Up until the last year, Nick Tarpley would walk onto a wrestling mat not necessarily expecting to win. In May at the USA Wrestling Greco-Roman World Team Trials, Tarpley had visions of winning and being selected for the world championships in Kazakhstan.
In April, the 23-year-old placed fifth at 72 kilograms (158.7 pounds) at the U.S. Open tournament. It was his best finish yet in the senior division. That result gave him confidence going into the World Team Trials in Las Vegas. He rolled into the semifinals and ran into Alex Mossing in the semifinals, and he lost a heartbreaking 13-11 match. Mossing went on to win the championship against Michael Hooker.
Crushed by the loss, Tarpley eventually finished fifth. Though it was a tough defeat to swallow, Tarpley has since found solace in the fact that he was finally disappointed with a loss rather than expecting it.
“When I first moved to Colorado Springs and was wrestling in the senior division, the Olympic division, I was just trying to get experience in matches,” Tarpley said. “I was expecting to lose but learn something. This year, especially, I’ve kind of turned a corner. I’m not expecting to lose anymore. I’m one of the best guys in the country. I’m thinking about the other guys. It’s really fun because for the first time this year, they’re thinking about me, also.”
Tarpley’s turning point came earlier this year. He had moved to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic Training Center full time when he was only 17, foregoing his senior year at Durango High School while finishing up class online. For five years, he had some solid results, but competing in the senior division and hoping to place at tournaments such as the U.S. Open or World Team Trials was not in his thoughts.
In January, Tarpley was the lone American to travel to an international tournament in Cuba. He placed third, but he said he wrestled horribly and simply didn’t know what to do. Friendly with the French national team, Tarpley was able to communicate with the France coach, who invited him to train with the team in Europe. Between international trips with USA Wrestling to Denmark and Estonia, Tarpley spent a couple of weeks working in France. With some fresh tips, he returned home and placed fifth at the U.S. Open.
“I think that was a huge turning point for me,” he said. “I got back from Europe, and a couple of weeks later, the next competition was the U.S. Open and I just wrestled better in the U.S. Open than I ever wrestled before. That was really fun.
“Wrestling is not very much fun when you lose, is not very much fun when you’re not very good at it, even in practice because you’re just getting beat up all the time. I was feeling pretty down about the whole wrestling project after several years of just getting my head smashed. To turn that corner right before World Team Trials was just perfect timing.”
Tarpley, son of Brad and Tracy Tarpley, had grown used to getting beat up in practices after moving to Colorado Springs at a young age. But it was his ability to keep getting back up and push forward that impressed longtime USA Wrestling coach Momir Petkovic, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist for the former Yugoslavia. It was that quality of Tarpley’s that allowed him to continue training with the best wrestlers in the country during the last six years despite his novice skills in the early years.
Since he first moved to Colorado Springs, Tarpley has traveled the globe and spent nearly two years living in Zagreb, Croatia. All of his experiences were building toward a chance to wrestle in this year’s world championships. He was two wins away before the crushing defeat.
He called the semifinal loss to Mossing, a wrestler from the Air Force who he knows well from training, a bizarre match.
“Just barely to a guy that I really think I should have beat,” Tarpley said. “Now that RaVaughn Perkins, the No. 1 guy at 72 kilos for a long time, he got beat earlier in the tournament, so I didn’t have to wrestle him. He’s the only guy that I’m scared of. He’s thinking of retiring now. I really feel like, other than RaVaughn, I’m the best wrestler in the United States at 72 kilos. He got knocked out earlier in the tournament. In my mind, I was already the champion.
“All I had to do was beat Alex Mossing and then I had to beat Michael Hooker. I’ve beat (Hooker) twice, he’s beat me twice. So, perfect, I needed that tiebreaker against him. In my mind, I’m better than Alex and Michael. I’m the champion. It could not have gone my way better up to that point. Then I lose, and I was heartbroken.”
It will be some time before Tarpley is able to wrestle for the chance to prove he is the best in his weight class again. It is an Olympic year in 2020. In international Greco-Roman wrestling, there are 10 weight classes in which to compete. In the Olympics, there are only six, and 72 kilograms is not one of the weight classes. He will either have to go up and wrestle 77 kilograms (169.8 pounds) or down to 67 kilograms (147.7 pounds) to compete during the Olympic year. He said 72 kilos is a perfect weight for him, and he will target the 2021 U.S. Open for a chance at his first senior division victory.
“I wrestled 77 kilos a couple of times the last couple of years, but I was the smallest one in the weight class,” Tarpley said. “For an eight-month period, I ate 6,000 calories a day, lifted four days a week and could not get big enough. It was exhausting and awful. It was another workout just to eat because it was constant, and I couldn’t get big enough.
“The other option is 147 pounds, and I haven’t been that small since sophomore year of high school. I wrestled 152 my last two years in high school. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m not competitive at 77. If I go down, I’m not starving myself, but it’s a strict diet. If you exercise enough, in a year you can lose 20 pounds.”
With 2020 being an Olympic year, that made this year’s loss at the World Team Trials even tougher to swallow. Instead of the world championships, he will now consider tournaments either in foreign countries such as Georgia, Germany, Iran, Poland or Romania. Iran is one travel destination he hasn’t checked off his list, and he’s eager to get to the national that deeply reveres the sport. Then, he will prepare for the 2020 U.S. Open tournament, which will be held in December of this year because of the shifted Olympic calendar.
But, for now, Tarpley is enjoying being unhappy with losing and finding new expectations for success.