All it really takes is about two minutes into a conversation with Nick Tarpley (NYAC) and you’ll quickly learn that you are dealing with a different kind of athlete.
Nope — not “marches to his own beat” different. That is far too pretentious of a way to put it. Instead, think of Tarpley’s manner as defiantly aware. His obvious intelligence whirs in the background of each constructed sentence, giving way to responses that betray a refusal to ignore what he sees as the truth.
Tarpley is not soundbite-driven; nor is he vulnerable to false impressions of himself, opponents, coaches, or the sport itself. He knows what to say, how he wants to say it — and prefers to operate akin to an open book if only because you get the sense that to behave any differently would be a waste of his time.
What hasn’t been a waste of his time is Greco-Roman wrestling. Originally a high school stud eyeballing a Colorado state title, Tarpley switched gears prior to receiving his diploma and began attending practices at the US Olympic (and now, Paralympic) Training Center. The full-time gig afforded him requisitely high-level opportunities to learn and prepare. To compete and learn some more. Tarpley’s young career as a Greco athlete has not represented a clean 45-degree upwards line on a graph; he’d be the first to tell you that. He knows what disappointment tastes like, what mind-boggling frustration feels like.
But he also knows, now more than ever, what he needs to do in order to attain success.
A prolonged stay (or residency, rather) in Croatia beginning in 2016 provided Tarpley with an authentic Greco education and cavalcade of life experiences which have been responsible for stark improvement. A byproduct of his time overseas is a stylistic blend that allows Tarpley to adopt an approach most of his domestic contemporaries struggle to replicate. He is drawn to the technical aspect of the sport the way a painter pines over varying grades of canvas. Tarpley appreciates technique and is attracted to the concept of great skill dominating the relative brutishness upon which many rely.
That alone does not and will not win him matches. There’s a fire inside the guy, certainly. Plenty have seen the flames crackle beneath the surface. But if Greco is to be consumed equally as an art form as much as an athletic contest, then consider Tarpley sufficiently protective of his art.
The news at the moment, like it is for other wrestlers who have recently occupied non-Olympic categories, is his weight. Tarpley — who was a win away from securing a spot in the ’19 Senior Trials Challenge Tournament at 72 kilograms — is moving down to 67. It would seem a really big deal since the 23-year-old has competed as high as 77 kilos previously, but he is taking it in stride. You can rest assured any and all mathematical hypotheses have already been worked out in his mind, and because he is in the process of getting reps in whilst trimming down, confidence overtakes concern.
We’ve got some uniquely talented athletes in the United States who represent themselves and the sport well. To be sure, Tarpley does that, too. But whatever he does, and says, happens on his own terms.
5PM Interview with Nick Tarpley
5PM: After the summer ended in 2016, you went overseas to Croatia and wound up living there for about two years. You’d still compete, and when the US guys would come over you would join them at whichever tournament. But you didn’t have a teammate with you in Croatia, it was just you there alone as the only American. What motivated you to make the decision to live there at that point of your life and career?
Nick Tarpley: I had gone overseas a couple of times earlier that summer, and I just liked it. I liked being overseas, I liked traveling, and more importantly, I thought their wrestling was better. It’s not a huge secret that the United States is a tad weak in Greco-Roman. My strategy was, Let’s go somewhere that is really good in Greco-Roman, and then I’ll come back to the United States and be better than everybody. It certainly didn’t work out like that, but I did get a lot better.
I had talked to Momir (Petković) after coming back from a trip one time. He asked, “Hey, how was your trip?” It was great, I’d like to go back to Europe and spend a little more time there. I was thinking like, three months. A three-month stay wrestling somewhere in Europe. He said, “Okay, I’ll talk to my friend.” And he talked to his friends in Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia, and a couple of weeks later he told me that I was going to move to Croatia. And two weeks after that, I did.
I didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t know where I was going to stay, I didn’t know if I was going to be picked up at the airport or not. I just got on a plane with a backpack full of clothes and wrestling shoes. Momir, I was lucky he had done all this because I didn’t know that he had. I had a place to stay, I had somewhere to wrestle. I lived in a hostel the whole time. Same hostel, same room. I wrestled for the same wrestling club Momir did when he was my age, Lika. I still put their logo on the front of my singlet. I just think that’s so cool. That’s the wrestling club Momir competed for when he was 20, and that’s the wrestling club I wrestled for when I was 20. I just think that’s so cool.
5PM: What were the more challenging aspects of living there, you know, such as language, culture, and whatever else?
NT: Well, I did not speak Croatian. If I had known I was going to stay there so long, I would have put more of an effort into doing that. The plan was to stay there for a couple of months and I just didn’t leave. It turned into a little bit less than two years. I should have put more effort into learning Croatian, but I didn’t.
Everyone spoke English, especially in the cities and especially the young people. So I got around fine. The biggest problem was that I got super-lonely, super-depressed, and super-isolated the last couple of months. I should have probably come back about six months sooner than I did, and I don’t really know why I didn’t. I just had kind of got it into my head that this is where I was living, and it’s easy to get in a groove and it’s hard to get out of a rut. That was the main con of the whole thing. I just stayed too long, and became way too depressed and way too isolated.
5PM: What about the way the club or clubs operated in Croatia. Was that a massive adjustment, the way they do practices? Or was the curriculum similar enough for you to assimilate?
NT: It was similar enough to where I could kind of just ease into it. There were a bunch of different wrestling clubs all over Zagreb. There is not a training center like there is in the United States. There are just these different clubs, and whenever the national team wants to have a practice together they will just pick one of the clubs and everyone will just go to that one. That made it nice for me because although Lika was my main club, I was able to bounce around and get much more practice in everyday.
During the day I would wrestle at Lokomativa with Dominik Etlinger; in the afternoons I would wrestle at Sesvetski Kraljevec or Sesvete; and then in the evenings I would go wrestle at Lika. And that was really nice because I could wrestle with a lot of different guys there, too, like Etlinger or Bozo Starcevic, or Neven and Nenad Zugaj. It was really nice. I could bounce around and get a different look. And everyone was so helpful, just so nice. They were just awesome. It really was nice.
5PM: While you were there, I saw photos of your travels that included landmarks in the area. Most prominently featured were castles. What was your attraction to castles and were they an interest of your prior to going to Croatia?
NT: I’ve always loved castles. I think part of it is that a lot of them are kind of just ruins now. To a bunch of people I was hanging out with, they were just, Those piles of stones everywhere. Because, they are all over the place and have been there forever. But the United States is not very old at all. We have a building here in Colorado Springs that was erected in 1882 or something like that. Well, that pile of stones over there in the middle of nowhere just off the freeway was built in 1400. It’s just so cool to me. And there is this romanticism about it to me. There are knights, there were battles, and the whole thing is just so cool to me.
5PM: Speak to your other obsession, I don’t know if this one was pre-existing or not, but it became noticeable.
NT: Is it flags?
5PM: You got it.
NT: (Laughs) I love flags. I think flags are so cool. Someone who loves flags is called a vexillophile. I love flags, I don’t know what it is about them. I like ’em, I have a whole big collection. I’ve got a guy in Texas who makes these flag patches and he kind of likes me, so whenever I fly to a new country I send him an email saying, Hey, I’m going to this place. Then he’ll send me a flag patch and I’ll take a picture so he could put it on his website, and I get to grow my little flag collection. I just love flags so much.
5PM: You wanted to spend a lot of time in Europe to get better, and you did get better. But then you come back here and have to wrestle domestic guys, and it’s a different style. It is also governed a little differently here match-to-match. Has that been a thing for you, was there a discernible adjustment you have or have had to make?
Nick Tarpley: Yeah, it is. The Americans have an in-your-face pushing style and I don’t like it. I think it’s lazy. It’s a little counterintuitive to say, I am going to be more aggressive than you the entire match, and that I am going to outwork you the entire match because I’m in better shape. It’s lazy. I know that is a counterintuitive argument, but it’s lazy. I think it is way, way, way harder and takes much more work to be technically brilliant than it does to be in really good shape. I think it takes so much more work to be as good as Roman Vlasov or Arsen Julfalakyan than it does to be in such good shape to wear them down.
I also think it is a low-percentage strategy. I think if you are the best technical wrestler in the world, you are more likely to win everything than if you are just in really good shape. That’s another reason why I wanted to go somewhere else that is technically brilliant. I think that is something that has always kind of lacked in American Greco — but I do really think that’s changing.
We’ve got some young guys now who can throw and are really exciting. That is way more fun to watch than two guys pushing each other for six minutes with the score 2-1. Yeah, it is super hard to do that; you’ve got to be in great shape and in great position, and you’ve got to fight the whole time. I just think it’s lazy. I think it’s the easy way out. You don’t have to think at all.
5PM: It is a sport that rewards risk, or at least doesn’t punish risk, and crooked-number points come from action. Greco as a whole doesn’t do itself many favors when there are high-leverage matches in big tournaments and guys are strategically playing for passives. Is that part of what you’re saying?
NT: It is more of a philosophical problem that I have. I would rather lose — and I genuinely believe this — but be the better technical wrestler than win just because I was really good at pushing. Now in practice, that obviously doesn’t always work. I’m not going to throw something stupid with :20 left just in the interest no pushing ever. That’s not what I mean at all. If I get into a close match and I’m winning, I am going to push my ass off.
But philosophically, kind of as a way to live by, I would rather be really, really, really good technically at whatever it is I am doing than just attack it with brute force. In most things, that doesn’t work as well as being technically efficient. But it’s hard. It is really hard to become technically good at wrestling, and Greco does lend itself to giving some success to people who figure out how to push really, really well. I just think that is boring. I think it’s boring and I get bored very easily. I don’t want to get bored and I think pushing is boring.
5PM: I would imagine that you see the same problem when it comes to fans, because the not all fans love guys going chest-to-chest for six minutes. The sport pushes itself forward globally because of action. I’m guessing you see the issue from a marketing sense, too.
NT: Yeah, I do. I think a lot of Americans who wrestle Greco kind of get a late start. They weren’t wrestling from the time they were two-years-old. It’s an easier way to catch up, pummeling without creating any offense. You’re just pummeling. That takes some skill. Some guys are really good at pummeling without creating any offense but making it look like they are doing something. That is a certain skill-set.
But I am not approaching this whole thing thinking, Okay, what is the easiest way for me to win everything? I am approaching this whole thing thinking, I want to wrestle Greco the way it should be wrestled, whether that is going to be a successful wrestling strategy for me or not. I’m not doing this whole thing looking for results. I am doing this to wrestle Greco the way I believe it should be wrestled, and I hope that’s what gives me results. But we’ll see.
5PM: Given your improvement competitively over the past three years, do you have specific barometers to measure your progress? Inwardly-speaking maybe, whether it’s a camp or tournament domestically or abroad, do you have milestones you like to reach? In-season goals? How do you account for improvement and/or success?
Nick Tarpley: That is actually a pretty tough question. And the reason it’s tough is because my goals in life have recently shifted quite a bit. From just kind of going through the motions and doing the wrestling thing to see what happens, because that is what I used to do. But now, there are definitely things that I want to accomplish and want to see happen. Working the equation backwards, it is doing the things I need to do to get there, instead of the other way around, which is what I was doing a couple of months ago.
5PM: For instance, in a tournament like Thor Masters where there are more opportunities for matches against a variety of European/Scandinavian opponents, do you go back and look at video and break down stuff to find different areas to work on? Or do you base things off of just say, an overview of your performance and how you felt?
NT: I think Thor is a good example and maybe Cuba (Granma Cup) is an even better example. I took bronze and did not do very well. But yes, I do, I film all of my matches and all of my practices, actually, and go back to look at stuff. Or like in Germany, I went one-and-out, but there were a couple of specific things I was working on.
5PM: That was a wild match, though.
NT: Yeah, it was a wild match. We were both throwing. But the couple of specific things I had been working on I did really, really well in that match and that was really neat for me. I was really excited about that. Yeah, it sucks I lost and I am still a little disappointed in that. I went all the way over to Germany, got one match, and I’m funding this whole thing myself. So that kind of sucked. But — I was still really excited that the couple of things I had been working on I did really, really well. That’s fun for me. The whole project of improving, and the whole project of improving in specific areas I am concentrating on, is really fun and gratifying to me.
5PM: I don’t want to rip open a wound.
NT: Rip away, you’re good.
5PM: The match with Alex Mossing in the Trials semis. You had gotten into some of these wild matches, which I take as a good thing because there’s nothing wrong with scoring. But at the same time, and it’s no disrespect to Alex, that match was not very well officated. I don’t know, but given that it was the Trials semifinal, it looked like a pretty devastating loss. Did that stick with you for a while afterwards?
Nick Tarpley: Yes (laughs). Yeah, that one stung. That was a wild match and I seem to have a knack for getting into wild matches. I think one of the next little corners that I’m about to turn is that instead of losing those close wild matches by two points, I am going to start winning those close wild matches by two points. And that is going to be a big difference. The other thing is that I am just at a point where I can control the match enough to where it doesn’t get weird. Which is kind of an odd skill to practice, to keep the match from getting weird or out of hand.
It does get out of hand sometimes without you having done anything wrong. In that match, I think the officiating was not awesome, but also, Alex Mossing turned me. That’s not an officiating fault, that’s Alex Mossing. He turned me, and that’s awesome for him. He wrestles in Colorado Springs and we wrestle a lot. But to me, in my head, I was already in the finals. So that one kind of stung because then I wasn’t in the final.
5PM: I know it’s a very tough loss, but the fact that you were so close to making the Trial finals, was that at least somewhat of a positive marker for you?
NT: Oh, absolutely. I remember I texted my dad just before my first match at the Trials. We had been talking for weeks about who I was going to get and what I would do against this person or that person. Particularly RaVaughn (Perkins), because he was a threat and if I was going to win that tournament, I was pretty sure I would have to go through RaVaughn at some point. I texted my dad before the tournament and said, Just take a step back, I’m seeded third — or whatever I was seeded — at the World Team Trials, and just a couple of years ago I didn’t even qualify for the Trials. This is really cool.
Taking a step back, man, I really have made so much progress the past couple of years and specifically this year. I’m so stoked. Wrestling is a shitty sport. There is so much unpleasantness that is part of the whole deal, that to do it for years without much in the way of results sucks. So I am really excited that I am starting to get results that it has affected everything.
And the other thing is that I wrestle Alex everyday in the room. I was pretty sure I was going to beat him. Michael Hooker and I are 2-2 in matches and I was excited to get a chance to break the tiebreaker with him. Then I’m in the Final X against (Ray) Bunker, who I’ve wrestled pretty successfully in practices. I know that doesn’t mean anything really, but it means a little bit. Legitimately, I had a shot last year. There was a legitimate possibility of my becoming the World Team member. Just a couple of years ago, that wasn’t even a remote possibility unless about seven people broke their legs. That is really fun. It really is. What a time to turn this corner before the Olympics. I’m really excited about the wrestling project. It has breathed new life in me.
5PM: The two things about this season are that it’s the Olympic Year; and because it is the Olympic Year, the schedule is compressed. With everything so bunched together, is that at all potentially advantageous for you? Is it easier, and thus more important to stay sharp with events and camps running so close together?
NT: It’s not a good or bad thing, it just is. It’s just how it works. There are only so many days in a year, so logistically, it has to be when it is. It just is, so no problem. I also just really like to wrestle and compete. I am a serious competitor, I am a serious threat to the other guys, and that’s new. This is the first year when I have been a legitimate threat to be #1 for the World or Olympic Team spot. I haven’t had very much practice in this position. Right before the Olympics, that could be a very good thing and I’m hitting my stride right before the Olympic Trials, so you know, perfect. Or it could be a bad thing since I haven’t had much practice being in position to win the tournament.
The way I keep thinking of it is, I could very well be going to the Olympics in 2020. And a lot is going to have to go my way, a lot is going to have to not go wrong. And things could go wrong in a match or a wrestling tournament very easily. Some things are going to have go right. But, it is a legitimate possibility that I go to the Olympics, which is really fucking cool being in that position. But I do not think I could medal at the Olympics, even if everything went my way. I’m just not that good — yet. Everyone says, Don’t say that, but I think that’s bullshit. I think you also have to have a sense of what’s realistic, and it is just not realistic for me to medal at the World Championships or Olympics.
But I do think it is realistic for me to medal in Paris in 2024. I’m 23, so I will be 24 for the Olympics this year. I’ll be 28 for Paris. I have gotten leaps and bounds better in the past year. I get scared when I think of how much better I will be in the next four years, or five years for Paris. Honestly, I could go to Tokyo and I think that would be great and a lot of fun. I think it would improve my chances from an experience point of view for Paris. I am honestly really focusing on Paris.
5PM: You’re saying this in October. Isn’t it all possible that your state of mind regarding Tokyo changes? Couldn’t something happen, I don’t know, a ‘Eureka moment’, a tournament win, or whatever? Isn’t it all possible that your stream of thought changes over the course of this season to make you think otherwise?
NT: Yeah, sure, it’s possible. It’s just unlikely. I’m not saying that I am writing this year off, or if I go to Tokyo that I won’t take it seriously. Not at all, not even a little bit (laughs). I’m just not going to be devastated if I don’t medal.
5PM: It is my understanding that you’re going to compete at 67 kilograms this season. Is that not correct?
NT: Mohamed (Abdelfatah) wants me to keep it a secret but I think it is fairly obvious to everyone that I’m going down to 67.
5PM: Is this change something you have had to account for already? And what were the factors in this decision considering you have competed as high as 75 and 77 kilos?
NT: The last couple of years I had always tried to wrestle at 75, or whatever the weight class was, 77, and I had always been the smallest guy in the weight class. And the reason why I went 77 was because it is an Olympic weight class. Plus, 67 is just a bit uncomfortable to get down to. So I had to lift and eat like crazy. I had a diet of about 5,000 calories a day for eight months straight. It was exhausting and so much work, and I just could not do it. I don’t have the body or metabolism to gain weight. It’s just not something I am very good at. I suppose it would be different if I could eat fast food and pie all day, but I don’t want to get fat. I just want to get bigger, and I’m not that good at putting on muscle apparently.
And so after a couple of years of trying to get big enough to compete at 77, I gave up and was very comfortable at 72. I didn’t have to do much to make 72, so it was a pretty easy decision to go down to 67. It’s going to be a little uncomfortable but I have been getting smaller consistently. Right now I am walking around very comfortable. I’m not cutting at all, but I’m walking around at about 72 kilos. So I am getting down there. I think the last kilo or two might be a little unpleasant but that’s okay. I’m not cutting my leg off.
5PM: Are you doing any kind of test cut? I don’t know if you’re going to New York or wherever else.
Nick Tarpley: I’m going to a camp in Tbilisi, Georgia and then I am going to Sweden and Finland. At both of those tournaments I am going to go 67 plus two kilos, so 69. I think that will be a good test. Two kilos is honestly not that much. And then you know, Fort Worth. And we’ll see what happens.