Jason Nickal can still remember the scene immediately after his son’s loss in the high school state finals in Texas.
Bo Nickal walked off the mat and headed straight to the parking lot, where he sat down with a solemn look. The Allen High School freshman may have shed a few tears as he tried to understand why he fell short. It was a devastating loss for Bo after putting so much time and energy into his pursuit of that state title, and it took a few days to let it go and move forward.
“In his mind, he never believed that he should lose anything,” his father said.
Bo Nickal refuses to accept losing. He responded to that setback in high school with three straight state titles, he bounced back from an NCAA runner-up finish as a redshirt freshman at Penn State with his first national championship last season, and he even wants to win warmups and drills at Nittany Lion practices. Fueled by that mentality, Nickal has been perfect this season as he takes an 8-0 record highlighted by four pins in under one minute into Sunday’s Big Ten dual against Indiana.
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Penn State coach Cael Sanderson sees Nickal’s competitive drive every day, including on the road when the Nittany Lions are playing games on their iPads. Sanderson’s wrestlers are all competitive, but the coach said Nickal is definitely “a little bit different” than his teammates.
“It concerns me a little bit, actually,” Sanderson said. “But I like it.”
Jason Nickal, who has coached wrestling for more than 20 years, noticed his son was different at a young age. When Bo went to his father’s practices — while other kids were climbing on mats, hanging on the monkey bars or swinging on ropes — he found a place to sit and watch the high school wrestlers. During his matches, he kept track of the score in his mind, getting upset if the official made the wrong call or if the points on the scoreboard were wrong. And on trips in the family’s conversion van, Bo often sat in the backseat watching wrestling technique videos and Olympic highlights on a small television for hours.
“His sisters would get mad at him because he didn’t want to watch cartoons or movies like they did,” his father said.
Bo always expected the best from himself, and he expected to win when he stepped on the mat in his state championship match as a freshman in high school. He didn’t know how to respond to the pain of failing to achieve his goal at the time. His father said it was one of the toughest things he had to go through with his son in his high school career. But it was also part of the maturation process for him — he needed to figure out how to learn from losses and improve as a result.
The losses in Nickal’s career have only stoked his competitive fire.
“Hating to lose is something that when I think of Bo Nickal, he’s extremely competitive,” Sanderson said. “Because that’s the case, he’s always going to continue to improve.”
His father thinks the pain of his 2016 NCAA runner-up finish still sticks with his son. Nickal dropped an 11-9 decision to Ohio State’s Myles Martin in the 174-pound national championship match that year. Nickal, who was the No. 1 seed, had beaten Martin three times that season.
It took more than a few days to put the loss behind him this time.
“To be honest with you, I don’t if he’s totally, completely over it,” Jason Nickal said. “He doesn’t really talk about it too much. He and I talk about almost every single match that he’s ever wrestled in his life, but it was really difficult.
“And we didn’t talk about that loss in the NCAA finals for quite a while.”
Still, his family knew he’d be even better after that loss. He used the setback as motivation and captured the national championship at 184 pounds in 2017, earning a 4-3 decision over two-time defending national champion Gabe Dean of Cornell in the final. But even after that victory, Nickal remains driven to win in everything he does. His hatred of losing continues to push him.
“Bo’s definitely one of the most competitive dudes on the team,” Penn State teammate Anthony Cassar said. “I live with him, too, so I see a lot of that at home as well. That competitive drive definitely helps a lot.”
Penn State’s Bo Nickal is currently ranked No. 1 in the country at 184 pounds with an 8-0 record. Nickal has pinned four opponents in under one minute so far this season. Here’s a look at each pin:
Nov. 9: Nickal pinned Army’s Noah Stewart, 0:26
Nov. 19: Nickal pinned VMI’s Ben Wagner, 0:53
Nov. 19: Nickal pinned Drexel’s Josh Murphy, 0:38
Nov. 19: Nickal pinned Northwestern’s Mitch Sliga, 0:48