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Wrestling away a disadvantage to a National Championship



From the outside, Nick Ackerman's 13-11 victory over Nick Slack in the 174 pound National Championship match Mar. 3 was impressive. After all, Slack was ranked #1 in the country, won 60 matches in a row, and was the defending National Champion. As a reward for his National Championship, he was named the Outstanding Wrestler of the 2001 NCAA Division III Championships. The truly impressive part is that Ackerman wrestled 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 meningitis. The crowd of just over 3,000 gave Ackerman a two-minute standing ovation for his victory. The first person Ackerman found in the crowd was his mother Cindy who he brought to mat, hugged her, and then took her down to the mat in celebration. Needless to say, Ackerman was excited about his victory. "Its awesome," Ackerman said as he was being mobbed by well-wishers. "My coaches told me how great it is, that its's the biggest day of your life." 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 the previously undefeated and #1 ranked wrestler, Clay Youngblut of Don Bosco of Gilbertville. 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," Simpson coach Ron 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's road to the National Championship began with a second place finish at the Iowa Conference Tournament. He lost to Rob Murray of Loras College in the finals 4-3. Despite the loss, the runner-up showing provided Ackerman one of the 30 qualifying berths that the Iowa Conference is given by the NCAA for the National Tournament. Ackerman was seeded sixth at the National Tournament, and he opened the competition with his 13th pin of the season as he stuck UW-LaCrosse's Ben Bly at the 1:45 mark. In the quarterfinals, Ackerman met up Murray, who was seeded third. In their third match of the season, Ackerman defeated Murray 2-1. Murray led 1-0 on the basis of riding time and looked to be cruising towards victory, but Ackerman took Murray down with just 28 seconds left in the match and clinched his first All-American honors. Ackerman advanced to the finals when Thiel's Sean Clark could not answer the call to wrestle due to a neck injury he suffered during his quarterfinal victory over Cortland State's Anthony Stewart. That final match proved to be the best bout of the night. Slack scored first with a two-point takedown, 15 seconds into the first period. Ackerman went up 5-2 when he posted a takedown 45 seconds later and a Peterson Roll for a three point near fall at the 2:10 mark. Ackerman added a second three-point near fall with just eight seconds to go in the first period and led 8-2 after one. Slack cut the lead to 10-5 after two periods and closed to 12-11 after two consecutive two-point takedowns, but Ackerman's reversal with 24 seconds to go in the match proved to be the difference and he won 13-11. Ackerman finished his senior campaign with the fifth most victories in a single season by a Simpson wrestler, 38 (38-4). He finished his career with a 95-41 record and 41 pins. With his National Championship, Ackerman became the 16th Storm wrestler to earn All-American honors. "This is pretty spectacular right now," Ackerman said. "I knew I had it in me. This has been my goal all year. This is as close to the best day in my life ever." One of the first quotes he had during the post-match press conference should serve as the fina
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