When his hand was raised for the final time in a Penn State singlet, after winning his third national championship, Jason Nolf did something he doesn’t often do.
He cracked a smile.
”Just knowing that the crowd was behind me gave me joy in knowing that I put my heart into this sport and into the things I love, and you can kind of start to see things pay off,” the typically stoic Nolf said Saturday night after his 10-2 major decision over Nebraska’s Tyler Berger. “So it kind of puts a smile on your face.”
For Penn State fans, those who were able to watch all-time greats Nolf and Bo Nickal, it was hard not to grin in PPG Paints Arena after both ended on top. (Nickal ended the night with a 5-1 decision over Ohio State’s Kollin Moore.) Now that their careers as three-time national champions and four-time finalists are in the books, there will be a lot of talk about what their legacies might be on the program. A topic Nolf and Nickal themselves don’t much like to discuss.
Finding joy in the sport: When it comes down to it, beyond their combined six national titles, broken pins records and awards, their biggest legacy might just simply be the joy they have wrestling.
“I think you’re going to see whether a kid is enjoying it by the way they compete, more than anything,” head coach Cael Sanderson said ahead of the tournament. “I think they’re competing with the enthusiasm, with the gratitude, with some fire. I think, overall, as a program, the way our guys compete speaks for itself.”
Added Nickal after his final match: “It’s really been blessing after blessing. Since the first time I stepped foot on campus it’s been incredible.”
The enjoyment of both wrestlers was on display the entire weekend at the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships. From Nickal pinning three out of his five opponents and blowing kisses to the crowd, to Nolf mixing up his takedowns against longtime Big Ten rival Berger in the finals.
It’s clear the two just love wrestling.
“I think being creative, finding new opportunities to score and just continuing to learn is super important and just continue to have fun,” Nolf said earlier in the week. “It’s fun and it never gets old going out there and doing what I can do.”
Although the two are always focused on winning — both had goals, as freshmen, to be four-time undefeated national champs —their love of wrestling trumps the awards and accolades they’ve piled up over their careers.
In elite group: Having both ended their seasons as undefeated national champs, they’ll both be on the short list of finalists for the Hodge Trophy —the Heisman of college wrestling. They also both end their careers as four-time All-Americans, the second and third four-time finalists and the third and fourth three-time national champs in Penn State history.
Nolf also edged Nickal by one in the “pin race,” finishing his career with a Penn State-record 60 falls.
However, earning those records and awards aren’t where the pair’s joy stems from.
“When you look at why we wrestle, we don’t wrestle to go out and win awards that other people make up,” Nolf said earlier. “We do it because we love wrestling. We started wrestling because we love wrestling. We love what it offers. I think when you start to focus on the media and social media, it becomes a distraction and it’s not going to take away your focus from what you’re really focused on, which is going out there and hitting your moves and focusing on what you can do.”
It’s Nolf and Nickal’s ability to tune out the outside noise that Sanderson said gave him the feeling back when recruiting them that they’d be successful, and later made them what he said are “two of the best to ever step on a college mat.”
That’s saying a lot coming from the sport’s only undefeated four-time national champ.
“I think they’re both just all in. They do everything right. I think that pays off in big moments like this,” Sanderson said Saturday. “They can relax and just know that they’re ready and know that they’ve done everything to prepare for the moment. And there’s a certain calmness that comes with being prepared.”
Important leaders: The leadership the pair has brought to the program by the examples they set in the wrestling room, on the mat and in their personal lives, Sanderson said, has been “tremendously important.”
The results of the past four years, since Nolf and Nickal first took the mat as freshmen in 2015, are difficult to argue with. Penn State has not only won the team title every year since then but has also fielded finalists in half the weight classes each of those four years.
Hesitant to take any of the credit for their team’s success for themselves, Nolf and Nickal both seemed unconcerned about Penn State’s chances to continue its dominating ways now that they’ve hung up their blue and white singlets.
“I feel like what we have going here is very special, and on top of having the best coaches in the country, we get a lot of awesome recruits and have a lot of awesome individuals competing,” Nickal said, prior to the tournament. “Then we have a lot of guys staying and competing in the NLWC (Nittany Lion Wrestling Club), so I just think that success breeds success.”
Will stick around program: Both Nolf and Nickal plan to also stick around the program for awhile and train with the NLWC, pursuing their dreams of becoming world and Olympic champs. That’s a feat Sanderson, an Olympic champ himself, is confident they’ll achieve, saying he “wouldn’t be surprised,” if both won a world title as early as this fall.
Nickal, when talking about his post-Penn State plans, cited the presence of national champions and Nittany Lion greats Quentin Wright, Ed Ruth and 2019 World Champion David Taylor in the wrestling room as instrumental in his development as a young wrestler, new on campus. It was when Nickal got into Penn State’s room and started competing against those guys that Sanderson said he first felt confident Nickal would not just be a good, but great collegiate wrestler.
Now that his collegiate career is complete, Nickal hopes to repay those who came before him by giving back to the next generation of Penn State grapplers and keeping the momentum going.
“There’s been so many successful guys, and those are guys that I get to work with now, so I feel like just being able to use their experience and having them help me not only on the wrestling mat but with mental preparation and stuff like that,” Nickal said. “I plan on doing that with the guys who are coming in, guys like Michael Beard and Aaron Brooks. So hopefully after I graduate, I’ll be able to help them out, too.”
Looking to future: When asked Saturday about their legacies and what factors went into making the past four years so dominant, both Nolf and Nickal, as well as Sanderson, didn’t want to spend too much time dwelling on the past. The two wrestlers instead spoke about their freestyle goals and wanting to get to work right away preparing for the World Championships this fall and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
As for Sanderson, the closing of one chapter is just the beginning of a new one.
“We’re comfortable and happy with the way things have turned out,” he said. “We were able to create a wave to roll through. And now the exciting part is creating another wave. That’s what it’s all about.”