By: By Mike Mangan – Ithaca Journal (Original Here)
Troy Nickerson’s high school career yielded a 213-6 career mark, a record five New York state wrestling titles, and recruitment by nearly every prominent Division I wrestling program.
So when, in January 2005, the then-Chenango Forks High senior verbally committed to wrestle at Cornell University, the question seemingly was not if Nickerson would win an NCAA title, but how many.
Four years later, his collegiate career plagued by injuries, most notably to his left shoulder, Nickerson was still searching for that elusive national title.
And for the first time since he first stepped foot on a wrestling mat as 5-year-old pee wee wrestler, doubt started to creep in.
“I started questioning myself here and there. The shoulder’s been difficult to deal with,” Nickerson said Monday. “I had a talk with (Cornell wrestling coach Rob) Koll midway through the season whether I should be wrestling at all.
“After talking with him, I thought the best thing was to go out there and do the best that I could to compete.”
It turned out to be a good choice. On Saturday in St. Louis, Nickerson finally captured that NCAA title, beating Nebraska’s Paul Donahoe, 2-1, in overtime in the finals of the 125-pound weight class.
The victory avenged a semifinal loss in the same weight class to Donahue two years earlier at the NCAA Championships, and made Nickerson the third wrestler from Broome County to win a Division I wrestling title, joining Windsor’s Brad Penrith (1986) and Johnson City’s Josh Glenn (2007).
“It feels good, it hasn’t completely sunk in yet,” Nickerson said. “It’s great to have that monkey off my back. I’ve been close a few times, so to finally get that title is an incredible feeling.”
As a Big Red freshman, Nickerson reached the 125-pound finals of the 2006 NCAA Championships, where he lost to defending champion Joe Dubuque of Indiana by an 8-3 decision.
Despite the title-match loss, Nickerson finished 36-2 that season, earning Ivy League wrestler and freshman of the year honors. Bigger things seemed ahead for Nickerson.
But the following year, Nickerson was plagued by a back injury. He wrestled just 20 matches his sophomore season, including a 2-1 loss to Donahue in the semifinals of the 2007 NCAAs.
“I felt I wrestled well at the national tournament as a freshman,” Nickerson said. “But my sophomore year was disappointing. Because of a lot of injuries, I wasn’t able to train properly, and because I wasn’t able to train properly I didn’t get in the shape I needed to give it my all at nationals.”
Things would get even worse. A torn labrum in his left shoulder forced Nickerson to take a medical redshirt for the 2007-08 season, the injury requiring surgery shortly after Thanksgiving of 2007.
The shoulder hasn’t completely healed. Nickerson missed the start of the season and only had 20 matches entering this year’s NCAA Championships. In addition, because Nickerson is left-handed, he had to adapt his wrestling style to compensate for the injury shoulder.
“People don’t realize how injured he was this year,” Koll said. “He faked it. I told him when you hurt your shoulder, grab your knee. Wrestlers are like sharks, if they see any weakness they’ll go after it.
“It was a major problem, he had to train differently. We couldn’t push him like we pushed the other kids. We had to convince him he was mentally prepared to wrestle a three-day tournament.”
That mental toughness was especially on display during Nickerson’s title match with Donahue. He dislocated his shoulder twice during the match, including in overtime with the score knotted at 1.
Koll acknowledged a year or two ago that Nickerson might not have willed himself to pull through.
“He has matured like no wrestler I’ve ever coached,” Koll said. “There are times he’s been frustrated, but the reason I was making him go through the pain (during the season) was so he would be ready for it during the match.”
Nickerson said he will likely have more surgery on his shoulder, probably within the next couple of months.
He’s hopeful that come next fall he will be 100 percent when, as a redshirt senior, he begins his quest for NCAA title No. 2.
“I’d like to finally wrestle a full season, that’s something I haven’t been able to do since my freshman year,” Nickerson said. “If I can get back completely healthy, I could see myself incorporating everything I’ve done this season, and hopefully be better than ever.”