Tony Nelson admitted, a bit reluctantly, that those four losses might not have been such a bad thing.
It provided motivation, and anyone who doubts this need only look at the way Nelson performed at the Big Ten Conference wrestling championships.
And maybe it forced upon Nelson, the Gophers’ two-time defending NCAA champion heavyweight, just a little perspective.
“You sit back and look at things,” said Nelson, leaning against a weightlifting machine in the team’s cavernous wrestling room. “You realize this isn’t just going to come to you.”
And so, this week, Nelson is getting ready to go out and get it. Again.
He has a chance this weekend to become the first three-time NCAA champ in the Gophers’ fabled wrestling history. He is already a three-time All-America selection, a wrestler whose college success before this season had precluded the need for much soul-searching.
Nelson, a redshirt senior, will be the top-seeded heavyweight when the three-day NCAA tournament kicks off Thursday morning at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Nelson is also hopeful of leading the Gophers to a national team title after they finished a disappointing third at the Big Ten meet.
Nelson is back in top form after working his way to his third consecutive conference championship in Madison, Wis., nearly two weeks ago. He is motivated, which should serve as a warning to other heavyweights headed to Oklahoma.
As he prepares to wrestle for the Gophers for a final tournament, Nelson said it’s important to him to claim that third and final NCAA championship.
“I want to go out on top,” he said. “I want to be the first three-timer here. That is my goal. It’s been my goal since my sophomore year. Anything else would be a disappointment.”
To which Gophers coach J Robinson said, simply: So do it.
“He’s been there before,” Robinson said. “He knows what he has to do. He has a hard road ahead of him. But then, being a three-time national champion is a hard thing to do.”
From the start of the season and into January, things went according to plan for Nelson. But on Jan. 10, he lost in overtime to Northwestern’s Michael McMullan. Then, from Jan. 19 to Feb. 2, he lost three consecutive matches — two in overtime — to Adam Coon of Michigan, Bobby Telford of Iowa and Adam Chalfant of Indiana.
Suddenly he had lost four matches, more than he had in his previous two seasons combined. Yes, each match was close. And yes, Nelson was hampered because of a nagging injury — neither he nor Robinson would be specific — that was going to need rest. But it was also a time for Nelson to realize that, as a two-time defending national champion, it was harder to stay on top than to just get there.
“The whole thing is how you internalize what has happened to you,” Robinson said. “It’s like the old saying, 10 percent of life is what happens and 90 percent is how you deal with it.”
The results so far say Nelson is dealing very well, thank you, with his adversity.
“I looked at it as extra motivation,” Nelson said. “I’ve been working hard in the wrestling room, doing the work I need to do. And when it comes to the national tournament, I’ll be focused and ready to go.”
Nelson had the clinching victory in Minnesota’s 18-17 upset of Penn State on Feb. 9, a victory that gave the Gophers a share of the conference title. But, between then and the conference tournament, Nelson didn’t wrestle. He allowed himself to heal and refocus.
The Big Ten is the nation’s power conference when it comes to wrestling. Penn State is looking for a fourth consecutive national title after defending its conference tournament crown. Iowa and Minnesota are also highly ranked heading into the national tournament. At heavyweight, four of the top five seeds are from the Big Ten.
At the conference tournament Nelson, seeded fifth, beat Telford in the quarterfinals and Chalfant in the final, serving notice he’s back. Entering the NCAA tournament, Nelson (26-4) is the top-ranked heavyweight.
“My goal, obviously, as a senior was to be undefeated,” Nelson said. “That didn’t happen. And now I want to be back on top of that podium.”
Team has a shot
It won’t be easy. All those familiar Big Ten foes will be there, as will North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski, the No. 2 seed.
But Nelson is on a mission, with both personal and team goals. The Gophers, who finished behind Penn State and Iowa in the conference tournament, have lofty goals, too. They have a seeded wrestler in all but one of the weight classes.
“This team has a great chance to be No. 1 in the country, to win the championship as a team,” Nelson said. “To do that, we have to have everyone finish their best. For me, that means I have to be back on top again.”
Nelson sounds ready, confident. Those four losses more than a month back are in the rearview mirror.
“He knows where he is,” Robinson said. “We sat down and talked about it. He has to go in with the idea he’s never won a national tournament. … There were some things he needed to work on that he wasn’t doing. And he’s done it. That’s what makes the difference.”