By Cody Goodwin
The lasting image Kyven Gadson left with the Iowa State wrestling team sums him up better than any story ever could.
Shortly after pinning Ohio State’s Kyle Snyder for the 197-pound NCAA title last year, Gadson met with ESPN’s Quint Kessenich for a live, exuberant interview. He talked about nerves. He gave the name of the throw he used to win. He mentioned his late father, Willie.
Then Kessenich asked what it felt like to be a national champion, and Gadson offered up a line that cemented his spot near the top of history’s most-entertaining post-competition interviews.
“I just want some ice cream, man,” Gadson deadpanned. “I just want some ice cream.”
A few weeks later, he enjoyed the creamy delight while watching the 2015 U.S. Open. For the first time in many years, he held the mindset of a fan. This, he said, was part of the plan.
“I basically didn’t think I was going to be wrestling again,” Gadson said, “so I was chillin’ at home watching, eating ice cream, coolin’ it.”
On Sunday, Gadson will compete at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trails in Iowa City. It will have been 387 days since his animated chat with Kessenich, a time during which Gadson hung up his shoes, ready to leave on his own terms, only to lace them up again.
Slowly, he returned, his journey culminating with a chance to qualify for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I think in the back of my head, subconsciously, I always knew I would (come back),” he said. “But after NCAAs, I was just like, that’s it.”
Gadson took time off after becoming the 69th Cyclone to win a national title, capping his ISU career as a three-time All-American. He won 90 matches over those three seasons, but felt pangs of guilt from the sacrifices made in order to achieve those goals.
Willie Gadson, his father and high-school coach at Waterloo East, passed away in March of 2013 after a year-long fight with cancer. Still, Kyven Gadson competed, with Willie’s voice in constantly his ear.
“My dad said during my first wrestling practice, ‘We have a long ways to go, but we’re going to get there, buddy,’ ” Kyven Gadson said. “I’ve said before that wrestling’s given me a lot, but it’s also caused a lot of heartache.
“You make choices based on what you want, and some of those choices, for me, I felt like I sacrificed meaningful time with my family, especially with everything my mom went through while my dad battled cancer. I didn’t make it home much.”
During his time away, Gadson was a steady presence around the Harold Nichols Wrestling Room, but only for light workouts. He’d lift and run and do “some other stuff,” he said, mostly because he wants to dunk, something he concedes is still a work in progress.
“We always have our practices after the (college) season,” said Trent Paulson, coach of the Cyclone Wrestling Club and an assistant at ISU. “We play this game called run-and-gun, where you take a tape ball, take three steps and throw it.
“(Gadson) came in and played that game with us for 15-20 minutes, and when it came time to wrestle, he would just leave.”
Then, on July 3, Gadson sat with his mom and ISU coach Kevin Jackson, watching fireworks light up the sky at Jack Trice Stadium. The team was scheduled to run the stairs there the next morning.
Later that night, Gadson texted Jackson. If he showed up for the workout, he wrote, he’d return to wrestle. Rejuvenated, he scaled the stairs alongside his peers the next morning, refreshed and ready to compete again.
“I think (the time away) helped me refocus myself, and rededicate myself to my goals,” he said. “I think the biggest thing about commitment, you do it when the mood that you started in is no longer there.
“You know, on July 4th, I woke up ready to go, but there are days where this is really tough. You come in, your body is hurting, you don’t feel great — but you’re committed to it, so you have to tough it out.”
His mental fortitude showed immediately, as Gadson returned to take part in a completely different form of the sport. Freestyle, one of the Olympic styles, closely resembles folkstyle, which is wrestled collegiately, but there are a slew of different scoring and situational rules.
Gadson continues to perfect certain techniques he never used in college. His natural ability has sped the process along — he finished third at senior nationals at 97 kilograms (roughly 213 pounds) in December, qualifying him for the trials.
“There is definitely that learning curve,” said Bruce Burnett, the national men’s freestyle head coach. “It’s all takedowns and exposure. But he can wrestle upper body, he can attack the legs and he can defend. He certainly has a future in freestyle if he chooses to pursue it.”
Gadson is primed to do just that, but must overcome a loaded field at 97kg this weekend. In front of him is past world-team member J.D. Bergman, along with former ISU wrestler and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jake Varner — as well as Snyder, the weight’s defending world champ.
“Everybody is a grown man,” Gadson said and laughed.
Gadson remains the last American to defeat Snyder, which is nothing more than a trivia answer to the man who did it. Gadson is focused on his own goals, of course, and just like in the 2015 NCAA title match, Snyder just so happens to be standing in the way.
“When you’re the best in the world, you’re the best in the world,” Gadson said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are. Kyle showed that last year. You can be the best in the world at 19 years old.
“I’m just trying to do it at 23 or 24.”