Blue-haired Bo Nickal embraces change in chase for third national wrestling title at PSU

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Bo Nickal has won two national wrestling titles at Penn State at 184 pounds.
  • This year, sporting newly-dyed blue hair, Nickal aims for his third crown at 197 pounds.
  • Over the past two seasons, Nickal compiled an overall record of 57-1.

Two-time national champ Bo Nickal — who recently traded his blond locks for dyed blue hair — doesn’t mind trying something new. He embraces it.

Penn State's Bo Nickal, top, celebrates with head coach Cael Sanderson after pinning Ohio State's Myles Martin during the 184-pound championship match of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Cleveland. Nickal, now sporting blue hair, will aim for his third national title this season at 197 pounds. AP FILE PHOTO

It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the mat or off. In high school, he dyed his hair red, changed it back to blond in college and then dyed it blue this year. (“I just came up with the idea randomly and went for it,” he said.) In wrestling, he twice moved up weight classes, including his switch to 197 pounds this summer. In the offseason, he even traded his Happy Valley apartment for a chance to train overseas with 86-kg world champ David Taylor.

Nickal’s daily regimen may be the same — “Wake up and play dodgeball,” he joked — but the early Hodge Trophy contender thrives on finding new challenges and ways to test himself and others. It’s no surprise that his motivation at Penn State is a little different too.

“I don’t really care too much about winning and losing, and accolades so much,” he said, when asked about his legacy. “I just want people to have felt excitement and some joy of being able to watch me compete. I just like to wrestle in an exciting style and keep people on the edge of their seats a little bit.

“I think that kind of style is more important, rather than any accomplishments I’ve made the last four years.”

Aiming for third title: Nickal made that statement about 20 yards from a banner depicting his face and accomplishments, specifically his two national titles. He could very well force Penn State to send that banner back to the manufacturer — because he’s on the verge of a third national title, which would make him just the third-ever three-time champ in Penn State history.

But, in true Nickal fashion, that title is going to have to come in a different manner this season.

The senior previously dominated at 184 pounds, going 57-1 the last two years with back-to-back NCAA titles. But he decided this offseason to move up a weight class, adding weight organically through training and eating several daily meals, reportedly to better prepare himself for the rigors of freestyle after college.

Can't wait: Other wrestlers might acknowledge added pressure or some nerves about a move to the unknown. But Nickal just smirked. He can’t wait.

“I like being able to compete against new guys, just being able to wrestle some new faces,” he said. “Because, if you wrestle the same guys all the time, it just gets old. They kind of just try to hold you off, so I’m excited to have some new competition.”

Nickal’s teammates aren’t concerned about the transition. Wrestler after wrestler just shook his head, some offering a laugh, when asked if there was any worry about Nickal. The overwhelming response? The weight class may be different, but the expectations aren’t.

“He’s the man. Everybody knows he’s the man,” two-time All-American Mark Hall said. “He can go at any weight, I believe, and do some damage and win.”

Added Shakur Rasheed, who moved down to 184 pounds: “He adapted to the weight and, now that he’s bigger and thicker, he still has that speed and agility that he had at ‘84. So you’re looking at a guy who’s going to run through the competition.”

"Secret" moves: Of course, a new blue-haired Nickal in a new weight class wouldn’t be complete without a few new “secret” moves. When the wrestler with a penchant for improvisation was asked if he had a few tricks up his singlet this season, he just laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “but they’re secret.”

With his overseas training with Taylor, a new move here or there shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, the 27-year-old Taylor told a group of reporters Tuesday that Nickal’s ability to memorize and execute new moves greatly helped him plow through a difficult road of opponents to the 2018 World Championship gold in Budapest.

“He would actually study my opponents in every single match. He would replicate that for me in my warm-up,” Taylor recalled. “And some things he was actually doing better than some of the guys I was wrestling in competition.”

Ready for new challenges: Nickal, known for his high wrestling IQ, said he’s ready for the new challenges of his final collegiate season. After all, no matter what happens, his banner will remain in the wrestling room and his accolades will stay on the minds of most fans.

But that’s not why he wrestles. “I want to be out there, and that’s it,” he said. And that love of the sport is what’s propelling him toward the new and unknown.

He conquered it all before. And he’s embracing it one final time at Penn State — blue hair and all.