Tony Nelson is back to “full” strength, if you will pardon the wrestling pun.
A shoulder surgery in November 2017 forced the former Cambridge-Isanti High School and University of Minnesota standout to prove he remains one of the top heavyweight wrestlers in the world.
And that is exactly what Nelson did, placing second in the 125-kilogram weight class (275 pounds) at the U.S. Open held in Las Vegas April 25-28.
“I wrestled well this past weekend, and I know I can beat everybody,” Nelson said. “Wrestling is about going in with the right attitude: You have to believe in yourself and have no doubt that you’re going to be the guy. ... That’s the mindset I have to bring to the mat.”
That is a mindset that came easily to Nelson, a 2009 graduate of Cambridge-Isanti High School, during his high school career, which included two state championships and a 141-18 record with the Bluejackets. That success continued at the University of Minnesota, where he claimed two NCAA titles, three Big Ten crowns, four All-American awards and a 131-16 career record with the Gophers.
And the 6-4 Nelson has tasted success on the international stage, including a third-place finish in the U.S. World Team Trials in 2017.
But that also was the time he started to experience shoulder problems.
“My shoulder had been bothering me for four or five months,” Nelson admitted. “It just wasn’t getting better. I looked at it and found out I had some arthritis in my shoulder, so I got that fixed.”
The surgery in November 2017 kept him off the mats for roughly three months. Still Nelson, with limited training and preparation because of the injury, managed to finish fifth in the U.S. Open of 2018.
“That was my first tournament since the surgery,” he said. “I ended up making the finals of the challenge tournament for the World Team Trials about three weeks later.”
Those strong finishes were proof that the surgery would not hinder his career.
“Before [the surgery] I couldn’t do what I needed to do with my shoulder,” Nelson said. “To compete at the level I want to, I needed to be at full strength. Finishing fifth [at the U.S. Open] was enough to get me into the Team Trials. I hadn’t competed in a while, and I came back [from the surgery] a little quicker than most. I felt good; I wasn’t back at full strength, and I thought I competed well.”
He continued his comeback with a fifth-place finish in the ALANS International Tournament held in Vladikavkaz, Russia, in December, then helped a U.S. team claim a bronze medal in the Freestyle World Cup, a team event held in Yakutsk, Russia, in mid-March.
At the U.S. World Open last weekend, Nelson opened the tournament with a pair of pins before earning two straight decisions to reach the championship match at 125 kilograms.
But he lost that title match to Adam Coon by a 5-2 score.
“The goal was to win it – especially since the winner gets to sit out the World Team Trials,” Nelson said. “It would have been nice to win, but in the situation I’m in now you have to beat everyone, anyhow. I’m feeling good, and I believe I’m the best guy out there. I just came up a little short in the finals.”
The next step for Nelson is those World Team Trials, which will be held in Raleigh, North Carolina, in mid-May. But ultimately the 28-year-old, who trains full-time with the Minnesota Storm Wrestling Club, has Olympic aspirations.
“The Olympics are the overall goal – that’s what your eyes are on eventually,” Nelson said. “But these other events are all stepping stones. You have to continue to make progress. And success there is what helps your attitude. Being able to do well in these tournaments are going to push me to my ultimate goal of making the Olympic team and wrestle for Team USA.”