Gabe Dean never intended to become a wrestler. Now, he's one of the best in the country.

Adrian Boteanu | Sun Staff Photographer

Gabe Dean never intended to become a wrestler. Now, he's one of the best in the country.

February 8, 2017

Wrestling the Right Way: The Rise of Cornell’s Two-Time NCAA Champion Gabe Dean

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This story previously appeared in our 2016-17 winter sports supplement. To view the supplement, click here.

“Recognize opportunity,” reads the Latin inscription on Gabe Dean’s necklace that he always keeps close by his side. The two-time NCAA national champion and three time all-American has used these two words as a guide throughout his journey to the top of the collegiate wrestling world. Now a senior applied economics and management major and the heavy favorite to win a third consecutive national title in March, Dean’s road is far from over.

Midwestern Memories

Gabriel Curtis Dean was born in Eastern Michigan and spent the first few years of his life in a rural home as one of three children. As a young boy, he enjoyed running around outside, going fishing with his father and playing video games at home — just like any other kid.

“My mom actually tried to put me into tap dancing when I was little, but it lasted about a day,” Dean said. “There was a part of this one dance where I didn’t like what I had to do, so I just walked out right in the middle of the dance, and that was it.”

Dancing may not have been a good fit, so Dean’s father came up with a different plan for him. David Dean wrestled for Minnesota where he won two Big 10 championships and was a national runner-up, going on to coach at Michigan State for 13 years. At first, Gabe did not care much for his father’s livelihood, but that soon changed when he got to experience it firsthand.

“He would bring me and my brother up to the wrestling room, and we would run around on the mats and play with the guys on the [MSU] team,” he said. “They were our role models growing up.”

Once he finally entered the sport at the age of nine, Gabe’s wrestling career got off to a rough start at a small local tournament.

“I got head-locked and pinned by a girl,” he said.  “I acted like I was paralyzed on the mat because I was so distraught.”

From that point on, wrestling was always one of his activities, but the passion he holds today took some time to arrive.

“My true passion was always football. Even when I was a kid I loved football,” Dean said, who also played baseball and basketball. On multiple occasions, Dean almost walked out on wrestling like he did on tap dancing.

“I actually tried to quit wrestling several times as a kid, but [my parents] would always bribe me back into it with ice cream or stuff like that,” he said.

Still, Dean’s parents never forced wrestling on him — something he is very thankful for.

“One of the things I’ve really appreciated is my parents never pushed me to do anything,” he said.  “Sure, my dad was a little manipulative with wrestling like by bringing me to practices and all that, but they let me do what I wanted and enjoy my childhood, and they loved me unconditionally no matter what.”

Next Stop: Lowell, Mich.

When Dean was going into the sixth grade, his family moved west to Lowell, a town of about 4,000. As Dean and his siblings grew up, their father left his job at Michigan State to spend more time with his family. At Lowell High School, he became head wrestling coach, where Gabe’s uncle was already the head football coach.

Going into high school, Dean kept his focus on football. The then-freshman played quarterback on his junior varsity team and developed his natural ability throughout the season. As a sophomore, Dean was eager to earn a spot on the varsity team, but standing in the way was a senior quarterback who had taken the starting gig.

“They were working me at safety — trying to find me a position — and a week before the first game, we were having a scrimmage, and the QB broke his collarbone,” Dean said. “I was the next in line.”

While Dean was going to get that starting gig at the position he was most prepared for, the position came with pressure. In that small town of Lowell, around 8,000 to 9,000 people would come out for a Friday game, tailgating included.

“It was pretty terrifying. It’s one of those Friday-night-lights towns,” he said.

Dean took it all in stride though, winning seven out of his first eight games and ultimately leading his team all the way to a state championship. Dean led the team to two second place finishes in his junior and senior years.

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At the same time, Dean was also wrestling for his father throughout his time in high school. Although he humbly remarked that he was “not as successful nor particularly dominant in wrestling,” Dean still went on to win the state championships at his weight class during his junior year.

Still, it was his football career Gabe wanted to take to the next level, not his wrestling one.

The summer before his senior year, Dean attended what he thought was a football camp at Georgia Tech, but as it turned out, the camp was a scouting combine. This was Dean’s big chance to show off his talent and win the attention of some Division I programs, but it did not go anything like he had imagined it would.

“I was there for maybe 20 minutes, and they told me that I was too small and that I could never be successful as a Division I quarterback,” said the five-foot-10 Dean.  “That’s when I was said, you know, I don’t like the way in which your destiny lies in the hands of a lot of other people in football, and in wrestling it’s in your hands, you control your own destiny in the sport”

“I really had a bad taste in my mouth about that whole situation, they were pretty rude to me,” he continued. “But you know what — one door closes and another one opens, and I decided to commit to wrestling.”

Wrestling Takes Center Stage

Although he had been more passionate about football, Dean was actually receiving more attention from wrestling programs. He was recruited by Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota — perhaps because of family ties — but was not on the list of the nation’s top 100 high school wrestlers. A nationally renowned program like Cornell seemed out of reach.

But then, “out of nowhere Cornell comes knocking on my door, and I’m not going to lie to you I didn’t even know where Cornell was,” he said. Head coach Rob Koll and his associate Damion Hahn came to visit Dean and immediately hit it off with him and his family. Koll invited Dean back to Ithaca for a tour of the school and the wrestling center, and the high school senior was not going to take a pass on that.

“I was playing in a football game, and after it ended I literally walked into my car in my pads and we drove out there,” Dean said.

Dean — who always valued academics — fell in love with the school’s campus and was impressed by the wrestling team, so he knew Cornell was the place for him. He committed right on the spot during that visit.

“At Cornell, you get to wrestle at one of the best programs in the country, and you get to go to school at one of the best universities in the country, so that seemed like a clear win-win,” he said. “Cornell definitely took a risk on me, but it worked out.”

Dean later learned why Cornell came to be interested in him.

“The first time I saw Gabe was at a national tournament, and he was wrestling the No. 1 ranked guy in the country, who was being recruited very heavily by a lot of schools,” Hahn said, who has developed a close relationship with Dean. “I remember watching this young scrappy kid get the first takedown on the No. 1 ranked guy, and my eyes lit up … Gabe ended up losing by a technical fall but he never stopped wrestling. I thought to myself, this kid is a fighter, and I knew he had serious potential.”

After committing to Cornell, Dean deferred his admission for a year and took classes at a local community college, a relatively common practice for future Cornell wrestlers referred to as “grey shirting.” During that year, Dean — who was not allowed to train at Cornell — spent much of his time honing his skills at an Olympic training center. He was also heavily aided by former Cornell wrestler and national champion Cam Simaz ’12 who still lived in the area.

“Cam took me in, and he really taught me how to be successful at the Division I level,” Dean said. “When you come into college, it doesn’t matter how good you were in high school, you’re going to get the crap kicked out of you, and Cam taught me how to deal with that.”

Dean’s grey shirt year got off to a rough start at an open tournament when he lost his first two matches and was eliminated. He called his father and told him he wanted to give up the sport, but he was told he had to finish out the year and see what happened.

“After that phone call, I figured if I have to finish this year, I’m gonna do the best that I can,” Dean said. “I worked as hard as I possibly could from that point on.”

Dean finished out the year with some limited success, but never won a tournament. His goal as a freshman was simply to gain a spot on the team’s starting lineup.

Donning the Carnelian and White

Upon arrival at Cornell, Dean defeated the then-current starter at 184 in practice to win the spot, and during the course of that season, he compiled a series of major upsets which put his name in the conversation of top wrestlers in the nation.

He won the esteemed Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas and took down the national No. 1 and defending NCAA champion Ed Ruth at a major tournament in Tennessee — who pinned him earlier in the year.

“Before I walked out there [to face Ed Ruth] I remember saying to myself I don’t care how bad he beats me, I’m not getting pinned again,” Dean said. “He was a much better athlete than me, but I was gonna make him earn it … I went out there, and I wrestled that way and won.”

Dean went on to take third in the NCAA championships, losing to Ruth in another rematch, but he exceeded his goal of making the starting lineup many months prior.

Over the summer, Dean made the U.S. U-20 National team where he won a bronze medal in Croatia. After two seniors graduated, Dean came into his sophomore year as the national No. 1 at 184.

He suffered a setback at the same Las Vegas tournament he had won the year before by losing twice in the same day, but he overcame it and went on to finish the year 43-2, never losing again en route to his first NCAA championship. Dean won nearly every accolade you could that season, but remembers that year for its difficulties, rather than its bright spots.

“My whole sophomore year was tough for me,” he said. “My values were in the wrong place … I valued winning way too much. It was probably the longest, most stressful year of my life.”

However, he still remembers some of his better moments, particularly his first win.

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“Winning the first one was awesome. It was truly a surreal moment,” Dean said.  “I mean when I was a kid my dad would say you’re this close to being one of the best wrestlers in the country, and I just thought he was full of crap … After I won the first one I remember seeing my dad and hugging him and just saying, ‘Hey, you were right.’”

Still, Dean’s goal that summer was to change his ways: to learn to be just as successful while doing things the right way.

Junior Year: Wrestling the Right Way

“I came into my junior year, and I said I don’t care if I win another national title or not, but I’m going to do it the right way,” Dean said. “The right way for me meant realizing that it’s not just about winning or losing. It’s about your motivation and your effort and going out there and trying to be fun to watch for the fans.”

Preparation became a central part of Dean’s life. He took pride in eating right, training right, studying right and winning right. He received advice from Cornell Athletics’ nutritionist Clint Wattenberg on how to eat the right way and now eats an extremely healthy diet.

“I eat a very strict diet — very clean, lots of vegetables and proteins and lots of carbs,” Dean said. “But I always treat myself after a long weekend. I’ll come home and go to Purity for a little ice cream.”

Dean’s routine for cutting weight — many wrestlers’ biggest gripe — is consistent and effective. He has it down to an exact science and hardly even minds it.

“Cutting weight isn’t really that bad if you know the right way to do it,” he says.

Overall, his work ethic is one of the keys to his success, and he knows it.

“I will say that my work ethic and my drive have gone a long way in getting me to where I am. This sport is blue collar,” he said. “And the best athletes don’t always win, so you’ve got to work hard.”

“The tireless work ethic he has was the deciding factor in most of his matches.  He would outwork and out-wrestle anyone who stepped on the mat,” coach Hahn said.  “That has continued to grow while he has developed his style of wrestling.”

Dean was unstoppable his junior season. He lost just one match the entire year — which he ultimately avenged — and won his second consecutive national title at 184. Dean also earned first team all-America honors for the third straight season.

“That second championship was the best one because I did it the right way,” he said.

The Quest for One More

This season, Dean seems to have gotten even better. He is currently ranked No. 1, is 23-0 with 17 pins and is a leading candidate to win the Hodges Trophy, which recognizes the best overall wrestler in the country — regardless of weight class.

As an overall team, Cornell is not too shabby either, ranked in the top 10 and the favorite to win its conference — the EIWA — for the 11th straight year.  Dean is well aware of the fact that he could not have done it on his own.

“To get where I am today I’ve needed overwhelming love and support from my family, my friends, my teammates and my coaching staff. As the saying goes, ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,’” he said. “At Georgia Tech I was nothing to them, but Cornell saw opportunity in me, and I’m very lucky they did.”

Dean repeatedly stresses the importance of the support he received from his coaches and the way in which they believed in him. At Cornell, he has benefited from the whole staff, but especially from Hahn.

“I’m really really close with Damion — we spend a ton of time together,” he said. “There are three men to whom I really credit who I am today: one’s my father, one’s my grandfather and the other is Damion Hahn. He’s been a huge influence on my life.”

Hahn also had extremely high praise for Dean, who has practically become another member of his family.

“Gabe and I have a very close relationship. We have a mutual respect and bond with one another that has grown during his time here at Cornell,” Hahn said. “Gabe is very close with my family, and my children look up to him and act like he’s their big brother … Gabe is a great kid, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to coach him and to have him as a part of our life.”

Dean has tremendous respect for his head coach Rob Koll as well, although the two are not quite as close outside of the wrestling room.

“It’s great to see someone like Gabe achieve such success because he does everything right,” Koll said. “He is the perfect role model for our current and future wrestlers.”

Throughout his wrestling career, Dean has accomplished nearly everything there is to accomplish. He has also earned Academic all-America honors for his commitment to his classwork. Despite all the rewards, he knows there is much more to his life than what is in his trophy case.

“If you put your values in all the accolades, you’re not going to be the happiest guy,” Dean said. “Someday we’re gonna have to quit sports, and if all your value is wrapped up in how successful you were, then you’re really not seeing the bigger picture in life.”

“As proud as I am of winning national titles and becoming an all-American, I truly am more proud of the relationships I’ve built at Cornell and people I’ve gotten to know and the things that I’ve learned from my family,” he continued. “Those things I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Dean’s goals from here on out include winning a team trophy —top four in the nation — for Cornell and to make the Olympics in four years. “After that, I’ll just see where life takes me,” he said.

While his future may not be certain, you can count on Gabe Dean for one thing — the same thing that got him past that one summer day on the Georgia Tech football field all the way to taking a chance on wrestling and becoming a national champion at Cornell: he’ll always recognize opportunity.

  • Dave Pagliaro

    Well written story about a great individual!