Wrestling wasn't at the top of Nick Severson's mind when he began getting back into shape. He just wanted to feel good again, lose some weight and be fit enough to help his friend Travis Wiuff train for his mixed martial arts bouts.
In early 2011, the 310-pound Severson started taking long walks near his Pine Island, Minn., home. That led to running, which led to wrestling, which led to a wild idea. Now that he was feeling like an athlete again, he thought, he needed some kind of goal. And with the 2012 Olympic wrestling trials in Iowa City, why not set the bar high?
The married father of three qualified for the trials in late March, in his last opportunity to claim a place in the field. This week, he is taking time away from his residential construction business to chase a U.S. Olympic berth in the Greco-Roman heavyweight class. To earn the right to compete in London, Severson, 34, must finish first in a daunting field led by Dremiel Byers, a three-time medalist at the world championships.
Severson said his hope is to land in the top three, setting him up to try and make the U.S. team for next year's world championships. That will be tough for a guy who has wrestled in only three tournaments since ending a 7 1/2-year absence from the sport, but he already has achieved more than he expected.
"It's amazing the effect this has had on my life," said Severson, a Hayfield native and two-time NCAA Division II champion at North Dakota State. "Getting back to a healthy lifestyle, I'm more motivated. It's easier to get out of bed. The days are brighter.
"All the years you're wrestling when you're younger, you take it for granted. I'm having a great time. It's a blast to be back."
As a senior at Hayfield in 1996, Severson won a state championship at 189 pounds. He started college at Wisconsin-Stout and had no intention of competing again; when he began missing the sport, he walked on at North Dakota State and won national titles in 2001 and '02.
After a year off the mat, Severson decided to try his hand at Greco-Roman wrestling. He qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials, but he chose not to compete because of an injury, and he figured his career was over.
By 2010, age and inactivity had left Severson sluggish and overweight. When Wiuff sought him out as a training partner, he committed to an exercise regimen and healthy diet. As Severson began thinking about a return to competition, he hooked up with longtime friend Jim Richardson, who competed in two Olympic trials and coaches the Grand Meadow/LeRoy-Ostrander/Kingsland wrestling team.
"When he said he wanted to try out for the Olympics, I was more focused on helping him back to a healthy lifestyle," Richardson said. "He was so motivated to change that he made me want to be part of it. He has worked extremely hard."
Severson got down to a fit 255 pounds and returned to competition at the Sunkist Kids International Open last October. He drew Byers as his first opponent -- and while he lost, he didn't embarrass himself, giving him confidence to keep forging ahead. Severson finished eighth at the U.S. Open in December, falling just short of qualifying for the Olympic trials, and earned one of the last slots when he finished second in a tough field at the last-chance qualifier on March 30.
At the trials, Severson is among 10 wrestlers competing for the chance to face Byers, who has a bye into the championship. "My ultimate goal is to be on the Olympic team," he said. "Realistically, my goal is to get in the top three and get on the national team.
"I like my chances. I feel confident that I'm good enough and conditioned enough. And with another year of work, I feel I can be a real serious contender. That's what I'm shooting for."