Troy Nickerson’s wrestling resume is one most would dream of having.
There are the record five New York State high school titles, along with several national high school championships. Collegiately, Nickerson was a four-time All-American, most notably capturing the 2009 NCAA championship while competing at Cornell University.
And yet, there is some unfinished business.
So seven years after last donning the red, white, and blue as a Chenango Forks High senior, the 25-year-old Nickerson hopes to don the colors again this summer in London as a member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
“I don’t regret anything that happened in my college career,” Nickerson said. “I won an (NCAA) title and was a four-time All-American. Many people would be happy with that, but I expected more out of myself. I felt I should have been a three-time champion.
“So winning that gold medal, it would make up for a lot of it. I’m definitely capable of it; that’s why I’m putting the effort into it every day.”
Expectations were high for Nickerson when, as the top-ranked high school senior in the country, he announced he was going to wrestle for the Big Red.
Nickerson compiled an impressive 36-2 record his freshman season, reaching the NCAA finals in the 125-pound weight class where he lost to defending champion Joe Dubuque of Indiana, 8-3.
But injuries would plague Nickerson over the rest of his Cornell career. A back injury limited him to 20 matches his sophomore season, and he had to sit out the 2007-08 season due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder, which required surgery.
Shoulder problems persisted over his final two seasons. Though he managed to go 25-0 en route to the NCAA 125-pound title in 2009, by the time he concluded his collegiate career with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships in 2010, Nickerson had had enough.
He needed a break.
“It was frustrating physically and mentally,” Nickerson said. “I wasn’t planning on competing after college after all the injuries I went through. So I took a year off, even from (medical) school, just trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”
A few months after the school year ended, Nickerson began helping out with the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club in Ithaca.
It didn’t take long for his competitive juices to begin flowing again.
“He was focused on coaching, but once he got out there on the mat, he flipped the switch and got back in that competitive mindset,” said Mike Grey, a FLWC coach and former Cornell teammate of Nickerson’s.
So Nickerson started focusing on returning to competition, with an eye toward the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The perfect litmus test to see if such a return would be worthwhile was the U.S. Open championships, held last April in Cleveland, Ohio.
With the tournament featuring many of the top amateur wrestlers, a good showing would provide the validation that Nickerson needed to give it one last go at the sport.
Despite not having competed in a year, Nickerson managed a runner-up finish in the 55-kilogram/121-pound freestyle division, losing to Sam Hazewinkel — a four-time All-American at Oklahoma — 6-0, 4-3, in the finals.
That was good enough for Nickerson, who shortly after the event moved to Colorado Springs, Col., where he would spend the next seven months training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before returning to Ithaca in December.
“That was my first tournament back, and my first freestyle tournament since high school, so that was a really good steppingstone,” Nickerson said. “So if I was going to do this, I was going to make a 100-percent effort.”
During the course of his extensive training, Nickerson has discovered his abundant skills have not left him.
Nor have the struggles of dealing with his shoulder and struggles to maintain his weight.
“The biggest issues are staying healthy, and keeping my weight under control,” Nickerson said. “Those are my two biggest opponents.
“I’ve been through four shoulder surgeries. I have the shoulder of a 70-year-old; it’s locked down pretty tight. There’s still a lot of pain, but I have good days and bad days.
“My senior year in high school, I cut to 125 pounds for the state tournament and senior nationals. It’s been eight years keeping that weight down. Every year it gets harder and harder.”
‘My last go’
U.S. national freestyle wrestling coach Zeke Jones worked with Nickerson during his stint in Colorado Springs.
The pair have known each other for several years, dating back to when Jones was the head wrestling coach at West Virginia.
Jones has seen a considerable change in Nickerson compared to when he competed at the collegiate and scholastic levels.
“He has a much more mature and experienced view on wrestling and what it takes to win,” Jones said. “I also think the monster spotlight that surrounded Troy coming through high school and college has dimmed because he was hurt and people lost track of him.
“That’s taken some of the external pressure off him, but I think it can be an advantage for him if he uses it right.”
Nickerson keeps persevering. Grey, who has been working with Nickerson extensively over the past couple of months, says his competitive attitude is one of Nickerson’s strengths.
“His desire is great; he wants his technique to be perfect,” Grey said. “Mentally, physically, you can see the hard work paying off. He’s got all the tools to be as good as he wants to be; he just needs to put it on the mat.”
Nickerson will get that chance again at the U.S. Olympic Trials in April at Iowa City. The winners in each of the weight classes, freestyle and Greco-Roman, will earn berths on the U.S. Olympic team for the Summer Games.
It will be his last chance at realizing his Olympic dream, one that first formed when he, his father and some friends attended the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After this year, Nickerson is hanging up the singlet for good.
“Wrestling has always been my life; this is my job, this is who I am,” Nickerson said. “I always had to put everything into it.
“But I’m not 18 anymore, I’m not the same person I was when I was 18. I’m very focused on making this Olympic team, but this is my last go at wrestling. After that I’ll probably go back to school. So I just want to give this the best shot I can.”