Like Homer’s legend of Troy – a story which has been rekindled throughout the ages – the chapters of Cornell’s newest wrestling saga, the legend of freshman Troy Nickerson, are piecing together to form what should be a familiar tale of epic proportions. The pages, which are far from being finished, tell the story of a much heralded 125-pound terror who has lived up to his billing in his rookie season for the Red. Like the mystical city itself, Nickerson’s walls have yet to be breached, and unfortunately for the opposition, there is no Trojan horse.
The Chenango Forks, N.Y., native has dominated his competition early and often this season, compiling at 28-1 record – good enough to earn him the No. 4 ranking in the country at his weight class.
“He’s had a better year than almost anyone in the entire country and has had arguably one of the most successful freshmen campaigns ever, not only at Cornell, but in the history of the sport,” said Cornell head coach Rob Koll. “The kid works so hard and does so much. There’s hardly a day where he doesn’t get two workouts in. It’s that work ethic, plus going to Cornell, and doing everything else he’s doing, that is why he’s enjoying his success.”
As to what makes him tick, it’s a unique desire to be the best that fuels the machine.
“I think my competitive edge is what keeps me going,” Nickerson said. “That’s what makes me want to keep working harder and keep improving. I’ve been satisfied with how I’ve wrestled so far but I won’t be completely satisfied until I win that national title at the end of the year.”
Nickerson’s only loss in his short career came early in the season against No. 2 Sam Hazewinkel of Oklahoma. The loss went down at the national duals hosted by Northern Iowa. Even in defeat, the development sociology major was in the match until the very end, losing by two points on a reversal – two points that proved to be the only scoring during the bout.
In a day and age where it is very common for first-year wrestlers to experience a loss and then spiral downward before getting things back on track, that wasn’t the case for Nickerson. Instead of losing his mental edge, Nickerson played it off as any other match – just another step in preparation for when the matches really count in four weeks at nationals in Oklahoma City, Okla.
“The next day [after the loss] he came in, worked out and was great,” said assistant coach Steve Garland. “He drilled hard, he was focused, he was working on the things he needed to be working on and it was the positive away to attack a loss. Instead of letting negative thoughts beat him up, he came in and said, ‘I need to work on this and this and that,’ and that’s the positive way to do it.”
No wonder Nickerson might arguably be the most awaited recruit to ever step foot on the East Hill.
He was the first-ever five-time New York state high school champion and was also the top-ranked wrestler in any weight class in the country last year. The local product, whose hometown is 10 minutes north of Binghamton, also won the junior Dan Hodge Trophy last season – the high school equivalent of the Heisman trophy for wrestling. Despite the ability to write his own ticket to whichever college wrestling program he chose, the decision to go to Cornell was not a difficult one for Nickerson, who wishes to earn his medical doctorate when his wrestling days are over.
“I kind of overlooked Cornell for a while, but then I realized that everything I wanted was right in my backyard,” Nickerson said. “I realized the academics, wrestling, and everything else I wanted was right here. I wouldn’t be happier anywhere else.”
Not regarded as the strongest or the fastest, Nickerson has combined an amazing work ethic with incredible discipline on his way to becoming the poster child for the future of Cornell wrestling. Along with his endurance, which he developed as a cross country runner in high school, Nickerson has mastered the technical side of the sport.
“His technique is something special,” Garland said. “It’s the little things like when he gets in on a single-leg. His technique and his finishes are perfect. His positioning, because he’s been wrestling so long, is outstanding. When he gets you in that high crotch, nobody has stopped it all year. He touches your leg and he finishes it every time.”
The scary thing for opponents is that Nickerson seems to wrestle flawlessly, often making everything look easy. At first glance, one could go far enough to say that wrestling seems to come natural to the phenom, although some are in opposition of that belief.
“I hate to say that it’s natural with Troy,” Koll said. “It takes away from his work ethic. He’s made it look natural but it’s anything but that. He makes the most out of what he’s been given, more so than anyone I’ve ever coached.”
It is Nickerson’s talent and ability that have seen him earn early comparisons to Cornell’s most rewarded and respected wrestler of all time, two-time NCAA national champion Travis Lee ’05. With Lee still in Ithaca working on his master’s degree in engineering, Nickerson has had the rare opportunity to both step into Lee’s shoes and pick his brain in his first season with the Red. The two athletes aspire to be teammates on the upcoming USA Olympic team in 2008 – a feat that is a realistic possibility if both wrestlers stay healthy.
“Troy is much ahead of Travis right now at this time in his career, but Travis is much further ahead of Troy now,” Koll said. “It’s great to have Troy train with Travis and just steal from him. Hopefully, they’ll be on the same team here in a couple years in Beijing, since Travis wrestles one weight above Troy.”
As Nickerson’s story continues to unfold, his face is consequently becoming more and more recognizable.
“All the little kids want to be like Troy,” Koll said. “He’s a great kid, is a pre-med, is one of the best wrestlers in the country, and is at an Ivy League school. We’ve got kids who call up and ask, ‘What kind of shoes does Troy wear?’ He could have gone anywhere he wanted in the United States to wrestle but he chose Cornell and he has the ability to change the environment in this place. It’s exciting.”
Unfortunately for fans everywhere, there is no specific shoe that can make you wrestle like Troy. All you can do is follow his example and train as hard as you can and hope for the best.
“It just depends on the day,” Nickerson said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to test out a lot of shoes for asics, but there is no specific one. It’s just whatever feels good.”
Archived article by Tim Kuhls
Sun Staff Writer