Sometimes, things just click and life makes sense. Like Carter Nielsen (82 kg) deciding to attend Northern Michigan last year. Athletes, coaches, fans — “Greco people”, as it were — couldn’t help but be tantalized over the prospect of young Mr. Nielsen entering the world of full-time Greco-Roman competition, though not all of that was his own doing. Folks in and around the US had become very well acquainted with Nielsen’s older brother Zac during the latter’s time on the Senior circuit. Revered for his technical prowess and unflappable gameness, Zac was thought of as one of the best overall Greco practitioners in the country before he prematurely stepped away a few years ago. Carter portrays differences, has his own individual way of doing things; but just the fact that the Nielsen DNA is carrying on a presence in the sport has resulted in an optimistic brand of curiosity regarding what “little brother” might be capable of down the road.
Only “down the road” for Carter Nielsen doesn’t mean years from now. Because if you ask the man himself, he’ll tell you that he’s preparing to make his mark this year. This month.
But you first have to rewind it back to Nielsen’s decision to understand the foundation of his confidence. After finishing off his high school career with a state title, he moved on to North Dakota State University and the attraction of Division I college wrestling. The environment never suited him in the manner he thought it would. Nielsen couldn’t unleash his competitive drive with the same fire that he used to earn his spot on the team. There was something missing. He couldn’t put his finger on it and briefly considered giving up wrestling for good.
Then came a workout session with Zac, and next thing you knew, Northern Michigan had landed one of the premier Greco-Roman prospects in the nation, and one who has learned it is wise to be unafraid to chase his dreams on his own terms, in his own way.
Those locked in on Nielsen didn’t have to wait long to catch a glimpse of his Greco abilities. The 2017 U23 World Team Trials, held last October in Nielsen’s home state, provided an early litmus test and delivered solid evidence that he was already on the right track. After enduring a quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Alex Meyer (Hawkeye WC), Nielsen racked up four straight wins — including a measure of revenge against Meyer in the consolation final — to come in third.
Nielsen stayed busy. Just a couple of weeks later, he traveled to Sweden for his first overseas experience. American coaches, they’ll always tell you how the purpose of these trips is for training and education, and maybe that’s true, but there is no doubt the athletes tend to see it a little differently. They want to perform, win medals, prove to themselves that they can take out foreign opposition. Nielsen barely missed out on a bronze in his maiden international tournament, the Klippan Cup. Following a week of camp, he was back the next week to nail down a silver at the massive Malar Cupen in Västerås.
Remember — this is all going down during Nielsen’s first semester at NMU. He was just getting started. In early December, Nielsen jetted over to Russia with another group of Americans and advanced to the bronze medal round at the Lavrikov Memorial. He tossed his Russian opponent with double overhooks and pinned him, only to have the call reversed, eventually dropping the bout on criteria.
The good news — Nielsen was demonstrating a high level of competitiveness right out of the chute, hungrily embracing Greco-Roman and the fresh-yet-familiar lifestyle that accompanied it. The bad — while in Russia, Nielsen’s left knee stopped offering even a semblance of stability. The injury had originally occurred at North Dakota State. He didn’t know how much of an issue the knee actually was when it first popped. It’s not a blame game; when it comes to wrestling injuries, specifically knee problems, you often don’t know what you don’t know.
But what Nielsen didn’t know and soon found out, was that his left knee no longer featured an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). So yeah, he finished up at NDSU, signed onto NMU, and competed in three events, not to mention practiced for a bunch of months, with a knee that was missing the one ligament deemed necessary to consistently produce supportive rotational movement. Don’t even bother asking How in the world did he….? It’s not worth the exasperation. The healthier exercise would be to just accept that Carter Nielsen isn’t completely normal and go about the rest of your day.
An ACL repair and recovery should equate to approximately 9-12 months off the mat for a wrestler, even in 2018 and with all of the hyperspeed advances which have become standard in the field of sports orthopedics. Nielsen was cleared by his doctors and trainers in less than half that. By April, he returned to full capacity and considered jumping into the US Senior Open in Las Vegas, but instead chose to sit it out in preparation of what’s on the docket for June.
This coming weekend, the 21-year-old will be vying for a spot on the 2018 US U23 Greco-Roman World Team. Third last year on one good knee, Nielsen is banking on being able to offer opponents an altogether scarier proposition with two that are now properly working. It will be a pretty stacked field in Akron, Ohio, as 82 kilograms is home to a collection of young talents sporting relevant (and recent) accomplishments. Nielsen isn’t so worried about them at the moment. And then once Akron is done with, he will hop back on the saddle and try his hand at making the Senior World Team in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Different age group, same script. Nielsen won’t be showing up to play the role of bystander. He wants to win, and what’s more, he believes he has more than a puncher’s chance to do so.
One thing is for sure. Carter Nielsen is confident, he has good reason to be, and he won’t apologize for operating with a well of self-belief that too many athletes seem to shy away from. Whatever happens this year, this week, this month — or down the road — his is a name you should probably get used to saying out loud.
Carter Nielsen — 82 kg, NMU/OTS
5PM: You started off wrestling in a traditional college system before switching over to Greco and Northern Michigan. What led you to decide to make this change?
Carter Nielsen: Well, it’s actually a really weird subject from my perspective. Basically, I wanted to do something different out of college than what my brothers did. I knew that Zac came here, and I knew that Greco was always going to be a part of my future. When I was done with folkstyle, I always knew I was going to come back to Greco. But I wanted to do my own thing, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t necessarily want to follow in my brothers’ footsteps. My whole life, I have always kind of been compared to them, so it was like, Screw that, I’m going to go do my own thing.
I think that was a lot of the reason why I did it (attend North Dakota State), to do something different, and it wasn’t necessarily where my heart was. And so, I went to North Dakota State and I thought I had a really good chance to start there, and I did in my second year. But it was the weirdest thing. This is what you dream of as a kid growing up, I want to win a national title, I want to wrestle Division I. It was like I was finally there, I was finally living that life — and something just wasn’t right. I don’t want to say I hated it, but I kind of did. I don’t know, I don’t know what it was. I loved my coaches, they were great. I had great relationships with all of them — Roger Kish, Matt Nagel, Jarrod Garnett — specifically those three. I really looked up to them and I believed in what they said and I tried my best to give them my all. Maybe part of it was that I was still a kid, I don’t know. It just didn’t click, something wasn’t right. All in all, I was just depressed and it began to show in my schoolwork, in my weight, just everywhere. I hated it and I needed to get out. I needed something new.
They (coaches) didn’t really take it seriously at first. They were like, Oh, just give him a week and he’ll come back. It was like, No, I’m not coming back, I hate this. And when I left North Dakota State, I actually didn’t plan on wrestling again. I don’t want to say “they” made me hate it, but the atmosphere just wasn’t for me, and it’s not for everyone.
I came home a couple of weeks after I left the team, which was after Midlands. My brother said, Why don’t you come in and roll around? All it took was one practice rolling around with Zac for me to re-think it , Maybe I should still wrestle, maybe I could be good at this Greco thing. It just kind of took off from there.
5PM: Was Northern the only option you considered? Or did you look at other situations, too, like trying to go to the Olympic Training Center or another place to train and finish your education?
CN: No, it wasn’t even a thought in my head. I had been up here a bunch of times visiting my brother and coming into the room to train with the guys here. I knew Rob Hermann and I knew that (Andy) Bisek was coming in to coach. I knew this was the place for me. I took just one phone call with Rob and one visit to come up here, and it was home. I fit in with the guys, some of them I already knew. Logan Kass, in particular, we knew each other in high school and we always had a pretty good relationship. He was someone who welcomed me in and made me feel at home right away.
But yeah, this is definitely the place for me. I fricking love it here, man. It’s just awesome. It is a small town feel, which is what I grew up in. It’s not a big city. I can go out into the woods and go fishing in between practices, hunt, hiking — whatever I want to do, I can just do it. It’s an open, awesome environment here. I just love it.
5PM: Your brother Zac, he was excellent and regarded by many as one of the best in the US before he walked away.
CN: I would agree, and he hasn’t lost it all. He hasn’t lost much, if anything. Every once in a while when I’m home, we still roll around. He likes to scrap and he’s still got it (laughs).
5PM: The difference between college and Greco-Roman, is that once you start competing in Greco full-time, you are automatically competing at the international level. Pretty much. In college, you’re not, it is a domestic-only sport. So there is a different attitude or understanding that crossing over requires it would appear. What kind of wisdom has Zac imparted on you as you’ve started to enter this phase of your career?
CN: That’s an interesting question and I’m not really sure how to answer it. I would say most of it is just staying composed. I’m sure you’ve seen him wrestle a ton of times, he never lost his composure. He wrestled the same whether he was winning by four, losing by four, losing by one, down by one. That is the biggest thing he instilled upon me, it doesn’t matter what the score is, I am going to wrestle the same way. I am still going to believe I can win no matter what, whether I’m in the US or overseas. And along with that, don’t be scared of anyone and give no respect. Obviously, you have to think you’re the man. That’s the biggest thing I took from him. We can be friends, you know? But as soon as the whistle blows, we’re not friends. It’s business.
5PM: You started off this season strong. For you, that was the Rochester U23 Trials, the Klippan Cup, the silver in Västerås, and then a trip to Russia.
CN: Those trips were frustrating to me a little bit, too. There isn’t a video out there, but in my bronze-medal match in Russia and my bronze-medal match at the first tournament in Sweden (Klippan Cup), I had both of those matches won and little tactical errors cost me. Maybe at certain times I let the refs get in my head and that is something I have learned from. That was an eye-opener for me in my first overseas experience. You’re not always going to get the call that you think is right and you just have to wrestle through that, but it was something I wasn’t quite ready for.
5PM: Is that why you felt it necessary to jump into a lot of stuff right away? You were really active practically immediately and then your knee happened.
Carter Nielsen: What happened was actually a long time coming. I was wrestling injured that whole time. I wrestled injured at the U23’s, in Sweden, and in Russia. It was injured the whole time, I wasn’t ever healthy. And that was part of me leaving NDSU, too. I suffered a knee injury while at NDSU and they didn’t really take it seriously. I didn’t really take it seriously, it didn’t really hurt. It was weird. Once I got here, I got an MRI and they found out I had no ACL at all. Completely no ACL, it was 100% torn. So once I found that out in August, I was like, Okay, there are only two months until the U23 Trials, I’m just going to keep wrestling. I had already been wrestling on it, anyway. It was just a matter of, Let’s see how long I can do this. But Russia is when it got a lot worse. Then I had to re-evaluate where I was at. I’m already qualified for Senior Trials; I’ve established myself, my name is out there; and now maybe it’s time to get this thing fixed and recover.
So that is basically how all of that went. I wrestled in those tournaments with no ACL at all and I did pretty well. I don’t think that is intuitive to say as an excuse or why I lost, because honestly, it didn’t bother me. I didn’t even feel it, I didn’t even notice it when I wrestled. It was all of the other times in life when I noticed it, like walking up the stairs and my knee would slip. But it never once slipped when I was wrestling, which is really weird.
5PM: But what about certain techniques, I don’t know, like a side lift or certain throws where you are posting your leg? You didn’t notice shakiness, sharp pains, nothing? How did you maintain stability and reasonable strength in your leg if you didn’t have a working ACL?
CN: You know, I don’t really have an answer for that. Like I said, it never slipped on me when I was wrestling, not once. Never ever. It only happened at random times, like when we were playing soccer. I never had problems when I was wrestling. It never bothered me, not once. There wasn’t any move that bothered it in particular, and maybe that’s just my body wrestling around it. I’m not quite sure. But there was never a time where I couldn’t perform a move because of it or anything like that. It didn’t restrict me much, to be honest.
I don’t know if helped in my recovery or not, that it was torn for so long, but I was cleared at 16 weeks. I could have wrestled at the (US) Open. My training staff and my doctors cleared me to wrestle at the Open, I chose not to because there was no point in rushing back since I was already qualified. I just wanted to get to 100%, and now, I think my left knee is stronger than my right (laughs).
5PM: I don’t have a problem with folkstyle. My biggest gripe is simply that there is an inherent lack of choice throughout the year. If scholastic style wrestling is offered, then so too should Greco and freestyle. That’s my take.
Carter Nielsen: I think I lucked out with having my brother so involved in the Greco scene that I was able to get involved at a young age, as well. And even though growing up I may not have taken it seriously — it was more of a summer thing I did for fun — it was something I was very passionate about.
5PM: As time wore on, you wrestled well in high school and then went to North Dakota State. When we talk about college wrestling and how it relates to other styles, what are the biggest strengths you take from folkstyle that you feel offer applicability towards Greco?
CN: I would say my scrambling. In a lot of positions where guys may give up or concede points, I won’t. I will keep scrambling. I would say that was my best area in folkstyle, my scrambling ability, and something that in a weird way translates well for me in Greco. Where some guys might feel uncomfortable, I feel comfortable being uncomfortable, and I can find a way to scramble out. Obviously, there are certain positions where that backfires for me, so I am figuring that out. But I am still fresh on the scene and working out some of the bad folkstyle habits that I’ve had.
5PM: You are still new, or “fresh” as you called it. During a conversation with Rob Hermann over the winter, he told me, “Carter Nielsen said he is going to make a World Team.” I was like, Okay, wow, fantastic. I am sure he’ll have a shot to make Teams throughout his career. And then Hermann said, “No Tim, he meant this year.”
CN: I told him that.
5PM: Okay, you told him that. Where does this confidence come from?
CN: I think it comes with the way I was acting when I started my college career. Kind of like what we were talking about earlier, about how we were as 18-year-olds, which is odd for me to say since I’m only 21. But looking back at when I was 18, I was a fucking punk. I wasn’t all-in, you know? And I feel like that is why I didn’t have the confidence on the mat in college that I did in high school. In high school, you walk out there and it’s, I’m a bad dude, I am going to beat this dude’s ass. But in college, I didn’t want to wrestle the best guys, I didn’t. I was scared and I would tense up. I feel like this (Greco) is my second chance to say, Screw that, fuck the bullshit, I am going out and winning. Right now. And I think that’s the mentality it takes to be the best. If it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen, and I’m okay with that because I’ll know that I put all of my effort into it. But — the more I plug away and continue to believe, then it is going to happen. God has plans for me and I am going to follow through on those plans as best as I can, to the best of my ability.
5PM: You’re going to be crazy busy in the month of June. We’ll make this a two-parter. Was there ever a thought about focusing one Trials tournament over the other?
Carter Nielsen: Yeah, there totally was. That has totally been talked about several times between me and my parents, my family, friends, teammates, and coaches. I think that was part of why I didn’t go to the Open: I am going to put everything into the U23 Trials, and then I am going to use that momentum to carry me into the Senior Trials.
I definitely put emphasis on the U23 Trials, because at Senior I will be just another fish in the bracket no one really knows about yet, except for maybe some of the guys I train with. But at U23’s, I feel like I’m the man. There is no one in my entire bracket who has ever beaten me. Not a single time, ever. And I feel like that just gives me an extra edge in motivation to go out there and be like, I can fucking do this and it’s going to happen — now.
And then I am going to use that momentum and take that same mentality right into Seniors. I am going to tell myself mentally, and I really believe it, that I am going to perform to the best of my ability. And whatever it is on that day, I am going to be happy with because I know I am putting forth maximum effort. I know that I am talented enough to win and talented enough to make National Team. But I’m raw. It might not happen this year, it might not happen next year, but I believe that it can happen this year. Just though max effort and by believing that I can win now. Do you know what I’m saying?
I hear this all the time from people, Don’t go in there thinking this and that. I feel like if I am going into any tournament thinking I might lose, then why go? If I were to go to Senior Trials without thinking I am going to win, then why would I fucking go? So many people say stuff like, Okay, I am going to go to Trials and then after that I am going home. There is already a backup plan! Why have a backup plan? Do you really not believe in yourself? Because you’re not going to be the best if that’s the case. I am choosing to take the route that says I believe, and we’ll see how far it can carry me.