From A Farm To 'The Farm'
By Kevin Danna
"They B-plus'ed me in this darn class last quarter, drug me down," said the smirking subject.
He also happens to be the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class. Meet Nick Amuchastegui — two-time All-American, two-time NCAA Elite 88 Award winner (for the wrestler with the highest GPA at the NCAA championships) and an undefeated 15-0 at 174 pounds in the 2011-12 season.
"He just flips the switch when he walks out there on the mat. It's just a hard-nosed, unrelenting kind of pace that he sets," said Zack Giesen, a former teammate and 2011 Pac-10 champion at 197 pounds. "He never concedes a position; he wrestles through everything."
Giesen, who graduated last year and now helps out at Stanford with the club wrestling program, wrestled against Amuchastegui in practice. He recalls those battles as being rather painful.
"When Nick first got here, he had a hard time differentiating between practice and a match," Giesen said. "So he'd flip that switch in practice and it was all go."
It's been a long road for Amuchastegui, who finished second in the NCAA Championships last year at 174 pounds. Growing up on a farm in southern Oregon, it took Nick a while to get adjusted to life on The Farm. Practice five days a week, a ton of schoolwork in one of the most challenging majors Stanford has to offer. It wasn't easy.
"I had difficulty coping with how much stuff was going on all the time and I had such a workload that I wasn't used to," Amuchastegui said. "My first quarter here was one of the most difficult times of my life."
More than anything, he missed home. He missed his family —mother Janice, father Frank, younger brother Luke. He longed to ride dirt bikes in his backyard and go fishing with Luke. Even though his parents regularly visit him and Luke (who also attends Stanford), he says that it's not quite the same as it is being back in Talent, Ore.
Didn't take his coach long to figure this out, either.
"He's not shy about it. He'll tell you - he'd love to be back in southern Oregon, be with his family, live on the farm and be around them every day," said Jason Borrelli, head wrestling coach at Stanford. "You know right away that that's something that is extremely important to him."
But Nick didn't let that stop him from being the wrestler, student and person he thought he could be.
"I just felt like I wouldn't be living up to my potential, or wouldn't be living a life that I was particularly proud of or wanted to be living if I headed back," he said. "I feel like this place, more than anything, has brought me to life in some ways, in terms of allowing me to challenge myself the best I can and really finding some fulfillment and satisfaction and working hard and growing as a person."
So he kept plugging away in the classroom, continued to saunter on down to the Stanford Athletic Department office basement for practice- never late, Borrelli would say. Eventually, he made some friends and grew more accustomed to life as a Cardinal student-athlete.
Redshirting his freshman year, Amuchastegui competed unattached (meaning his matches would not count towards team points in meets) and went 9-2 in two tournaments. Borrelli, in his first year on the wrestling staff as an assistant coach (he would not become head coach until the following season), knew he had quite the wrestler on his hands.
"He was doing [well] against some very good kids in the room. Usually it takes kids a long time," Borrelli said. "At that time, I knew that he could be very special."
But there was still a level of uncertainty for Borrelli…and then Amuchastegui's sophomore season happened. That year, Amuchastegui won the Pac-10 title at 165 pounds and finished fourth at the NCAA Championships, the highest finish by a Cardinal wrestler in six years.
"Once he broke through, he knocked that wall down and he put on that good run and took fourth as a sophomore, I knew we had something," Borrelli said.
The locomotive that was Amuchastegui's wrestling career only picked up more steam his junior season. He moved up to 174 and became the NCAA runner-up last March in his new weight class, falling to Iowa State's Jon Reader in the NCAA Championship match. More accolades followed — another All-America honor, first-team Academic All-American, Capital One/CoSIDA Men's At-Large Academic All-America of the Year.
With Reader graduating, Amuchastegui assumed the top ranking at 174 pounds to start this year, and he hasn't looked back. More than two months after the start of the season, Amuchastegui is still undefeated. There is only one feat he has yet to achieve: winning the NCAA Championship.
"It's my goal," Amuchastegui said.
"The expectation is to win it," Borrelli added.
But that hasn't dominated the conversation in the wrestling room. Borrelli makes sure of it.
"We try not to talk about it every day because I don't want it to weigh on him, but we do talk about every day making sure you do something that will help you win it," the coach said.
Perhaps his biggest advantage heading into the NCAA Championships this year will be just the experience he has of already being on the big stage and having already wrestled in the biggest match possible. He's been there, done that and learned a few things along the way.
"I feel like the NCAA's are such a mental game that people oftentimes let pressure get to them and as a result of that, wrestle a lot more poorly," Amuchastegui said. "I've learned not to let the pressure get to me and not to wrestle those matches like they are any kind of different match than the matches I wrestle all year long are."
If he does win the national championship, he will be the second Stanford wrestler to do so. The first, Matt Gentry, also from the southern Oregon area, was an assistant at Stanford for Amuchastegui's underclassmen years and helped groom the talent from Talent to be the wrestler he is today.
"What I think Matt really helped me to see was that this ought to be a process that I truly enjoy," Amuchastegui said. "And if I'm not enjoying the process of getting better and wrestling matches and that kind of thing, I'm really missing out on what this sport has to offer me."
His world won't collapse if he doesn't win it, though. He is quick to point out that wrestling is not the end-all, be-all of his life.
"It's so important to not find your identity in school, or even in wrestling, and so that's something that I strive not only to consist of how well I do in the classroom or how well I do on the wrestling mat, but to have life outside of that," Amuchastegui said. "If your identity is so wrapped up in that, who you are as a person, you just become less valuable to yourself and think less of yourself, and that's not really the kind of life that I try to live."
Regardless of what happens in March, Amuchastegui will spend his first year away from Stanford working for Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., where he will work in the telemetry department. This department designs devices of signals going on inside of nuclear weapons during their test phases to make sure they are working properly.
"Telemetry is some sort of measurement system," Amuchastegui said. "And so these measurement systems go inside of those weapons and they measure the electrical signals that occur, and make sure that the timing devices are all happening at the right time and that signals are being relayed properly."
That should do it.
Amuchastegui's career as a wrestler may be coming to a close, but another one involving his mechanical engineering degrees is about to blossom. And don't rule out him coaching in the future, either. Livermore is close enough to Stanford for Nick to drive to, and says he would like to continue wrestling with the guys in practice when he can.
"I think that I'll always be around a wrestling mat somewhere, whether it's coaching little kids wrestling or being involved at a college program," he said. "I don't feel like I could ever leave the sport completely."
Borrelli will vouch for him.
"If Nick wants to do something, there's no doubt in my mind, that he will be extremely successful at it if he really cares about it," Borrelli said. "If he wanted to become the best coach there is, he would figure it out."
Until then, Amuchastegui will focus on becoming the next national champion to hail from Stanford.
And hop on his dirt bike when he has the chance. After all, the outdoors aren't that far away from The Farm.