James Nicholson Feature in Virginian Pilot
Feb. 15, 2010
By Brian J. French, Correspondent
Iowa is one of America's wrestling hotbeds. So why did James Nicholson choose to go from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Des Moines to Old Dominion to wrestle?
Well, there was the chance to get on the ground floor of a program with aspirations of national prominence. It also allowed him to escape the snow (the past few weeks notwithstanding).
And, of course, there's the traditional drawing card for a good wrestling team: access to the beach.
"We went surfing and we couldn't get him out of the waves," coach Steve Martin recalled of Nicholson's recruiting visit.
Nicholson, now a junior, is 26-1 this season at 125 pounds, ranked in the top 10 by four organizations, including No. 3 by Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. He was an NCAA All-American in the 2007-08 season - the first Monarch to earn that honor since 1995 - and is expected to be one again this season.
But don't let the numbers or the talk of surfing fool you. Life at ODU hasn't been a beach for him.
Take last season.
He repeated as Colonial Athletic Association champion at 125, going 36-4 and winning a match in the NCAAs. A performance that gets the following review from his coach:
"He was supposed to get to the podium," that is, place in NCAA tournament, Martin said. "He failed, and he'll tell you that."
Just ask him. "Last year was my mess-up, and (Martin) called me out on it," Nicholson said. "I know I messed up. I was mad, not because I didn't win, but because I didn't do it right."
Nicholson's main problem was making weight. He is built bigger than your run-of-the-mill 125-pounder, which makes staying there tough. And after a freshman season in which he finished eighth at the NCAAs, a little coasting cost him a lot.
"I took it for granted," Nicholson said. "I didn't work as hard as I did the year before."
Added Martin: "Last year was a big disappointment. He's better than that. He's so huge; he has 5-6 percent body fat, and you want to pull fat off, not fluids. He has to get in tremendous shape."
That's what he's doing this season. Nicholson increased the duration and intensity of his cardio workouts, and he's running 20 miles a week more than he did last year. And he cut out pizza, soda and candy, living some days off as few as 500 calories - parsed out in small meals. Nicholson said he eats 2,500-3,000 calories 3-4 days a week and then brings it down day by day, hitting 500 going into a competition.
"That was really hard, and I still mess up," Nicholson said. "I need my teammates to get on me about it. 'Are you supposed to be eating that?' 'No.' "
He returned to form quickly this season by winning his division at the Hokie Invitational in Salem in November, and he hasn't looked back. Nicholson is 13-0 in dual meets, including a 3-1 win over Matt Steintrager of Central Michigan in a battle of top-10 wrestlers.
He was the CAA wrestler of the month in November and December. His one loss was a 6-4 loss to Wyoming's Michael Martinez in the semifinals of the Las Vegas Invitational, but he came back the next day to beat Martinez 7-2 in the third-place match.
"He knows how to close the gap," Martin said.
That was obvious even in his first months at ODU. Nicholson lost a wrestle-off against another 125-pounder 13-1 and was redshirted. The next month, he lost to the same wrestler by two points.
"Without redshirting, everything would be different," Nicholson said. "It took so long to learn everything, that unless you have a phenomenal coach in high school, you can't learn that in time. Take that one year and use it to your advantage.
"I didn't get better until the summer after my redshirt year (when he was an alternate on the 2007 FILA Junior World Team), then it started to click."
The CAA tournament is March 5, and even if Nicholson doesn't win his third straight conference title, he'll almost certainly be in the NCAA tournament March 18.
And while Martin said he "can beat anyone in his weight class," Nicholson understands what has to happen for him to become ODU's first national champion since Terry Perdew in 1974.
"Everything has to go my way," he said. "One mistake can put me out of the match."