Wrestling Away A Disadvantage

By Matt Turk | Jan. 26, 2001, 12 a.m. (ET)
From the outside, Nick Ackerman's 24-1 record is impressive, especially since he leads his Simpson wrestling team in wins and pins (9) from his 174 pound weight class. In fact, he is currently on the third longest winning streak in school history (19 in a row). Such success has brought the environmental science major to a #5 ranking (in the current adidas/BRUTE Division III rankings) in his weight class. The truly impressive part is that Ackerman wrestles with a major disadvantage, the disadvantage being Ackerman lost both of his legs below his knees when he was 1 1/2 years old. The 22-year old Ackerman was forced to have his legs amputated to halt a life-threatening form of bacterial meingitits. He has never thought of himself as disabled, but he considers it another challenge of becoming a varsity wrestler at Simpson. "I have never gone to bed and cried because I didn't have any legs," Ackerman said in a 1999 interview with the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. "You can't feel sorry for yourself. You get what are given and it is up to you to make the most of it." "Nick's a kid that doesn't like being treated any different than anybody else," said Simpson head coach Ron Peterson. Like most kids in his hometown of Colfax, Iowa, Ackerman participated in several sports including football, track, soccer, swimming. Ackerman's family is an athletic one, as older brother Nathan is the fourth leading scorer in the history of the Simpson men's basketball program. However, it is the sport of wrestling in which he has excelled. He took up the sport in the third grade. Despite the doubters, Ackerman earned a spot on his Colfax-Mingo High School varsity team where he compiled a 71-38 record. He capped a 32-8 senior season by placing sixth in the 152-pound weight class in Iowa's 1A state tournament. He earned the spot despite fracturing his wrist in a first round victory over a previously undefeated and one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state. His first round victory was named by WHO-TV (the NBC affiliate) as one of its top 13 stories of 1997. Even the legendary Iowa coach Dan Gable was impressed about his performance at the state meet. Gable approached Ackerman seeking an autograph. "He's really a great kid," Gable said after meeting Ackerman. "I enjoy watching him wrestle." Ackerman had several offers for college coming out of high school, before settling on Simpson. "We recruited Nick very hard," Peterson said. "I liked his aggressiveness on the mat. The other consideration was his ability to put people in danger. You can have a five point lead and he can pin you in the wink of an eye." He started his career off with a bang, pinning his first four opponents. Wrestling primarily on the Storm junior varsity, Ackerman finished the 1997-98 season with a 15-16 record and eight pins. His highest finish during an in-season tournament was a third at the NCAA Division II Central Missouri St. Tournament when he posted a 6-1 record. He capped off the campaign with a fourth place showing at the IIAC Junior Varsity Tournament at 158 pounds. "Nick had a quick start and then settled into college wrestling," Peterson commented. "He continued to make progress, but in our league (the Iowa Conference), it was tough for him to be a big time player." Ackerman began see more time on the varsity as a sophomore, earning the starting spot at 184 pounds late in the year. He earned his first IIAC varsity conference placing, a seventh at 184 and concluded the year with a 14-15 record and nine pins. In June of 1999, he was awarded the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's Medal of Courage. The Medal of Courage is awarded to a wrestler or former wrestler who has overcome insurmountable challenges.. "Nick made huge strides as a sophomore," said Peterson. "His problem was, he was getting pinned as much as he was pinning his opponents. He made improvements as the year unfolded." Ackerman really came into his own as a junior. He alternated between 174 and 184 pounds and began to face some of the toughest competition in all of NCAA wrestling. Ackerman was matched up with undefeated and now two-time NCAA Division I national champion Cael Sanderson of Iowa State at the Simpson Duals. Sanderson defeated Ackerman via technical fall (17-2), but both Sanderson and his coach Bobby Douglas came away with respect for the Storm wrestler. "He definatly shows a lot of heart and courage by wrestling and being as good as he is, he is amazing," Sanderson said in an interview with WHO-TV about Ackerman, shortly after their 2000 match. "He is a remarkable individual, to be able to compete the way he has," Douglas said later in an interview with WHO-TV. Ackerman dropped down to 174 and began to rack up the victories. He defeated the then #1 ranked 174 pounder Jay Roden of Springfield 4-0 during the Florida Duals and later finished sixth at the prestigious Wheaton Invitational. He moved back to 184 for the IIAC Tournament and finished fifth at the league meet. He led Simpson in wins with 28 and pins (11). "He stepped up to the plate his junior year," Peterson said. "He was outstanding. He ton the best competition in the country and held his own. It was truly incredible." Ackerman began his senior campaign knowing that he would be at 174 for the entire season. As such, he began the season with a 5-0 record before losing to Iowa State's Perry Parks at the Simpson Duals. According to the NCAA Division III Wrestling Coaches Association, his 24 wins are the eighth most in Division III this season. His .960 winning percentage is the third best in D-3 and he has the sixth most pins in Division III. "Nick doesn't believe anyone can beat him," Peterson said. "His off-season weight training program has made him a serious contender on the national level. When he brings the "Ack Attitude", you had better be ready." Despite his success, Ackerman has remained humble about his accomplishments. "Everyone is working just as hard as I am and deserves more credit than I do, I'm just another guy in the (wrestling practice) room," Ackerman said. Nick Ackerman's tale is of one not of someone with a disability, but it is a story of someone who has adapted to what he was given and has taken those gifts and made the most of them.