

Then there was the famed picture of the Team USA standout with Roman Reigns and his manager Paul Heyman.

“The picture of me, Paul (Heyman), and Roman Reigns is gonna go down as maybe one of the best wrestling photos in history,” Steveson said. “Just because the path that I’m taking with it and the path that Roman Reigns has set in stone being a champion, that’ll probably never be defeated again. The path that Paul Heyman has done for wrestling. He’s probably the greatest spokesperson. (He’s going to the) Hall of Fame.”

Steveson’s expectations for his future are larger-than-life, but why shouldn’t they be? Thus far he has been a walking, back-flipping testimonial for the benefits of doing it big.



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How Paralympic gold only served to fuel Andy Lewis’ fire to help others — just don’t call him superhuman

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Content warning: The following story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.

Andy Lewis has a phrase tattooed on his left leg: Never Give Up. It’s more than a slogan; it’s a way of life for the 38-year-old. He is a father, a husband, who is also an amputee and a Paralympic champion with ADHD. He is now also a business owner who came close to taking his own life before a stranger — who became a friend — talked him round.

“If you ask our kids what’s our motto in our family, they will tell you it’s ‘Never Give Up’,” Lewis tells ESPN, recalling the time his seven-year-old son fell in a bike race but was adamant he was going to finish. “At the time [the tattoo] was a reminder to myself that things don’t always go to plan … just don’t give up.”

From struggling at school to having a life in the army snatched away from him, from taking the decision to amputate his right leg to winning gold in Rio, Lewis has never given up. Just don’t call him superhuman.

“I’m just human and that’s what I want people to really understand,” he says. “I remember when the Paralympics were on [in London in 2012], there was a [UK television] show called Superhumans and I don’t think the athletes appreciated it, because we’re not.

“Why do they make it out like we’re some sort of robots? We’re just people who love sport. I really just want people to realise that I’m just a dad, husband, someone that wants to have a job, enjoy what I do and just spend time with my wife, kids and family. I’ve given so much to sport and I just want to give back now, whether that’s in sport, school, business, education.”


ALTHOUGH BECOMING AN athlete wasn’t Lewis’ initial ambition when growing up in Gloucester, in the south west of England, sport did play a huge role in his childhood. At school, he seemed to excel at most sports he attempted but struggled inside the classroom. Lewis became frustrated, a self-doubt that only intensified when a teacher said he was “as thick as a brick” aged 9 or 10. It’s a comment Lewis will never forget.

“It just goes to show how important mentors and teachers are in our lives and our childrens’ lives,” says Lewis now. “As we’re growing up from a mindset point of view, they have a massive influence on what we think and do.”

It would be decades later before it became clear why Lewis struggled academically, when he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.

Ironically, the person who helped Lewis at sport during his primary school days was the husband of the teacher who made that unforgettable comment. He credits this tutor for inspiring him and even though he met another encouraging influence in secondary school, Lewis was still undecided on his career path.

After a lengthy job search, he was offered a chance to join the Parachute Regiment in the British Army and was accepted after passing a number of fitness tests. Just as an exciting new chapter was about to begin, Lewis’ life changed in an instant at the age of 16.

July 10, 1999, will be a date that Lewis will never forget, yet he has no memory of what happened on the day he was knocked off his motorcycle by a 38-tonne lorry.

“From then, my life just drastically changed,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the medication I had, whether it’s the accident or loss of brain cells, but I literally have got no recollection of any of it. My mum or wife will tell me stuff now about it and I can’t remember, it’s gone.”

What Lewis does recall is the months of pain, stress and turmoil that went into the recovery process in the hospital.

“I didn’t lose my leg straight away and I think that’s where things might have been different if I did,” he says. “They wanted to amputate it and to this day, I wish they did because I would’ve maybe had my life back on track. On the other side of that, I might not have achieved what I’ve achieved today.”

Lewis’ father, desperate for his son to keep both legs, wanted a second opinion and a professor assured the family that it could be saved. Following numerous trips across the country, his leg was eventually put in an Ilizarov cage — a metal brace — and although he could stand up and move around, he realised that people in his life were unsympathetic to his new circumstances.

“They rebuilt my leg but I couldn’t do anything,” he remembers. “I found that my friends disappeared off into the distance, no-one would allow me to come out with them as I was using crutches, I was slow and couldn’t watch or play sport any more.

“That was a massive thing for me because sport is a massive part of my life and straight away, it had gone. Most people at the age of 16, 17, 18 are going to the pub, clubbing and going to visit different places and I just missed out on all of that.”

Six years on from the accident, Lewis made a decision that would have even greater consequences: “At that point, in 2005, I had my leg amputated due to complications. They were going to repair it again and I just said no, enough is enough, I’m old enough now to make up my own mind.”

Despite pleas from family members, he was adamant about the decision but doubts creeped into his mind following the operation.

“You cannot imagine being laid in that bed,” he says. “As much as that leg was battered, seeing two legs, two feet and then coming round after the operation looking down at the bed, you still feel like you’ve got the leg there and you look down to the bedsheets and the foot is no longer sticking out.

“You look down and there’s just loads and loads of bandages around the end of your leg and you think, ‘What have I done?’ There’s no going back. That was a massive, massive turning point but I wasn’t prepared for what was to come and that hit me a bit hard after that.”

The experience of his brother, an army veteran, helped put what Lewis was dealing with in a new light. “I didn’t really have any support mentally,” he says. “I didn’t see anyone to help with that and there were times where I might have needed counselling.

“My brother is back from Iraq now and been out of the forces for a number of years and he suffers massively from PTSD — he can’t even sleep in the same room with anyone because he screams in his sleep. He tells me that he thinks I’ve got PTSD and I’m on medication now.

“That’s what people don’t know about me, they think I’m just this robot and not this human. They don’t realise what you still have to deal with in your head and that’s a really important part and it’s a challenge. When my leg was amputated, I just wasn’t prepared for the mental health scars and the physical element of not being able to do anything.

“Using crutches more often, a wheelchair, the way that people treated you differently — that hit me. Even those people who I thought I knew, they just avoided eye contact and communication and that was a hard pill to swallow. I suppose that stayed with me for a number of years where I wouldn’t wear shorts, I was hiding things away, physically and mentally.”

A year after the amputation, Lewis had entered a very dark place mentally and the situation spiralled out of control so much that he wanted to end his life.

“Around September or October in 2006, I remember going down to my dad’s field and I was just going to end my life. I decided I’d just had enough but I couldn’t figure out how to tie a proper knot and thought, ‘I can’t do anything.’ I managed to sort it all out and thought, ‘This is it’.”

“My dad’s field has a small model airplane strip but I thought no-one was there at this time. I thought my dad was going to find me before my girlfriend [but] then a guy came down there to fly his model airplane, found me and stopped me from doing it.”

When Lewis returned home that night, he was greeted with the news that his partner was pregnant with their first child. He remains close with the model airplane enthusiast, a mental health first aider, who saved him that day and is a fond believer that destiny played a role in him being around today.

“You have to ask yourself, was that fate?” asks Lewis. “Was that him being there for a reason to enable me to go on and bring up my daughter? I’m a massive believer in fate, that probably happened for a reason because of what I went on to achieve and who I’m helping now.”

Lewis found a new lease of life and learnt how to fly — full size planes rather than model ones — as he started to regain his confidence. He proved to himself that he was capable of excelling academically, and passed the exams to claim his pilot’s license that allowed him to enjoy solo trips around the UK and France.

He would go on to work at Airbus where a fellow colleague noticed that he had behavioural similarities to his child and advised Lewis to get tested. He travelled to Bristol, England, where he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and after years of believing he wasn’t intelligent, the news came as a huge relief.

“When I was in the test centre, around me on the walls were pictures of all these people who have dyslexia and ADHD and they’ve done very well for themselves,” he says.

“I was looking around and thinking: ‘Wow, and some of those people didn’t know they had it either at a young age and they’ve still gone on to achieve things.’ It was at that point where I thought ‘What can I do then?’ and that played a massive part in my life now and going forward.”


AFTER WATCHING THE London 2012 Paralympics, Lewis’ love for sport was reignited once again and he put together a message on his social media channels in the early hours one morning saying he would win a gold medal at the next Games. The post drew some negative comments which only stoked the fire inside Lewis to succeed and prove people wrong.

His first hurdle came in buying a running blade which cost around £10,000. But with the help of Airbus and the local community who raised funds, Lewis was able to focus on his new dream. In 2013, he went to Stoke Mandeville Stadium for a charity day on the track to test himself at Para sports. He was spotted by members from the Arctic One Foundation, who encouraged him to attempt triathlon. At first, Lewis was reluctant but after the foundation’s persistence, he accepted the challenge and found himself re-learning how to swim for the first time since he lost his leg.

He was disappointed with his performance when he took part in his first triathlon but later received a call from British Triathlon after someone had posted photos of him and his backstory on social media. He was then invited by the organisation to a talent day where he impressed and by the following year, he had left his £40,000-a-year job at Airbus to become an athlete who earned an annual salary of £10,000.

Although his wife “went absolutely nuts” at the idea, Lewis went on to win the British Paratriathlon National Championships and followed it up with victory at the Europeans in 2016, booking his place at the Rio Paralympics later that year. He stormed to an emphatic 41-second victory to claim gold but admitted he came close to not competing as the pressure built in the days leading up to the race as depression took hold.

He recalls taking antidepressant tablets before and after winning that race, and wants people to understand that success will not be an instant remedy for mental health struggles.

“I’m very open about that because even someone who’s achieved what I have, I’ve done it with depression and mental health issues in the background,” he says.

Lewis, who received an MBE for his services to triathlon in 2017, also believes that athletes need to be shown more support by the governing bodies after the event, where the comedown can be severe.

“That took a massive, massive toll on my life, suicidal thoughts came back into my head again,” he recalls. “I think people need to realise that being an elite athlete, being a professional sportsman or sportswoman, there will always be troughs and peaks. It’s very, very rare that an athlete that is trying to push their boundaries will just continue like this.

“There’s always a comedown to anything but when you’ve been at the top and you’ve got a Paralympic gold medal, which is the pinnacle of any Para sport, to be at that point and then come down, it’s like coming down from the moon. It was a massive shock to the system. Even after that, you’re on a bit of a high, there wasn’t the support there that I would’ve hoped.”


AFTER RETURNING HOME from Brazil, Lewis decided he would take matters into his own hands and provide an environment for others to overcome challenges in their lives. He got in touch with friend Chris Powell, who he met around 2011, about the idea of setting up a business.

“I wanted to help other people who were suffering with mental or physical issues because I thought I’ve been through it, I’ve tasted it, lived it,” Lewis says. “I know I can offer other people advice, support and coping strategies to help them to get the best from themselves.”

Powell was keen to get involved after going through his own difficulties in the workplace. His background was in teaching but following a move to a new school and a change in roles, he began to feel that there was “kryptonite around my neck” that prevented him from going to work.

“I had my interview with the headteacher and they asked how did you deal with stress? And I was like, I don’t get stressed, it’s not me,” he tells ESPN. “Within six months, just travelling to school every morning, that journey was killer.

“My whole body was buzzing, I can’t explain it — anxiety must have been going through the roof and one day I just drove into Asda car park and it hit me, burnout. I went to my GP and ended up having six months off work and then just re-evaluated everything.”

The duo’s company, Bespoke Mentoring, was launched in 2018 and has kicked on a gear since Lewis officially retired from sports in September 2020. The former Team GB man has found a true friend in Powell which contrasts with those who turned their back on him after his accident.

“When I’m feeling a bit crap and can’t attend something, he can go for me or vice versa,” Lewis says. “It is absolutely nuts that my voice unlocks his phone on Siri and his voice unlocks mine. People say we’re like brothers. We have great banter and what makes it work is for us to accept each other.”

Powell lights up when talking about Lewis and reveals it’s a friendship based on trust and respect. Powell also underlines the importance of understanding his friend’s ADHD both in and outside of the workplace.

“People see his disability as being an amputee. It’s not,” Powell adds. “He’s conquered that and yeah he’s got things that get on his nerves when he goes into his wheelchair or crutches and the way people treat him a bit differently, but his ADHD is the hard bit for him.

“The hard bit is knowing that other people don’t [know]. In a meeting, he might be doing something and you know people are thinking, ‘What is he doing? He’s being so rude,’ but he’s just bored,” laughs Powell. “There are times where I have to support his mental health but a lot of the time, it’s supporting his ADHD.

“He was told once by a top American coach that he’s got the heart of a lion and a brain of a tractor. So I’m getting the absolute most out of that heart of a lion and I’m making sure that I’m the brain. I learn a lot from him and I hope he would take a lot from me.”

The business has continued to grow in Gloucestershire as they work with hospital services, one-to-one mentoring in schools as well as helping people with universal credit claims and providing support for individuals with learning difficulties to find jobs.

Lewis is eager to see the future growth of the business but there remains a hunger to get back involved in sport — not on the track, but among those in higher positions to develop a more open environment for athletes.

There is a message in one of the Bespoke Mentoring offices which reads: “BE SO GOOD THAT THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU.” With everything he has achieved, Lewis has demonstrated that his work should not be overlooked by the sporting governing bodies if they want to create a healthier dialogue around mental health.

“I’d like to see higher-profile people talking about it and people within business talk,” says Lewis. “People in the workforce will not talk unless they see the managing directors having those types of issues, because they feel like it’s going to impact their career progression and it’s the same with sport.

“Athletes won’t talk about it and open up unless the people at the top say it’s OK to come and talk and they put a clear outline to it. I would love to be able to return to a governing body within a sport, to be able to sit down with management of that team and critique them and see, how can we make that better.”

Lewis has a new target, so don’t expect him to give it up. He never does.

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Tokyo 2020’s most unlikely team, the Refugee Paralympians want to make their mark

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Two refugee athletes led out the flag parade of the Paralympic Games opening ceremony on Tuesday, emerging from the tunnel into the joy and pandemonium unfolding at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo. The record books will note them as part of the first organised Refugee Paralympic Team, with a total of six athletes hailing from four countries — Afghanistan, Burundi, Syria and Iran. Let history also note that their journeys to Japan’s capital have been as remarkable as any in these Games.

At Rio 2016, two athletes competed as part of the Independent Paralympic Athletes’ Team, participating as one refugee and one asylee and becoming the first refugee team all but in name. However, this time around, the team has swelled to six members, competing in five sports, and will take part as the first refugee squad of its kind to be fully supported by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

Ahead of the Games, ESPN spoke to all six athletes in the refugee team to share their often heart-breaking journeys to Tokyo and the motivations behind their relentless display of resilience, hope and ambition. Here are their stories.

Parfait Hakizimana – Taekwondo (K44 class)

At the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda, hordes of children wearing white taekwondo doboks gather six times a week on the sandy basketball court and look toward their instructor, Parfait Hakizimana. He wears a black belt, the one he earned in his home country of Burundi before fleeing in 2015.

Hakizimana’s left arm is permanently debilitated from a severe gunshot wound he suffered as a child in 1996, as the violence of the country’s civil war came to his village. His mother died in the shooting that day, while his late father took 7-year-old Parfait to the hospital, where he spent two years recovering. Hakizimana escaped Burundi 20 years later, fearing the same fate as his mother, becoming one of the first settlers at Mahama, now Rwanda’s largest refugee camp. In 2017, it was home to 55,000 people of whom 51% were children. “You have to go a long way to walk and find water and feed your family,” Hakizimana says. “It’s not easy.” He is the only athlete on the team still living in a refugee camp. He resides there with his wife, Irene, and one-year-old daughter, Brinka. “Together, with my taekwondo family, I can manage it,” he says.

After the Games and the bright neon lights of Tokyo, Hakizimana will travel almost 12,000km to return to Mahama. He hopes to do so with a medal. “It will bring happiness not only to the children at the camp but also to all the refugees because this is our own achievement,” he says.

Televisions in on-camp health centres will play footage of Hakizimana’s contests, while the restricted access to internet through the community library will mean his friends and fellow coaches can spread the news of his exploits to the students. Maybe they will catch a glimpse of his performance. He often dreams that one day he will see one of them follow in his footsteps. “Many of the children have sent me messages,” Hakizimana says. “Most of them said they pray for me to win.”

Alia Issa – Club Throw (F32 class)

Alia Issa wears a gold wheat chain necklace with a large ‘M’ pendant attached at the bottom for her father, Mohament. Before she was born, he worked for four years as a tailor in Athens, Greece, sending money back to his wife and four children in Syria before he could bring them over, too.

Issa will be the first female refugee to compete at the Paralympic Games, doing so in the club throw. Family has been key to her journey to Tokyo. They were there for her when she suffered brain damage as a four-year-old after being hospitalised with smallpox, leaving her with difficulty speaking and needing support. The family came together, again, when her older sister was diagnosed with cancer, which she beat, until even worse news came: Mohament was diagnosed with a more aggressive cancer. He died in 2017. Issa was just 16 years old. “I have been thinking of him every day since I lost him,” she says. Issa bought the necklace earlier this year to remind her of her father.

After Mohament’s death, with no option to go back to Syria due to the conflict there, the family successfully applied for refugee status. Issa was introduced to club throw soon after. When she quickly fell in love with the sport, she began training four times a week, competing at the Greek National Championships and international competitions. But more is to come — soon, Issa knows, she will be a Paralympian.

“If my father was still alive, I’m pretty sure he would be very proud,” she says, her father’s initial dangling from her neck, next to her heart.

Abbas Karimi – Swimming (S5 class)

In 2015, when semi-retired Portland-based high school wrestling coach Mike Ives saw a video of Abbas Karimi swimming on Facebook, he jumped into action, sending him a message to ask how he could help. Karimi was in the midst of a three-year spell at four different refugee camps in Turkey. At one time, he would take an hour-long bus ride out of camp each morning to reach a swimming pool, where he would train before heading back for lunch. Karimi would repeat that trip each afternoon. Exhausted, he would sleep for most of the four hours of accumulated daily bus journeys. “I tolerated it because I really wanted to be a champion,” he says.

Karimi, who fled from Afghanistan to Turkey in 2013, was born without arms. He has dreamt of reaching the Paralympic Games for almost a decade. Yet during those tiring days in Turkey, it seemed further away than ever. That’s where Ives comes in. The pair chatted over social media for a while. “He never asked for money, which is rare,” Ives says. “He just wanted someone to talk to.” The American coach sent letters to the United Nations’ office in Ankara, Turkey, pleading with them to give Karimi the papers he would need to compete internationally. Eventually, he offered for Karimi to come live with him, which he did for four years. “I call him my American father. He’s everything to me,” Karimi says. “Without him, I wouldn’t make it here.”

The 24-year-old is perhaps the best positioned in the team to win a medal, which would be the first-ever won by any refugee at either an Olympic or Paralympic Games, and nobody is more aware of that fact than Karimi himself. “If I win, when I win, then it will be not just for me but for the 82 million refugees or displaced people around the world and 12 million refugees with disabilities,” he says. “It will bring hope.”

Ibrahim Al Hussein – Swimming (SB8, S9 class)

Ibrahim Al Hussein tries not to think about the past, yet what he has endured is “unforgettable.” He only needs to glance down at his legs to see the scars of his homeland. In 2012, as the Syrian civil war fanned across the country, his parents and his 13 siblings fled their hometown of Deir al-Zor toward safety. Al Hussein stayed behind. What came next changed the course of his life: Al Hussein watched as his friend was shot by a sniper; he ran to save him before an explosion sounded, costing him the bottom of his right leg. “He screamed: ‘Help me, Ibrahim. Please, help me.’ I had no other options but to help him whatever the price,” he says.

Al Hussein had always aspired to be an elite swimmer just like his father, who once won two silver medals at the Asian Championships. He eventually escaped to Greece, and was back in the pool soon after, competing again. That’s when his life began to change. He was asked to carry the 2016 Olympic torch through a ​​refugee accommodation facility after being spotted in a swimming competition. Word of the event reached the IPC headquarters, and Al Hussein was asked 10 days later if he wished to compete as one of the two independent athletes in Rio. He accepted, and he proudly carried the Paralympic flag into the Maracana stadium at the opening ceremony.

His mission since 2016 has been one of compassion. Al Hussein started a wheelchair basketball team for refugees in Athens, and he is in close contact with dozens of other refugee athletes across Europe. “Refugees have the persistence and the capabilities to pursue their dreams and achievements,” he says.

Shahrad Nasajpour – Discus (F37 class)

Months after arriving in San Francisco in 2015 as a political asylee from Iran, Shahrad Nasajpour picked up his phone and sent an email to the IPC. He had heard that the 2016 Olympic Games would feature a refugee team, a group of individuals tasked to “send a message of hope.” Nasajpour, who was born with cerebral palsy, wondered how long it would be until the Paralympics would follow suit. When he did not receive a response, he kept trying, finding the email individual addresses of IPC directors, but he was eventually informed there were no plans for a Refugee Paralympic Team for the Rio Games. But, when the IPC saw Al Hussein carrying the Olympic torch in Athens, they pushed ahead with the idea, and they knew exactly who to call when they needed another athlete. Finally, Nasajour was going to be a Paralympian.

Walking out into the Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremony, he thought of the journey he had been on: the long, sometimes aimless walks around unfamiliar American cities, the loneliness, trying to get by with broken English. In Tokyo, he plans to harness that experience to help his teammates. “We speak different languages and have different cultures,” he says. “But we’ll have a strong relationship.”

Anas Al Khalifa – Paracanoe (KL1, VL2 class)

Anas Al Khalifa did not harbour dreams of competing in Tokyo until recently. It has been two-and-a-half years since he fell from a roof in Halle, Germany when installing solar panels, a job that meant he was able to send money home to his family (his parents and only brother) in Syria. He had endured hell in reaching the European country in the first place, making the treacherous journey from a Syrian refugee camp, first to Turkey, then Greece and finally onto Germany, hitchhiking, jumping onto trains and spending long nights in the woods. “The journey of death,” Al Khalifa calls it.

When the accident happened, he could not bear to tell his parents. He only told his brother Abdu Almalik that he was paralysed from the waist down and now confined to a wheelchair. Al Khalifa fell in love with paracanoeing when he was introduced to it by a friend of his physiotherapist. He threw himself into the sport. His coach, former Bulgarian champion Ognyana Dusheva, was impressed when he first fell into the icy-cold water and vowed to return the next day to train again.

Al Khalifa’s parents called in December to deliver some grave news: His brother had been killed in a skirmish despite desperately trying to avoid the war. Al Khalifa tried to quit paracanoe when he was told. He would have done, too, had it not been for Dusheva’s insistence. It was then that he told his parents about his injury, that he again turned his focus to the Paralympic Games, and that he refuelled his motivations in the face of grief.

“My message to the world and to myself is that as long as you have a dream you have to fight for the result,” he says. “You can do it as long as you believe in yourself.”

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‘My mind wasn’t working’: What drove Julius Ssekitoleko to go MIA in Tokyo?

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Content warning: The following story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.

On July 17, six days before the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Tokyo, reports emerged that Uganda weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko had gone missing from the team hotel, despite the coronavirus quarantine measures in place.

The East African athlete, according to reports, had left the team hotel in order to seek a new life, leaving behind his luggage and a note explaining his intention to find work, and vanished into the night.

He was found, four days later, in Yokkaichi, 105 miles from his hotel in Izumisano, and was promptly returned to the Uganda camp and flown back to his homeland.

On July 23, one month and five days after arriving in Japan, he landed back at Entebbe airport in handcuffs, with authorities taking a dim view of his attempt to abscond while on international duty.

For the next five days, while the likes of Sunisa Lee, Sifan Hassan and Tatjana Schoenmaker wrote their Olympic legacies, Ssekitoleko languished in a Ugandan prison, facing charges of attempting to defraud the government.

For some observers, Ssekitoleko was dismissed as just another athlete from Uganda who had taken the opportunity to go MIA when a brighter future presented itself overseas.

The weightlifter’s motivations and pressures, unknown to the public at the time, highlight another side to the Olympic Games, demonstrating the critical need for greater mental health support for athletes who may not have resources of their own.

Ssekitoleko detailed, for the first time, to ESPN the events that led up to his disappearance, and the pressures that evoked his thoughts of self-harm, and eventual flight from the hotel.

The gamble that didn’t pay off

Ssekitoleko says he headed to Japan on June 19 with a mountain of debt, having sold his motorbike — losing the income from working as a delivery driver — in order to buy weightlifting equipment.

The 21-year-old took a gamble and promised the owner of the property in which he lived and trained that he would return from the Games with the required funds to pay back the rent he owed.

He was fueled by the unrealistic, as it turned out, dream of future riches contingent on medal success at the Games.

“In Uganda, people are struggling, as was I,” he told ESPN. “In Kampala, if you don’t have land or a house, you have to pay to rent, pay to train, so I used to do that.

“[However] I wasn’t paying, and I told the guy, ‘I will pay you.’ I knew I was going to the Games, I knew I could do it, would come back, and it’d be OK, my life would have changed.

“I would have won there, and they would [have given me] some money. You see the guys who win the gold, silver, bronze medals, they got a lot of things; they got cars, they are going to build good houses for them.”

Disaster struck for Ssekitoleko after he’d already arrived in Japan, however. He says he was shocked to learn that he had been cut from the Olympic team and would not be competing after all.

Ssekitoleko, who had been a travelling reserve, seemed to be unaware that he had to wait for the final IWF rankings to be published before knowing his competition fate. He had not met the Olympic qualifying criteria.

“We reached there, and they told me at the last minute — three days before we were due to go to the Olympic Village — that I wasn’t going to compete and that I hadn’t qualified,” he said. “I didn’t know they could do this; that they could tell me I hadn’t qualified and couldn’t compete.

“I felt so bad, I had so much stress, because I had given myself so much time to prepare for these Games.”

The Ugandan weightlifting authorities said in a statement that Ssekitoleko had indeed been informed, before leaving Uganda, that he was not guaranteed a place and would need to wait for the final rankings.

The UWF statement read: “His qualification was pending announcement by the International Weight-lifting Federation (IWF) of its final qualified weightlifters to participate at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He had been duly informed and was aware of this position from the time he was set to leave Uganda for Izumisano, Japan.”

Compounding Ssekitoleko’s sense of desperation, he heard stories from people back home that his pregnant wife was being threatened with eviction due to the unpaid rent.

He added: “People were talking and saying that they’d thrown my wife out of the house. I was stressed when they told me about that.

“She’s pregnant and will soon give birth, and I was thinking that when I go back to Uganda, I would have nothing, nowhere to start. … It was a very big problem for me.”

Standing on a rooftop

With his misguided plan to pay back the accrued debt shattered by the news that he would not be competing at the Games, Ssekitoleko said that went up to the roof of the team’s hotel, where he considered taking his own life.

“On that day, a guy gave me a ticket and said, ‘You’re going back to Uganda,'” the young weightlifter recalled.

“My mind was not even working at that time. When he finished telling me and gave me my ticket, I just went straight to my room, sat down and started praying to God.

“I was thinking a lot of things: to kill myself, to disappear, or maybe I could get help from people. I left my room, I got outside — where we were staying was a very tall building — and I wanted to throw myself down, because of this pressure.

“I had nowhere. … If I came back to Uganda, where could I start? I wanted to kill myself.

“[Then] at the moment I was thinking of throwing myself down, I looked forward and I saw a train that was moving, and I thought, ‘Maybe instead of killing myself, I can get help for myself from people.'”

play

1:59

Caeleb Dressel speaks to Stephen A. Smith about the intense anxiety he faced while at the Olympics.

Last gasp bid for a new life

Ssekitoleko says he then went back to his room to pack some belongings, fled the team hotel, and boarded a train to Nagoya, approximately 215 miles southwest of Tokyo.

“I went down, very early in the morning, at 4 a.m., carried my bag, and went to the train station,” he said. “I thought I would go to Nagoya, I knew this name from Toyota cars, and I thought there would be a lot of people there, I can get help from there.

“I had $100 I came with from Uganda, and went to the train station. I went to the [ATM] machine, they gave me balance for 2000 Yen and some coins and they gave me a ticket, and I sat in the train to Nagoya station.”

He concedes that he didn’t have a clear idea of how he would construct a new life for himself or raise funds, but he remained optimistic that through a combination of local generosity and/or work opportunities, finances would come.

He had weighed up going home to his pregnant wife, with no money, versus being away and earning money, and says he had opted for the latter: “I wasn’t worried [about not going back home] because I knew that if I got work, I could send them money and that their life and situation would get better.”

Living on the streets for the next few days after getting off the train in the city of Yokkaichi, and surviving off the bananas and donuts he’d taken from the hotel, Ssekitoleko began to take stock of his situation.

“In those countries, they don’t have animals who can bite you or affect you, so I just laid down in some clothes of mine, and slept,” he said. “I started to relax, because I saw other people and knew that I could get help from them, maybe I could meet people who knew English.”

On his final evening in Yokkaichi, he found an unlocked car and slept the night, before eventually being recognised by the owner of the car and accepting an offer of refreshment.

“I asked if he could help me, and if he had anything I could eat, or a bathroom,” Ssekitoleko said, still unaware that he was making headlines worldwide for his disappearance.

“He was from Pakistan, he knew English very well, and he told me, ‘People have shown me your photograph, they are looking for you.’

“I had my phone, but you know, if you don’t have signal, or Wi-Fi, or data … so I wasn’t connecting or communicating. This guy gave me food, tea, he showed me his bathroom, and I bathed. I told him I didn’t know where I was, so I asked him to take me to the police.”

Exhausted, and encouraged even by the prospect of a good night’s sleep and a warm meal in Japanese custody, Ssekitoleko says he willfully handed himself over to the authorities, and was soon reunited with the Ugandan delegation.

Returning home in handcuffs

Despite the weightlifter expressing his futile desire not to return to Uganda, he ultimately boarded a flight home on July 23. He was arrested upon landing and taken to the headquarters of the Ugandan Criminal Investigations Directorate for questioning.

After five days in custody, accusations that Ssekitoleko had misled the Ugandan authorities about his qualification — and therefore had fraudulently been selected for the Games — were dropped.

Some members of the Ugandan government have since criticised the handling of the Ssekitoleko affair, suggesting that he should have been treated with compassion and care, instead of being considered a criminal.

“It’s clear that Ssekitoleko was distraught after not qualifying for the competitions thus choosing to leave the camp,” said MP Martin Ojara Mapenduzi at a parliamentary hearing on Aug. 18.

“There’s [a] need to come up with a system to help support our sports representatives in all aspects of their lives and create a fund for them so that they do not engage in desperate actions.”

The athlete garnered support online too, with a social media hashtag #StandWithSsekitoleko doing the rounds, and presidential candidate Henry Tumukunde tweeting: “How many people can stand up & say they’ve been good enough to represent the country at a major sports event? Talent needs guidance & the right environment to be fully realised. This young man, Julius Ssekitoleko, needs a second chance. #StandWithSsekitoleko”

Ssekitoleko, who represented Uganda at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, remains disappointed that both his Olympic ambitions and his attempt to forge a new life for himself in Japan were in vain.

He says that he is determined that one day he will access the riches that are on offer to elite athletes: “You go to the Olympics, you win a medal, you come back to Uganda and they give you your money.

“I’m not going to stop this sport. I’m going to compete, I’m going to do my best, and I’ll prepare to go to the Olympics in 2024.”



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Everything you need to know about the 2020 Paralympic Games

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The Paralympics is taking place in Tokyo between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5.

What’s on the schedule?

There will be 539 events taking place across 22 sports, hosted at 21 different venues. There are two new additions to the Games, with badminton and taekwando set to make their Paralympic debuts.

The event starts with an opening ceremony on Aug. 24, before events for cycling, goalball, swimming, table tennis, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing and wheelchair rugby kick things off the following day.

How will COVID-19 affect the event?

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics will take place in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Japanese government and Tokyo event organisers have implemented strict restrictions around travel, spectators and nonessential workers, meaning delegation sizes have been severely limited from previous events.

-Paralympics follows Olympics’ no-fans mandate

The affect of this has already been seen in the weeks leading in to the event. Deaf-blind swimmer Becca Myers, a gold medalist at Rio 2016, pulled out of this year’s Paralympics after the USOPC denied her request to have her mother at the games in Tokyo as her personal care assistant (PCA), a role she’s carried out since 2017.

America’s swimming team is a good example of how stringent the rules are — the federation has only one slot for a PCA to deal with its 34 swimmers.

Stand-out Paralympics stories

Blind sprinter David Brown found clarity in just 10.92 seconds
When America’s David Brown shattered the world record in the T-12 classification at Rio 2016, it was the culmination of a remarkable journey through hardships and self-doubt.

What classes an athlete as eligible for the Paralympics?

The Paralympics is committed to competitive and fair competition. Impairments are therefore measured and classified to enable athletes to be grouped together for balanced competition.

The Paralympics likens this to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight — it is done to avoid lopsided competition.

There are 10 impairment types — outlined in greater detail here by the IPC — which qualify someone for Paralympic competition:

In the Paralympics, sports are further split apart by classifications, which are determined to strengthen the competitive playing field across the board. Amputee sports classification is an example of how this works — A1, A2, A3 and A4 classifications are for athletes with different types of lower limb amputations, while A5, A6, A7, A8 and A9 are for athletes with upper limb amptutations.

Athletes will be evaluated and classified and put into the category the governing body feels is appropriate both for themselves and the other athletes in that classification.

The classification system has evolved — and continues to evolve — since the first Paralympic games. It exists across every event and measures a range of things including but not limited to spinal chord injuries, wheelchair mobility, cerebral palsy and vision impairments.

It remains controversial, however, with a growing number of athletes questioning the fairness of the classification system, including complaints about imbalanced competitions. This is likely to be a major talking point at this year’s Games.

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No fans allowed for upcoming Tokyo Paralympics

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TOKYO — All fans will be barred from the Paralympics in Japan because of the coronavirus pandemic, just as they were from the recently completed Tokyo Olympics, organizers said Monday.

There were a few exceptions made during the Olympics with some fans allowed in outlying areas away from Tokyo. This time, all fans will be barred except the possibility of some children attending a few unspecified events.

Organizers have also asked the public not to come out to view road events.

The decision was announced after a meeting with International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons, organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and Olympic Minister Tamayo Marukawa.

The Paralympics open on Aug. 24 with about 4,400 athletes, a far smaller event than the Olympics with 11,000 athletes. But the Paralympics come as new infections have accelerated in Tokyo, which may expose an athlete population that is more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Parsons, speaking at a news conference, said there was no room for complacency in the wake of the Olympics.

“In light of the current case numbers in Tokyo and wider Japan, everyone attending these games must be vigilant,” Parsons said.

New infections in Tokyo tripled during the 17 days of the Olympics, although medical experts said the surge was not directly linked the Tokyo Games. Rather, experts suggested an indirect effect as the public was distracted and lulled into a false sense of security that staging the Games offered.

With the situation growing worse, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Monday said a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas will be extended until Sept. 12. The state of emergency has been in force since July 12 and was to end later this month.

The Paralympics end on Sept. 5.

“The surge in infections is reaching alarming record highs,” Suga said after meeting with other government ministers.

On Friday, Tokyo logged 5,773 cases, a new high. On Sunday, the Japanese capital reported 4,295 cases. The rise in infections has severely strained the medical system. Experts say the situation is getting out of control and some call it “a disaster.”

Japan has attributed 15,400 deaths to COVID-19.

Dr. Haruo Ozaki, president of the Tokyo Medical Association, said in an interview with regional newspaper Tokyo Shimbun published Saturday that a significant number of people are still unvaccinated, and characterized the virus situation for the Paralympics as worse than it was during the Olympics.

Estimates suggest about 37% of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated.

Ozaki called having no fans “a minimum necessity” and attributed the surge to the delta variant.

He called holding the Paralympics “a political decision, but the judgment by the medial side is that it will be difficult.”

“The Olympics,” Ozaki added, “is a festival and might have affected the people in ways to loosen up and served as an indirect cause of rising cases.”

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Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel’s dog shows off ridiculous speed in 25-meter swim

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Like father, like … dog?

We all know Caeleb Dressel is an otherworldly swimmer. If you somehow missed the whole “he won five gold medals in the pool at the Tokyo Olympics” thing, you’ll just have to take our word for it. But we’ve undoubtedly been sleeping on his four-legged companion.

Dressel often speaks about his beloved black labrador, Jane. After one of his copious gold-medal winning performances (slight flex), the swimmer explained that he couldn’t wait to be reunited with his furry friend. But he failed to mention that she can turn on the jets in the pool just like her dear, old dog dad.

In a video posted to his Instagram account, Dressel revealed that Jane not only has excellent starting form off the block, but can MOVE.

Did you see that impeccable starting technique? She had her paws tucked under the lip and all. They don’t teach that at doggy daycare.

Even fellow Team USA swimmer, Bobby Finke — who won the gold in the 800m and 1500m freestyle in Tokyo — conceded, “Start is still better than mine” in the comments section.

Somebody get this good girl an exemption for the Paris Games.



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Tokyo Games again show what the Olympics are all about

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If ever there is a new motto created for the Olympic Games, one could make a very strong case for it being, “That’s what the Olympics is all about.”

Just look at these Tokyo Games. Over the past three weeks, we have heard “That’s what the Olympics is all about” used in reference to feats of incredible athletic prowess, like when Suni Lee soared in the gymnastics all-around, or when Sifan Hassan, the Dutch runner, tripped and fell on the last lap of her qualifying heat for the 1500 meters only to get up, stage an eye-popping comeback, win the heat and then go on to take gold in the final.

We’ve heard it used to describe heart-wrenching emotional moments, like Tamyra Mensah-Stock winning gold in wrestling, bursting into tears on the mat and later revealing that she was going to give most of her prize money to her mother so she could start her own business.

We’ve come to learn that sometimes the Olympics is all about an athlete showing incredible innovation, like gold medalist Jess Fox using a condom — yes, a condom — to repair her kayak. Or all about the quirky, like British diver Tom Daley sitting in the stands and knitting a perfect little pouch for his gold medal.

To some competitors, it turns out, the Olympics is all about the basics and nothing more: “To be able to stand on top of that podium,” said Australian swimmer Emma McKeon after she won gold in the 100-meter freestyle, “that’s what the Olympics is all about.”

To others, the Olympics is about something more visceral: “I think we’re ready for more kick-ass performances,” American Chase Kalisz said after he won gold in the 400-meter individual medley, because “that’s what the Olympics is all about.”

Kalisz, to be fair, may have a point — who isn’t ready for more kick-ass performances? — but these assertions about what the Olympics is all about are not definitive; they can only be added to the larger anthology of what the Olympics has been all about for years.

As far back as 1988, for instance, Team USA second baseman Ty Griffin postulated that “playing against the best” was what the Olympics is all about. In 1996, Dream Team guard Reggie Miller classified meeting Kerri Strug as “what the Olympics is all about.” An Australian sailor said the Olympics is all about whether a certain day’s sea breezes end up being “shifty and puffy and quite fresh.”

So what is the Olympics all about, really? Maybe Wolf Wigo, the American water polo player, was right in 2004. Wigo, while talking about how he had given up his full-time job and nearly missed the birth of his child because of the “suffering” he had put himself through in pre-Olympic conditioning, said learning “to push ourselves to the absolute limit” was “what the Olympics is all about.” Or maybe Shane O’Connor, the Irish skier, was correct when he said in 2018 that among competitors “there’s a huge tradition of pin-swapping here” at the Olympics and so, to him, pin-swapping is “what the Olympics is all about.”

The truth, of course, isn’t quite so simple because none of them is right and they’re all right at the same time. That is the beauty of the Olympics, the enduring grace of a global sports phenomenon that is often criticized (fairly, more often than not) for having become riddled with corruption and money and doping and farce.

The athletes are what save it, and we take from them what we need. We soak in their stories. Their passion. Their honor and wonder and class. Do you remember how you felt when you saw Ahmed Hafnaoui, a Tunisian swimmer, ripping through the pool and shocking everyone — himself included — to claim his country’s first-ever gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle? Or when Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim asked an official, “Can there be two golds?” instead of a tiebreaker, and he and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi stood next to each other atop the podium?

The Olympics give us that. They give us moments of clarity and depth and breadth. They give us an Australian swimming coach who celebrates like a banshee. They give us a Hungarian sailor who wins a medal despite coming from a country with no sea. They give us a magnificent swimmer from Alaska who sets the world on fire. They give us an Indonesian badminton player who thought her career might be over after disqualification from the 2012 Olympics only to win gold nine years later.

They give us a gymnast, the greatest of all time, who moved us forever when she stepped on the mat, yet inspired us even more with the strength she showed stepping off it.

On Sunday, at the Closing Ceremony, the Olympic flame was passed from Japan to China. The Winter Games in Beijing are only six months away. There will be controversy and consternation over the organization of those Games as well as the execution of those Games and even the basic existence of those Games — again, most of it absolutely deserved — but ultimately, there will be, too, those moments that bring all of us back.

Incredible dominance. Superior strength. Fight. Mettle. Grit. Courage. Laughter and joy and grief and pain.

A sprinter stretching for the tape. A wrestler reversing defeat to victory. A diver with seven perfect 10’s. A triathlete on his back at the finish line. A heptathlete pushing away a wheelchair, steeling herself and limping across the finish line on her own wounded leg.

That is what the Olympics is all about. All of it.



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How Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson became your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler

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How many 275-pound men do you know who can do a backflip?

While you’re ruminating on that seemingly trivial question, let’s take this thought exercise a step further: How many 275-pound men do you know who can backflip and capture the attention of Triple H and Ric Flair with their athletic prowess?

I reckon not many come to mind. That’s because Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson is a rare breed. Scratch that, the tantalizing U.S. wrestler is one-of-a-kind, a bona fide original.

“When and if I can win, put on a good show for America, that flip is coming,” Steveson teased to NBC Chicago of his signature post-victory backflip ahead of his awe-inducing Tokyo run.

On Friday, the ultimate showman made good on his promise.

There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and Steveson walks it masterfully. The 21-year-old’s keen sense of self and his belief in his otherworldly abilities is what enabled him to cruise through the first three matches of his Olympic debut without giving up a point.

It’s a feat that’s particularly impressive when you consider one of his opponents was Taha Akgul of Turkey, the defending Olympic champion. Steveson — The University of Minnesota Gophers’ heavyweight, reigning NCAA Division I National Champion and winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy — made light work of Aiaal Lazarev of Kyrgyzstan in his opening match, taking only 2 minutes, 2 seconds to win 10-0. He followed that up with an 8-0 drubbing of Akgul before winning his semifinal match against Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia 5-0 to advance to the men’s freestyle 125kg wrestling final.

“He’s the best heavyweight wrestler to probably ever step foot (on the mat),” Steveson said of Akgul after their quarterfinal showdown. “But his time is up. I came here for business. I came here to win. … Ain’t nothing going to be given to me. I’ve got to go get it.”

And that’s exactly what he did in an incredible comeback win over Geno Petriashvili — the 2016 bronze-medalist and three-time world champion (2017-19) of Georgia — in the final.

Steveson was born in 2000, and America hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s heavyweight in his lifetime (Bruce Baumgartner, 1992). If you know his story, it’s not surprising that the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native would be the one to get it done.

I’m not saying the Team USA standout’s mom set this all in motion by choosing to name her son after wrestling legend Dan Gable (Steveson’s middle name is Dan), who was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.

Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I’m saying. This whole thing feels preordained. Maybe that’s why the charismatic superstar was so fearless and brash about what he intended to do. He was born for this.

“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he told the Associated Press. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”

If the wrestler choosing to address himself in the third person and the above quote gave you strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vibes, you’re on the right track. The pinnacle of athletic achievement, winning an Olympic gold medal, was just the first item on a long list of aspirations for Gable.

The wrestler plans to use the accomplishment to launch his WWE career and eventually hopes to be afforded opportunities like The Rock and his mentor, fellow Minnesota great and WWE champion, Brock Lesnar.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how to make it to the WWE, but when I got to the University of Minnesota, I learned how Brock went about things and how to make connections,” Gable told Gopher Sports.

“My relationship with Brock has been awesome. It’s outstanding that a guy like that has noticed me and has gone out of his way to be there for me and guide me in the right direction.”

It’s not a matter of if he will go down the professional wrestling route, but when.

Steveson has already made a lot of noise in the professional wrestling space without ever stepping in the ring. From appearing in the crowd at NXT TakeOvers and WrestleMania to waving at Vince McMahon on Twitter, Gable has kept his name top of mind among the WWE brass and stars alike.

Then there’s the famed picture of the Team USA standout with Roman Reigns and his manager Paul Heyman.

“The picture of me, Paul (Heyman), and Roman Reigns is gonna go down as maybe one of the best wrestling photos in history,” Steveson said. “Just because the path that I’m taking with it and the path that Roman Reigns has set in stone being a champion, that’ll probably never be defeated again. The path that Paul Heyman has done for wrestling. He’s probably the greatest spokesperson. (He’s going to the) Hall of Fame.”

Steveson’s expectations for his future are larger-than-life, but why shouldn’t they be? He’s a walking, back-flipping testimonial for the benefits of doing it big.



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Fourth time’s a charm? Keyshawn Davis will have to beat rival Andy Cruz to win Olympic gold

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Andy Cruz Gomez glided around the ring in jubilation, then proceeded to perform the “floss,” motioning his hands to the front and back of his body rapidly in expression as Keyshawn Davis solemnly exited the ring through the ropes.

The brilliant boxer from Cuba had just defeated Davis via unanimous decision, and it wasn’t the first time he had beaten the American. This September 2019 victory in the gold medal match of the AIBA World Championships in Russia was the most impactful, though. And the three-round fight wasn’t all that close.

Cruz, a 25-year-old disciple of the vaunted Cuban school of boxing, controlled the action with his excellent jab and ended the fight by marching Davis into a corner before unleashing a barrage of shots.

Davis couldn’t find Cruz in the ring, even when his foe was pressuring him — Cruz’s elusiveness in tight quarters is a sight to behold. The pair has fought three times and each time Cruz’s hand has been raised at the end of the fight.

On Sunday (at 1:15 a.m. ET), they’ll meet for the final time in the amateurs, and the stakes for these lightweights couldn’t be any higher. An Olympic gold medal is on the line.

Beyond the personal stakes for Davis, for whom Olympic gold has long been a dream, it would be the first gold medal for a U.S. men’s boxer since Andre Ward won in Athens in 2004. Davis is the first lightweight from the U.S. men’s boxing team to reach the Olympic finals since Oscar De La Hoya, who won that gold medal in 1992 in Barcelona.

“It’s been, what, 17 years? … He has the chance, he has the skill,” De La Hoya said. “It seems like he’s really focus and determined. It’s all about just fighting hard to the last second. There’s no getting tired, there’s no thinking about anything else but winning that gold. And he can do it. It would be monumental for USA Boxing and Olympic boxing. So we’re rooting for him 1,000 percent.”

Davis is one of two American men in gold medal contention after featherweight Duke Ragan settled for silver, dropping a 3-2 decision to Russia’s Albert Batyrgaziev on Thursday. Super heavyweight Richard Torrez Jr. fights in a gold medal bout of his own one hour after Davis and Cruz square off.

Davis qualified for the gold medal fight by defeating Hovhannes Bachkov of Armenia by unanimous decision on Friday. Coincidentally, Davis beat Bachkov in 2019 to reach the AIBA World Championships finals, where he met Cruz. In the second semifinal, Cruz won a unanimous decision of his own over Harry Garside of Australia.

Davis believed this would be the final before the tournament began, and now Cruz stands in between him and realizing his dream.

“Everybody hoping that me and Cruz will be in the finals,” Davis said before his first Olympic fight. “Everybody hoping it will be a helluva fight. Last three fights were helluva fights.”

And Davis certainly won’t be lacking for motivation.

“I don’t really like the dude,” Davis, 22, told ESPN days before the Olympics kicked off. “He walks around with a little chip on his shoulder.”


Davis began boxing at 9 after his mother, Wanda, took him and his two brothers, Kelvin and Keon, to City of Norfolk Gym at Barraud Park in Virginia. Wanda was looking for another outlet for her three boys to let out some energy beyond football and basketball, both seasonal sports.

She was sold when she was told they would train five days a week, all year round.

Davis was immediately invested, and his work paid off. He prospered for years as an amateur, and then crossed paths with a boxing icon in 2016 which took his passion to another level. Keyshawn met Pernell Whitaker, a hall-of-fame boxer and winner of a gold medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and carried a significant presence in the boxing scene in Norfolk.

“They had a decent relationship,” said Wanda, who added Whitaker would occasionally come to offer Davis pointers during sparring sessions.

“‘Sweet Pea’ always used to tell me to use my quickness and use my speed,” Davis recalled. “He said I reminded him a lot of himself. ‘Don’t ever lose that, always stay behind that.’ And he was a fan of the jab.”

Whitaker owns one of the best jabs in boxing history, a lead hand that led him to world championships in three divisions. Before his tremendous success in the pros, he brought Olympic gold home to Norfolk. That victory was 15 years before Davis was even born, but the victory over Luis Ortiz is immortalized on YouTube. Keyshawn watched that fight numerous times to prepare for his own gold-medal match he knew was coming all along.

Davis seemingly had to give up his Olympic dreams when COVID forced his hand in turning pro in 2020. But when Olympic qualifiers were also interrupted, three professionals — Davis, Ragan and Troy Isley — were invited to join the team in Tokyo.

In a flash, his Olympic dreams were back on the table.


The Cuban will be favored to win once again on Sunday. He’s looked spectacular in the Olympics, and is well on his way to the Val Baker Trophy for the most outstanding boxer of the tournament.

If Cruz hopes a gold medal will be a launching pad to a budding pro career, though, he has obvious obstacles to overcome. Cuba doesn’t allow its citizens to fight professionally. Former champions like Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara defected to the United States to pursue professional careers. The closest experience Cruz can boast was his time in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing, a breeding ground that vaulted boxers like Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk to pound-for-pound stardom.

Cruz built a perfect 16-0 record in the WSOB before returning to the amateurs, where he won two gold medals at the Pan American Games and another two at the AIBA World Championships.

But Davis has already turned pro. His debut in the paid ranks came in a high-profile opportunity in February on the undercard of Canelo Alvarez vs. Avni Yildirim. It was a success by any measure, as Davis earned a second-round TKO victory.

Davis’ next two fights were also on major events, with a stoppage victory in April on the Jamel Herring-Carl Frampton card, and a six-round decision triumph on the undercard of Alvarez-Billy Joe Saunders in May. He was 3-0 and seemingly on a professional fast track when he got the call to join the Olympic team, and he jumped at the opportunity.

Davis believes his three pro fights — and the training he’s done for them — will be the difference in his fourth fight against Cruz.

“My shot placement is different,” Davis said. “I know how to set up shots; know how to set traps. I know how to change the pace. With those eight-ounce [gloves], you do not want to get hit. My defense is a lot tighter, sharper. I’m on my toes more; I’m starting to use my feet more.”

De La Hoya had some insight to offer in regards to how Davis could flip the script after losing to Cruz in their three previous meetings.

“Try something different. Try a different strategy,” said De La Hoya. “Don’t try to fight the same fight that you fought three times that you came up short. Try to do the ordinary. Try to confuse him. It doesn’t matter how you look. No one is giving you points on how perfect your jab is, or your right hand.

“Just throw punches and have that determination to win. When I fought in the Olympics I was so worried about how people judged me and how my combinations were looking, but in the Olympics just throw that out the window. I don’t care if I look sloppy, it just doesn’t matter. Just do whatever it takes to win.”

The stakes couldn’t be much higher, and even before the tournament began, Davis realized that his lifelong dream of standing atop the podium with gold dangling from his neck would have to go through Cruz.

“I’m going to beat him like I should,” Davis said. “This fourth time is going to be different. I learned so much from those three fights.”

That’s the mark of a great pro fighter — adjustments. Juan Manuel Marquez fought Manny Pacquiao three times without a victory. The fourth meeting ended with Pacquiao unconscious, courtesy of a blistering overhand right from Marquez.

Davis has studied film in preparation for the man he knew would be standing across from him. “I learned from every one of your fights,” Davis said in a message to Cruz. “I will never stop learning.”

One contest stood out to Davis during all that film study: a loss Cruz suffered to France’s Sofiane Oumiha in April 2019.

“I finally understood how he lost to the France kid,” Davis said, “and I’m going to bite off that style.”

Davis defeated Oumiha in September of that year, and then, in a prelude to fighting Cruz in the Olympic final, defeated Oumiha in his Round of 16 fight on July 31.

Davis scored a stoppage in that rematch, which is impressive considering Oumiha entered the Tokyo Games as the No. 1 seed. The finish came courtesy of an overhand right that sent Oumiha stumbling before the ref decided he couldn’t continue.

That kind of power could be key in making sure the fourth meeting will be different. Scoring a stoppage in the Olympics is no easy feat between the bigger gloves (10 ounces rather than 8) and shorter rounds (three rather than 10 or 12 on the top level). Regardless of the result, Davis’ amateur career ends on Sunday.

If Cruz and Davis meet again down the line, they’ll do so as paid professionals. For now, they fight for far more than money: national pride, competitive rivalry and, for Davis, a chance to finally end that 17-year U.S. men’s boxing gold-medal drought.

“Bringing us pro boxers back on the team, I feel like it was destined for me,” Davis said. “I feel like it’s destined for me to win that gold medal.”



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