Nick Tarpley left Durango when he was only 17 to chase his wrestling dream at the Olympic Training Center. It had been his home until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.
The Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs closed during the spring as the new coronavirus shut down the country and brought sports to a standstill. Tarpley’s hopes of competing at the Olympic Trials were put on hold with the Tokyo Summer Games postponed until 2021. He returned to Durango in April and needed somewhere to train.
“I took a play out of the old Tarpley handbook,” he said. “If there is nowhere to wrestle, I’ll go see if the guys at Durango Martial Arts will wrestle with me.”
The 24-year-old has had a bit of a throwback summer, taking him back to the time between his junior and senior years of high school before he left Durango High School and finished school online.
Each summer, Tarpley and his father, Brad, would look to get him 100 matches. Brad was an assistant coach with the DHS wrestling team, but there was a coaching change after Tarpley’s junior year. Brad no longer had keys to the wrestling room during the summer. Tarpley was desperate to find a place to train and get his 100 matches.
“Not wrestling for a few months in the summer was unfathomable to me. So, we would rent mat time at Durango Martial Arts the whole summer when I was 17,” Tarpley said. “Chris Jones would always wrestle with me. Matt Young would wrestle with me, and my dad would wrestle with me. My little brother, Bradley, he would wrestle with me. I would get anyone in here that I could.
“So when I came home during COVID, I did the exact same thing. Durango Martial Arts always comes through.”
Tarpley is once again training with Jones and Young, a pair of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts and instructors at Durango Martial Arts Academy. Bradley, who regularly trains at the gym, is also getting thrown around by his older brother again.
“We’ve been open almost 15 years and are starting to get kids who came up with us who are now adults coming back to see us. For me and the gym, it’s so special,” Jones said. “It’s amazing to have (Tarpley) back here with his skill level. Anybody who trains and competes for USA Wrestling at the Olympic Training Center, they’re the top 1%. Seeing him go from a teenager with a vision to now seeing him as a man, it’s really special. He’s bringing a whole new level with him that’s just amazing.”
For Tarpley, it’s all in preparation for the 2020 USA Wrestling Greco-Roman Senior Nationals, which will begin Oct. 8 in Coralville, Iowa. Tarpley will compete at 77 kilograms (169.75 pounds), finished fifth last year at 72 kilograms.
“Back in Colorado Springs, most people have either left and gone home with their families or are just grabbing each other in a park or going to a (mixed martial arts) gym in Denver,” Tarpley said. “So, that’s what I’m doing here in Durango. Going to an MMA gym and wrestling literally anybody that will wrestle me. Even if I go to a boxing class, I’m asking after practice if anyone wants to wrestle. After wrestling practices, I am seeing if anyone wants to stay an extra 20 minutes. I can almost always find one or two people excited about it.
“There are some really good fighters and wrestlers here in Durango. I’ve been really lucky and successful here at Durango Martial Arts to find people who will go with me.”
That includes his brother Bradley, who Tarpley called the strongest person he has ever met.
“I’ve been getting thrown around by him a long time,” Bradley said. “It’s nice to be able to help him out in a pinch without any wrestling partners. The amount of growth from his first year in high school when he was excited to win a junior varsity tournament to going to the Olympic Training Center two years later until now, it’s a ridiculous amount of growth I’ve seen in him.”
Greco-Roman wrestling isn’t as popular as freestyle wrestling in the U.S. It emphasizes upper body strength with big throws.
For jiu-jitsu practitioners, Tarpley presents a uniquely different challenge when they tie up with him in a clinch. Jones said his grip is stronger than a monkey wrench.
“He has a super hardcore foundation,” said Durango’s Alex Romme. “Having somebody that different and that good at such a high level, it helps everyone at the gym to see that type of wrestler.”
Only a jiu-jitsu white belt, Tarpley has surprised a few of his rolling partners in the gym. Jones admits he gets a kick out of brown and black belts being stunned when they hit the mat with the Olympic hopeful.
“You can’t explain his strength level,” Jones said. “In any kind of martial art, if it’s real, you gotta feel it. Once you feel his grip strength and his foundation, you know how real it is. You can wrestle thousands of guys. But you come across that one and it’s like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Jones said Durango Martial Arts Academy has struggled as much as any business during the pandemic. While times might be tough, he is happy to get classes going again and provide opportunities for people to stay active and train.
“The beautiful thing about wrestling is that you get beat up, you get pinned, you get tossed. But you get up and try again,” Jones said. “You find a way. There’s a lesson to be learned from that.”
While Tarpley has enjoyed his time in the gym with old friends, he also has taken advantage of time spent in the San Juan mountains, running up mountains and working hard in the high country. He hopes that gives him an edge over any of his opponents jogging at sea level.
He also has taken time to heal up nagging injuries. That, he said, is the one bright side of the pandemic for the entire roster of USA athletes.
Now, he’s eager to see what he can do next month in Iowa.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” he said. “I don’t know how everyone else will show up, who will show up. I need to stay in relatively good shape and go into it with an open mind. I will continue wrestling as much as I can and see what happens. The U.S. Open is just the first thing back, so let’s see what happens. No stress or worries if everything goes wrong, but I don’t think it will.”