Jan. 8, 2014
A Chance To Be Different
Tony Nelson pursues a feat never accomplished at the University of Minnesota: becoming a three-time national champion.
This article was the cover story in the January 2014 edition of Ski-U-Mah Magazine
It’s Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Sports Pavilion and Leland Pfeifer is looking like the proverbial lamb before the slaughter. The University of Wyoming heavyweight is pacing behind his team’s bench, preparing for his match against top-ranked and two-time defending NCAA heavyweight champion Tony Nelson. Pfeifer is putting on his best tough-guy face, but he and everyone else in the arena knows he stands no chance.
A little over two minutes later, the inevitable happens. Nelson rolls Pfeifer onto his back for the pin to close out a 41-5 victory for the second-ranked Golden Gophers.
It’s a common sight at Minnesota wrestling matches: Nelson closing out a dual meet with an overwhelming performance. But the senior from Cambridge, Minn., is not your common heavyweight. He’s a 6-4, 260-pound beast of a wrestler on a quest to become the first Golden Gopher to do the uncommon: win a third straight national championship.
Since the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships began in 1928, only 26 wrestlers have won three individual titles (including a trio who won four times and 17 who won three straight). It’s a feat never accomplished at the University of Minnesota. In fact, Nelson entered the 2013-14 season as the first-ever Gopher to even have a chance at winning three national championships. Minnesota has had four previous two-time winners – Cole Konrad, Damion Hahn, Tim Hartung and Verne Gagne – but all achieved their second title in their senior season.
Nelson has a chance to make history. A chance to be different.
The heavyweight class is a different animal in the world of collegiate wrestling. Officially listed as 285 pounds, heavyweights can tip the scales at nearly 100 pounds more than those at the nearest weight class (197). The style of wrestling tends to be different as well. While the lighter weight classes typically feature more action, matches at heavyweight tend toward a slower pace with hand fighting, positioning, defense and riding as trademarks.
As Nelson puts it, heavyweight is “its own little weight class.”
“Little” is a word not often associated with Nelson, nor the heavyweights. “Big,” on the other hand, comes up quite a bit. Take this comment by Gopher assistant coach Luke Becker: “Guys are so big and so strong. They’re hard to move. It’s hard to get a big guy out of position to get an angle on him because they are so big. They’re so big and powerful.”
But what makes Nelson different?
“Well, I’m a lot bigger,” Nelson jokes.
“He’s a big, strong kid,” Becker says. “He’s such a great athlete. He’s a better athlete than every one of those other heavyweights out there.”
That athleticism served Nelson well during his first two runs at the national championship. Weighing in at 240-245 pounds, Nelson’s opponents routinely outweighed him, but his speed and athleticism were key in out-wrestling bigger heavyweights.
“I was smaller than a lot of guys, but I could out-quick them,” Nelson says. “My sophomore year in the national finals, I was 245 and [Lehigh’s Zach Rey] was 275. It makes a difference. They have all that extra weight without even trying. It gives guys an advantage with a little strength. But I’ve always wrestled up a weight so I’ve gotten used to being the smaller guy, staying in good position and staying strong on guys.”
Fast-forward to 2013 and the shoe is on the other foot. Nelson has packed about 20 pounds of muscle onto his imposing frame, while not giving up the speed and athleticism that paced him to his first NCAA crowns.
“The weight I put on was good weight,” he says. “I tried to do it the right way, lifting heavy over the summer to put on the weight in a really good way. It helps. With riding, it just adds extra weight on top. It helps you keep a guy down easier. It hasn’t really slowed me down.”
Speed isn’t the only factor that has allowed Nelson to reach the top of the collegiate wrestling world. According to his coaches, he’s the complete package on the mat. From his strength, to his quickness, to his top position, to his defense, Nelson has it all.
“He has developed a good style that he can win with,” head coach J Robinson says. “He’s good on top which negates a lot of things. He's really worked on his defense – people have a hard time scoring on him. So it all kind of works together. If you can't score on a guy, then you have to beat him somewhere else. So then if you go down on the mat, he can get away from most people and he can ride most people. Then they have a problem. By having a great defense, he negates a lot of offense from other people which then puts them in his playground.”
Then there’s the mental side of the game. Nelson seems to have that down as well.
“Tony has confidence in himself,” assistant coach Brandon Eggum says. “He doesn’t believe it’s possible for him to lose a match. He’s very confident in that sense. That’s the thing that makes him great. He cannot see himself losing. He just believes that he’ll find a way to win.”
A perfect example of Nelson’s belief in his inability to lose came in the semifinals of last year’s NCAA Championships. Trailing 4-3 late in the third period to Oklahoma State’s Alan Gelogaev, Nelson scrambled for a takedown to win 5-4 and punch his ticket to the finals.
“He finds a way to win,” Eggum says. “A lot of guys can get in a situation like that and think it’s over and stop wrestling.”
According to Nelson, confidence is a major reason for the success he has experienced in his three-plus seasons as a Gopher.
“A huge thing that gets overlooked is just confidence in yourself. That’s really what puts guys over the top – knowing that you’re the best, believing that you’re the best. I just believe in myself and stay confident. I’ve got two titles to be confident in.”
With two national championships under his belt, Nelson has plenty of confidence in his ability to win a third, but he knows it won’t come easy. He is often reminded of the challenge he faces in making history.
“The coaches remind me that it’s not going to just come to me,” Nelson says. “I can’t think that I’m going to walk through the year. You’re going to have some trouble looking at it like that. I’m just focused on improving every day and working to that final goal in March.”
Thousands of wrestlers have worked toward the final goal of winning an individual NCAA championship in the 85-year history of the national tournament with most falling short of achieving their dream. Far fewer wrestlers have been able to see that dream achieved twice. In fact, of the hundreds of national titles won, only 126 wrestlers have captured multiple individual crowns.
If winning one title is hard and winning two is even harder, the difficulty in becoming a three-time champion is immense. Why?
“At this level, as weird as it is to believe, a lot of times the climb is the easy part,” says Becker, the 2002 NCAA champion at 157 pounds. “Once you get up there, the hard part is maintaining it and staying there.”
“Every time you win one, it gets harder,” Eggum says. “People start gunning for you, you’ve got a name for yourself, there’s a target on your back.”
Nelson admits that winning his second NCAA title was more difficult than the first, attributing much of the challenge to the added pressure and expectations. Pressure has felled many highly-seeded wrestlers at the national tournament. Every year sees several contenders lose early, succumbing to the burden of high expectations.
“There’s pressure that builds on trying to win back-to-back titles,” Eggum says. “Pressure that comes from yourself, your family, your friends, your community. You hear about it, you think about it. It’s added pressure. We remind guys all the time, ‘When you get to the Big Ten or NCAA finals, you have to go out and do everything you can to win because you may never be there again.’ The first one might be the easiest one. It only gets harder. After the first one, everyone knows who you are and it changes things.”
With a huge target on his back and the pressure of trying to make Golden Gopher history, Nelson’s work is cut out for him during the 2013-14 season. Focusing on the clichéd “one match at a time” will be important.
Focus is something that Nelson certainly doesn’t lack. In addition to his drive to achieve great things on the mat, Nelson is aiming big in the classroom as a mechanical engineering major. He admits that it has been a challenge balancing academics and athletics, but acknowledges that it has kept him focused and helped him get to where he is today.
“As an individual, he’s made a point that if he’s going to do something in his life, he’s going to be successful,” Eggum says. “Going into engineering, imagine the stress and commitment that takes on top of trying to become a three-time NCAA champion. He’s done a good job of balancing his life and putting the effort in where it needs to be.”
That effort has led Nelson to great things, from his 111 career wins to his 23 pins, from his three All-America honors to his two Big Ten and NCAA titles. Now he is on the verge of becoming, arguably, the most accomplished wrestler in University of Minnesota history.
So what will it take for Nelson to attain that lofty status? For Becker, it’s about Nelson staying aggressive on the mat.
“He’s going to have to put points up on the board. If he continues to open it up, there’s no one in the country who can wrestle with him. If he goes out there every match and opens it up and scores the first takedown, the match is over.”
For Robinson, it’s about staying hungry for a third national championship.
“He has to be just as hungry for the third as he was for the first one. He can't think ahead about what it's going to be like - the benefits that I can get, where I could be in the Hall of Fame, all those kind of things. They’re not there. You really have to stay in the present and dismiss the rest of that.”
For Eggum, it’s about focusing on the task at hand.
“He’s got to make sure that he compartmentalizes his thoughts and focuses on the guy in front of him and not the national title. It’s always going to be in his mind. How can it not be? But he needs to stay focused on the position he’s in, winning the hand fight, scoring that takedown, defending that shot. If he focuses on that and not things ahead of him, then that’s his best chance to win another national title.”
Three years ago, prior to the Big Ten Championships, Nelson pulled Robinson aside and told his head coach that he was going to become his first three-time national champion.
“I went on to win it that year and did it last year, so now I’m sitting here able to win three,” Nelson says. “Just knowing that I said that and I’m here with the opportunity, it’s an awesome feeling.”
In the meantime, Nelson will likely repeat what the fans saw at the Sports Pavilion on Nov. 24 – an elite wrestler exerting his will on an overmatched opponent. The Big Ten dual season, the National Duals and the Big Ten Championships await, but they’re a mere appetizer for the main course – Tony Nelson’s chance to be different, his chance to become the first three-time NCAA individual champion in University of Minnesota history.
Kevin Kurtt is the editor of Let’s Play Hockey. He is a former assistant athletic communications director at the University of Minnesota where he handled the public relations for the Gopher wrestling team during its run to the 2001 and 2002 NCAA titles.