When sophomore co-captain No. 2 Troy Nickerson was six-years-old, the aspiring wrestler’s parents made the hour-long drive from their home in Chenango Forks, N.Y., up to East Hill, just so their son could catch his first glimpse of the Cornell wrestling program. The experience must have made quite a first impression, as 14 years later, the former five-time New York State high school champion is leading the Red towards another run at a top-5 finish in this year’s NCAA tournament.
“He came to one of our wrestling camps when he was six,” said head coach Rob Koll. “I signed his wrestling poster he handed me and said, ‘I will see you back here in 12 years.’ I guess I was prophetic.”
[img_assist|nid=21577|title=Position of Power|desc=Sophomore co-captain No. 2 Troy Nickerson puts Princeton’s Nikhil Pereira in a head lock during the Red’s 56-0 shutout of the Tigers|link=none|align=left|width=89|height=100]
Nickerson wasn’t always so dominant on the mat, however, as his wrestling career — which began at the ripe age of five — got off to a rocky start.
“Actually my first match ever I got beat by a girl,” he said. “So I obviously didn’t start off too hot, but I ended up liking the sport and getting pretty good.”
After wrestling recreationally for many years, it wasn’t until Nickerson entered seventh grade that he really became serious about the sport.
“When I was in seventh grade wrestling with the local high school varsity team, I made it all the way to the sectional finals and was one match away from going to the state tournament. After that I realized I could be really good and got serious about the sport,” Nickerson said.
The following summer, Nickerson — who was already blessed with sound wrestling technique — worked on conditioning his body for the first time in his life. The young prodigy never looked back, as he went on to have one of the most distinguished high school careers in history.
Over the next five years, Nickerson became the first ever five-time New York state high school wrestling champion, a two-time junior national champion, two-time Cadet national champion, a high school national champion in his senior season and the nation’s top recruit at 125 pounds.
“The best moment for me in high school was winning that fifth state title,” he said. “I realized that I had achieved all of the goals I had set for myself and did the best I could.”
With all of these accomplishments, Nickerson had his veritable pick of the litter in terms of what college he wanted to attend. Despite getting recruited by numerous wrestling powerhouses such as Minnesota, who is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, the N.Y. native made academics a high priority in his college choice and ended up deciding between Cornell and Harvard.
“In the end I just wanted an Ivy League education and being close to home meant a lot to me, so I chose Cornell,” he said.
Once he arrived in East Hill as a freshman, Nickerson didn’t need any time to adjust to the collegiate level, exploding onto the wrestling scene with a sensational rookie season. The scrappy, 125-pound grappler won the first 18 matches of his career, including wins over former No. 1 Chad Mendes of Cal Poly and former No. 2 Jeremy Mendoza of Arizona State in the Las Vegas Invitational.
His first loss came at the hands of No. 2 Sam Hazewinkel of second-ranked Oklahoma at the National Duals. However, he bounced right back by winning the last 14 matches of the season as well as the EIWA title over Lehigh’s Matt Fisk.
In the NCAA tournament, Nickerson cruised through the early rounds, making it all the way to the national championship match at 125 pounds. Unfortunately, Troy’s year would end on a sour note, losing to Indiana’s Joe Dubuque, 8-3, to claim second place.
For his efforts, however, Nickerson became the first Cornell male athlete in any sport to earn both Ivy League Player and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season, finishing with a 36-2 overall record.
“I did actually have really high expectations for myself last season, but ended up one match shy,” he said. “I was definitely disappointed I hadn’t reached my goal [of winning a national title], but it has kept me motivated and hungry for more.”
Heading into his sophomore year, the bar could not have been set higher for Nickerson, he was ranked No. 2 in the nation at 125 pounds and for most of his supporters, anything short of a national championship would be considered a disappointment.
Due to an assortment of injuries, however, Nickerson has not been able to replicate the success of his rookie season. He is currently 9-1 on the year — losing to No. 13 Mark McKnight of Penn State — and has been unable to compete in a large number of the Red’s dual matches.
“The season has been a roller-coaster ride for me,” he said. “Injuries are something you have to overcome but my body is healthy and I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Facing significant adversities for the first time in his wrestling career, Nickerson credits the support of his family for keeping him on track.
“I have a really good support system with my family, they are always up here watching every one of my matches,” he said.
Furthermore, Koll is not worried about his star athlete, who is poised to capture his first national championship.
“The great thing about wrestling is that all you have to do is put it together at the end of the season and all of your wrongs will be righted, it’s not like football where if you lose one you’re out of it,” Koll said.
“He certainly lost to a kid he should have beaten, but it was probably harder for him to just not be out there. Wrestling is not fun unless you win, you get beat up in practice and its hard to keep doing that without the reward of winning. But champions respond best under pressure and I’m very confident he’s going to have a great end of the year for us. He has the capacity to win it all — the rest is up to him.