By Betsy Veysman
It sounded like Troy Nickerson was talking about Cornell, the way he has for years. A beautiful campus. Great opportunities for outdoor activities like hunting. An unmistakable family atmosphere on the wrestling team.
But on Saturday when being interviewed, he wasn’t describing Ithaca, which he has called home since 2005. He was discussing the place he’ll be starting the next chapter of his career – Ames, Iowa as an assistant coach at Iowa State University.
“I’ve been in New York almost my entire life,” he said. “It will definitely be different living in Iowa, but there are a lot of similarities. I think the opportunity I have out there is a great one.”
The opportunity was one of several available to the four-time NCAA All-American. At different points since graduating from Cornell he considered medical school and a Masters degree, but ultimately decided he couldn’t imagine his life without wrestling, even after a recent challenging time in the sport.
Nickerson spent much of the recent past working on freestyle in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Trials. However, his quest for London didn’t go as planned, as he didn’t qualify for the Trials.
“It was a life experience for me,” he said. “I’m happy that I made the commitment to train. I think I wouldn’t have been satisfied if I didn’t try. I had a lot of setbacks. Health was a factor stopping me from reaching my goals. But I developed great relationships and traveled the world. I learned a lot about myself. I realized how much passion I still have for wrestling and that I still wanted it to be the focus for me. I loved coaching before and decided it was what I wanted in the future.”
Nickerson has previous coaching experience at the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club (FLWC) in Ithaca, where he mentored grapplers ranging from the youth to senior levels after completing his Big Red degree. He was the head coach of the club’s college team in 2010-11.
“The thing I enjoyed most about working at FLWC was helping those guys achieve their goals,” he said. “I got to see their improvement on a daily basis and that’s what excited me. I was able to develop relationships with them and impact their lives – like so many of my coaches have done for me.”
The only wrestler to capture five New York high school state titles said he feels lucky to have been around great leaders who he hopes to emulate in his new position.
“I really admire what Rob Koll and all of the Cornell coaches have done,” he said. “I think the thing that has impressed me most is the atmosphere of family and community that has been cultivated. Whether you’re a top guy or a backup who is unlikely to ever start, the coaches take a value in each person’s life, in wrestling and outside of wrestling. That’s extremely important. It has helped Cornell develop a rich tradition in a short time. I look forward to developing similar relationships at Iowa State.”
Nickerson has that chance with a team that is looking to get back to the top of the college wrestling world after 20th and 35th place finishes at the past two NCAA tournaments.
“There’s a lot of young talent in the room right now,” he said. “When [head coach] Kevin [Jackson] came in, they were really in a rebuilding phase and that continued this past season. But there are some great guys there and some talented recruits coming in. I’ve seen the ability of NCAA qualifers like Ryak Finch and Luke Goettl as well as incoming guys like John Meeks, Destin McCauley and Dakota Bauer, to name just a few. I look forward to working with those guys and making a big impact.”
The 2009 NCAA champion at 125 pounds certainly can relate to the young talent. He joined the Big Red lineup as a true freshman and showed he belonged right away. The Chenango Forks native won his first 18 bouts, earned the first of his three EIWA crowns and reached the NCAA finals in his first season out of high school.
In his 97-8 career with the Big Red, Nickerson had many memorable victories. One of them was a match against a Cyclone – Andrew Long – in early 2010.
It was a high profile tilt for a number of reasons. It was the opening bout of a dual between two top teams – #2 Iowa State and #6 Cornell. It was also being televised live and was part of a fundraising event for the Adam Frey Foundation. Long had been impressive and was ranked fifth in the nation. Nickerson had been struggling with injuries.
It didn’t matter. The Cornellian put on a show for the crowd, albeit a short one. He took Long down soon after the opening whistle and put him on his back. While the Cyclone fought hard to keep the match going, Nickerson earned the first period pin and a victory many Big Red fans still discuss. But Nickerson isn’t one of them.
“That match was in the past,” he said. “I think what you can take away from that win and others is that when you step on the mat, it doesn’t matter who you’re facing or what the environment is like. That’s the kind of mindset I hope to instill.”
“I saw a lot in the past year, traveling internationally and being put way out of my comfort zone,” he continued. “We had to perform in environments where we didn’t have the food, equipment and other amenities we’re used to in the United States. It’s all about being able to adapt. That’s what the guys at Iowa State need to do, just go work hard; don’t worry about who the opponent is. I want to have guys that just compete and believe they’ll win.”
While he talked about not worrying about who the opponent is, Nickerson admitted that he’s happy Cornell is not on the Cyclone schedule this season after three consecutive years of dual meets between the squads.
“I loved my time at Cornell and consider Ithaca home,” he said. “I learned from the best coaches in Division I. I will always be a Big Red fan. I am grateful for the opportunities Cornell has given me. When it comes time to coach against the Big Red at NCAAs or some other tournament down the line, I’m sure it will feel different than against other teams. But I’m excited to be at such a storied program and I’ll do everything I can to bring victory to the Cyclones.”