March 18, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

Season-ending injuries are always a test of an athlete’s perseverance and determination, but for Cornell University wrestler Troy Nickerson it has been a learning experience that may offer an interesting perspective on his future career choice.

Nickerson began his collegiate career as a highly-touted recruit after becoming the first-ever five-time New York state champion as a student at Chenango Forks H.S.  The 125-pounder immediately backed up his reputation with All-American showings at NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2007, and entered last season ready to contend for a national title.  His junior campaign, however, stopped before it started after he suffered a shoulder injury at practice only days before the Big Red’s first match.

“I tried wrestling through the pain,” said Nickerson.  “A few days before the competition, I finally decided the pain was too much.  Between me, my coach and my trainer, we decided I should probably get an MRI.”
Doctors found a torn labrum in Nickerson’s shoulder, and recommended surgery, immediately ending his season. 

“We knew going into the surgery, there would be a long, hard recovery,” said Nickerson.  “They told me it would be about six to nine months of recovery, but after the surgery, the doctors said it was a lot more intense than they planned.  I had torn my bicep along with the labrum, and recovery would be about nine months to a year.  I definitely knew I was in for quite a long and grueling recovery process.”

Nickerson watched his teammates put together an EIWA Championship season, along with a ninth-place finish at nationals. 

“It was hard sitting out the year,” said Nickerson.   “My coaches and trainers did a nice job of keeping me mentally poised and not getting back into it too soon.  I did as much as I could to aid the recovery while still keeping a level head on my shoulders.”

Heeding the advice of the doctors, Nickerson took a cautious approach to his rehabilitation, staying out of the wrestling room for nine months.  He returned to the mat in August to get ready for the season, but eased into competition, wrestling just a handful of matches before winter break. 

“I gradually got my shoulder back where it was in pretty good shape,” said Nickerson.  “I’ve had a couple flare-ups and it is still not 100 percent, and the doctors may even want to go back in and do some more repairing after the season.  I’ve just been trying to deal with the pain, and learning how to wrestle with it.”

The result has been a perfect record of 20-0 in 2009, and given the pre-med student an inside look at the body and its ability to recover from injury.

“I’ve always been interested in medicine, and the body and how it works,” said Nickerson.  “In high school, I was in a program that I got to go and shadow a lot of doctors through the local hospital.  That experience really helped me decide to study medicine as an undergraduate to prepare for medical school in the future.  Going through this injury has solidified how much I do want to go into medicine.  After all my struggles with the injury, I definitely am looking forward to helping people recover and get back to 100 percent.”

Nickerson is one of nine Cornell wrestlers to qualify for the NCAA Division I Championships that will be held March 19-21 in St. Louis, Mo.  The Big Red is one of only seven schools that will be sending at least nine qualifiers, and Nickerson believes his team has a legitimate chance to contend for the team championship.

“This is by far the most talented team we’ve ever had here at Cornell,” said Nickerson.  “I think we’ve got four guys that have legitimate shots at winning national titles this year.  When you’ve got that kind of leadership in the room, everyone builds off of that and feeds off of everyone else’s energy.  It really helps all of us because we want to get better and stand on top of that podium.  Everyone is pushing each other and there is a lot of camaraderie.”

Individually, Nickerson is the No. 2 seed in the 125-pound bracket – a weight class that boasts two former national champions with top-seeded senior Paul Donahoe of Edinboro, who won the 2007 title as a member of the Nebraska squad, and the defending NCAA champion Angel Escobedo of Indiana.

“I really feel that I’m the best in the weight class and going in with nothing less than hoping to win it,” said Nickerson.  “I know I’ve got a very tough weight, but I feel I’ve done all the things I’ve needed to this year to put myself on top of the podium.  Come Thursday, it’s just about wrestling five perfect matches, and going hard for seven minutes.  I feel if I can do that, there’s no one in the country that can beat me.”

Nickerson will wrestle Michigan’s Mike Watts in the first round on March 19.  Cornell boasts four other seeded wrestlers - sophomore Mack Lewnes (No. 1 seed, 165 pounds), Jordan Leen (No. 3, 157), Steve Anceravage (No. 6, 174) and Mike Grey (No. 11, 133).