Nick Ackerman, 2001 Hodge Trophy winner

(Originally published in the April 24, 2001 issue of W.I.N.)

Sanderson Shares Hodge Trophy with Ackerman
By Bryan Van Kley, W.I.N. Editor:
History and emotion. Pure and absolute!

Nick Ackerman

There has never really been a season like 2001. And wrestling has never seen two young men like Cael Sanderson and Nick Ackerman.
They stand alone — absolutely alone — in their achievements.
They are the story behind this year’s Dan Hodge Trophy, and the reason TWO trophies are being awarded this year.
Beginning last November and running through the NCAA Division I tournament in Iowa City, the wrestling world was focused on a young man in Ames, IA…..for the second time in 30 years!
In the years 1968-1970, Dan Gable took the nation’s wrestling fans on an incredible ride. After completing a perfect high school career (64-0), he embarked upon a near-perfect college career at Iowa State University. He won 116 consecutive matches in college….for a grand total of 180 wins in a row. For the first time, a wrestler moved into the view of the mainstream media, and that victory string helped lift college wrestling above the narrow confines of the sport itself.
This year, another Cyclone was making national news. Cael Sanderson was chasing the record of 116 straight college wins by the legendary Gable. He caught Dan near the end of the season, and when he finally had his hand raised after his last match as a junior, Cael had won an amazing 119 matches in a row! Sanderson went 40-0 this year with 19 pins and eight technical falls. Only six of Sanderson’s wins were regular decisions.
To cap it all off, he won his third straight NCAA title….and then became the first college wrestler to ever win the NCAA’s Division I Outstanding Wrestler award three times! Sanderson now owns a huge page in wrestling history all to himself.
“It’s pretty awesome to be recognized like this,” Sanderson said. “It’s really important for a lot of different reasons like recruiting and recognizing Iowa State’s program. It’s always nice to give back to your program and your coach.”
Sanderson’s coach Bobby Douglas was elated when told his 184-pound national champion had become the first multiple winner of college wrestling’s top award.
“For Cael to be a double Hodge winner is huge. It could be the biggest thing ever in wrestling,” Douglas said. “Being a two-time Heisman Trophy winner of wrestling is a feat which may never be accomplished again.
“When you’re awarded the Hodge, it separates you from the rest of the pack Douglas said. “He’s the most dominant wrestler I’ve ever seen on his feet. Cael is a world-class wrestler and human being.”
Douglas compared the attention that Cael is getting from the fans and media and what he is doing for the sport to what Gable experienced at Iowa State. “His performance is starting to attract a ton of media and that is one thing which wrestling needs. Sometimes it’s like watching fans flock after a movie star. I haven’t seen that since Gable,” he said.
Sanderson, who just won his first U.S. Nationals title on April 14, and Douglas both agreed Ackerman was a worthy recipient of the Hodge Trophy and felt it made this year’s award that much more special. “What Nick has been able to do with what he has been given is tremendous,” Sanderson said. “It should inspire us all.”
“I think it is incredible that wrestling, one of the toughest sports, can include the handicapped, or any person of different race, creed, or ability,” Douglas said. “For him to be honored shows the level of sensitivity and pride in wrestling.”

BUT WHILE SANDERSON was destroying the record books in Ames, 60 miles to the south, a story of equal impact was taking place. On the campus of Simpson College, in Indianola, another wrestler was also making history….in a far different fashion and with staggering emotional impact.
Nick Ackerman was inflicted with spinal meningitis as a young boy and both legs had to be amputated below the knees to save his life. Yet by showing determination and courage which outstrips anything ever seen before in the 73-year history of NCAA wrestling, he won the 174-pound national championship at the Division III tournament in Waterloo, IA. And he did it by defeating defending national champion Nick Slack of Augsburg, who was riding a 60-match winning streak of his own!
The 3,000 fans in Young Arena responded by a prolonged two-minute standing ovation to show their respect for what had just been accomplished.
Ackerman finished his senior season with a 38-4 record, 13 of which were pins.
“The story of Nick Ackerman has uplifted the entire sport,” said Randy Lewis, 1984 Olympic champion. “When I read about it, I got emotional. I started calling people and saying, ‘Have you read this story?’ What other sport could do this for an athlete? Wrestling should be so proud of this guy. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the best story of the year…of the decade…maybe ever….in wrestling history. Someone should make a movie of it!”
“I never even dreamed about winning the Hodge Trophy. I don’t put myself in that class. It’s so overwhelming that I can’t put it into words,” said Ackerman when told of the award. “This has been the most unbelievable year of my life.”
Ackerman, who has been bombarded with inspirational fan mail since his win, said the key to the level of success he has had on the wrestling mat is his approach towards what he has been given.
“I’ve always seen myself just like everyone else,” he said. “That is just the way I was raised.” Ackerman, who will be featured on the NBC’s Today Show in May, said sometimes he gets sick of all the media attention. “I sometimes ask what the big deal is. But my mom always reminds me that I’m helping people whether I see myself as different or not.
“I got a phone call from a kid who lost his legs in Texas who has no clue what he is going to do with his life. He’s 19, doesn’t know if he will ever be able to get a girlfriend again, and has all these questions. He saw me in USA Today and now he has all these questions answered and somebody to help him. That’s why I do it.”
Ackerman’s coach Ron Peterson said for a Division III wrestler to win the Hodge Trophy is monumental. “This is obviously an incredible honor for a Division III athlete,” Peterson said. “Simpson is privileged to have Nick associated with our school. He’s the classic example of a Division III athlete who wrestles for the pure love of the sport. Ever since Nick won the national title, I have been talking to Division III coaches from all over the nation. They tell me that Nick winning the title was the most emotional thing they have ever seen in the sport of wrestling.”
Ackerman’s older brother, Nathan, was an All-American at Simpson and graduated in 1999. Peterson attributes their family’s work ethic and attitude to their athletic success. “I think it is a prime example of people being able to accomplish anything, no matter what the circumstances,” he said. “Nick is a great testament to that for kids.”

Other athletes who were in contention for this year’s award were Fresno State’s Stephen Abas (125), Oklahoma’s Michael Lightner (141), Iowa’s T.J. Williams (157), and Edinboro’s Josh Koscheck (174). All four were undefeated national champions this year.
Abas was 30-0 and won his second NCAA title at 125 pounds, the first coming in 1999. The junior had eight pins, nine technical falls, and six major decisions. Abas hadn’t given up an offensive point coming into this year’s national tournament.
Lightner finished his senior campaign at 35-0. He won the 141-pound title by defeating 1999 national champion Doug Schwab of Iowa. Lightner racked up eight pins, 11 tech falls, and nine majors.
Williams won his second national title after a third-place finish last year. The Hawkeye senior was 29-0 with three pins, two tech falls, and 11 majors.
Koscheck was the last national champion whose record was spotless this year. The Edinboro junior finished with a 42-0 record with 14 pins, two tech falls, and eight major decisions. Koscheck outscored his opponents at the NCAAs 41-7 and never gave up an offensive point.
“The Dan Hodge Trophy was started in 1995 to recognize the very best that college wrestling has to offer in a particular season,” said Mike Chapman, who founded the trophy. “Though a wrestler’s season record and his dominance (especially pinning ability) are huge factors, they are not the only factors. We have always tried to take into consideration such factors as a wrestler’s heart and style, the way he conducts himself both on and off the mat.
“Cael Sanderson is an obvious winner for all he accomplished this season. The pressure as he neared Gable’s record was intense, and he handled it with great skill. He was a very easy choice for the Hodge Trophy of 2001.
“But the more we looked at what Nick Ackerman accomplished, the more convinced we became there should be two Dan Hodge Trophy winners this year. Nick truly epitomizes the wrestling spirit of never giving up, and never admitting that you can’t climb the highest mountain. We contacted our panel of wrestling experts and asked them how they felt about giving two Hodge trophies, and the response was overwhelming to do just that.
“We think Nick Ackerman’s example will inspire every wrestler who steps on a mat for the rest of this century.”
The Dan Hodge Trophy is sponsored the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (I.W.I.M.) and W.I.N. Magazine and. The award is a tribute to the legendary Dan Hodge, a three-time undefeated NCAA champion at the University of Oklahoma. Hodge was a prolific pinner and epitomized dominance, never being taken down in his college career.
A trophy is on permanent display at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, IA. Each year, the winner is given his own trophy. Both 2001 winners will receive their trophies at events selected by their schools. Last year, Sanderson received his at the Iowa State wrestling banquet, and then in the fall at halftime of an Iowa State football game, in front of 35,000 fans.

The following is a breakdown of Nick Ackerman’s career at Simpson College:

Season School Year of Eligibilty Bouts W L T Falls W Pct. All-American Weight
1998 Simpson College Freshman 31 15 16 0 48.3 DNP
1999 Simpson College Sophomore 29 14 15 0 48.2 DNP
2000 Simpson College Junior 44 28 16 0 63.6 DNP
2001 Simpson College Senior 42 38 4 0 90.4 1st 174
Career 146 95 51 0 41 65.1 one time
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