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This was supposed to be Tony Nelson’s final year as a competitive international wrestler.
And his plan for 2020 was simple: Earn a trip to Toyko as a member of the United States Olympic wrestling team, then retire in a blaze of glory on the Olympic stage.
“My original goal was to be done after this year,” Nelson said. “I have three kids, so that adds a factor to training. I had even given my wife a timeline. And then this happened.”
“This” is the COVID-19 pandemic that has put everyone’s life in stasis. For Nelson, his dreams have been deferred to 2021 as the Olympic Trials, the qualifying events for the U.S. Olympic team that were scheduled for early April, were postponed, as were the Tokyo Olympics.
Nelson, a 2009 graduate of Cambridge-Isanti High School, won two state titles in high school as well as two NCAA titles at the University of Minnesota. Nelson had a 141-18 record with the Bluejackets and was 131-16 with the Golden Gophers.
Nelson admitted it was not hard to see postponements were coming.
“As things were happening, it seemed that was going to play out that way,” he said. “Honestly, I was looking forward to the Olympic Trials, which were about three weeks away when that announcement was made. I wasn’t depressed or saddened [when they were postponed], and the credit to that goes to my faith. My faith gives me a solid foundation: The Olympics are something I’m striving for, and I want to accomplish, but that isn’t everything to me. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t crushed.”
The postponements also meant Nelson faced a difficult decision. Should he spend another year training and preparing for a shot at Olympic gold? Or should he abandon the dream and begin the rest of his life?
That decision is not as clear-cut as it seems, since Nelson will be 30 years old in September. He also has a young family to think about with his wife, Kristi, and three children under the age of 5: Daughters Elsie, who is 4, and Hattie, who is 2, along with son Knox, who is 7 months old.
What’s more, Nelson earned a degree in mechanical engineering, which means he probably would receive a lucrative payday by getting a job in his chosen field.
But Nelson has decided to continue to push for the Olympics, even though it means his dream has been deferred for another year. Interestingly, the pandemic that caused the delay also has kept him from training – and confirmed that he still has the love for the sport.
“I’m honestly really excited to get on the mat and wrestle again,” he said. “It has been a couple of months, so that hunger is still there. That’s why I believe, in my heart, that this is what I should do. It would have been regrettable if I had just stopped.”
Nelson said the decision was easier since he has received unwavering support from his parents, Todd and Sandi, his wife and children, as well as a number of other friends and family.
“It’s hard to show how thankful I am to all of the people who have helped me on this journey,” Nelson said. “The Gopher Wrestling Club allows me to train and not have to worry about having a full-time job on the side. And my family – my wife and kids, my parents and siblings, and my aunts and uncles and whole extended family – always have given me 100 percent backing.”
Nelson said his faith also has supported him on this journey.
“My parents and family provided a strong foundation in faith,” he said. “In college I had a lot of good friends around me who were believers, and we had a counselor in John Peterson – who won a gold medal in wrestling in 1976 – who was with Athletes in Action, so I met with him every week. He really matured me in my faith. I’ve also had good role models like Neil Jennissen and Tommy Campanaro in high school, and J Robinson and Brandon Eggum and Luke Becker in college. The people I have had in my life have led me to hold strong in my faith.”
Nelson knows that faith will be tested as he begins to climb the steep mountain that stands between him and Olympic glory.
“As you get to that [Olympic] level, everyone is physically fit and physically prepared,” he said. “I believe at the higher levels, the biggest part is honing in mentally, building a belief system for yourself so that, when you step out on the mat, you believe you’re going to win. The physical training means you’re on the mat four or five times a week, and there’s weight lifting and conditioning three or four times a week as well, depending on the competition schedule. There are four core areas – endurance, technique, strength, and the mental side – and you have to put time and energy into all four of those areas to be at the top of your game.”
What makes the climb more difficult is that there are multiple “peaks,” with one climb necessary to win the U.S. Olympic berth in his 125-kilogram weight class, then another to win the gold medal at the Olympics.
“You compete in practice and in tournaments to be the very best ‘you’ that you can be,” Nelson said. “The Trials are important to the ultimate goal, which is to win a gold medal at the Olympics. But they are just a stepping stone along the way. The ability to consistently give your highest performance at a critical moment is the key.”
Nelson appeared to be peaking at the right moment this spring, having won the gold medal at the 2020 Pan-American Championships in early March. That success, combined with the experience of wrestling at the 2016 U.S. Trials, helped him prepare for the challenges ahead.
“It definitely was a cool, unique experience to be a part of,” Nelson said of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. “It was held in Iowa City, and there were big crowds and good wrestling. Having that experience is a good thing, and now I also have four years of experience competing overseas. So I feel I am a better wrestler now than I was then.”
So the die has been cast, and Nelson will make one more assault on Mount Olympus. And that is a climb he looks forward to making.
“People have told me that you can work for your entire life – wrestling isn’t something you can do forever,” Nelson said. “Why not do it when you have the opportunity? I’m happy, and I’m content, with the decision I’ve made.”