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.”