The Daily Princetonian caught up over Zoom with first-year wrestler Nick Masters, calling from his apartment in Princeton, which he rents with four other first-years on the team. Masters, a four-time state-champion wrestler in high school, talked about the cancellation of Ivy League sports, starting college off-campus, and his preferred superpower.
The Daily Princetonian: To start this interview, how did you start wrestling? Way back — how did you get into the sport at first?
Nick Masters: Wrestling has been a family thing. My uncle wrestled in high school — he was pretty good. My dad wrestled a little bit, but he played more football. I started out playing different sports — basketball, baseball, football — for a long time.
And then I was told, “Hey, you’re a little small for football. Do you wanna try a little wrestling out?” And I say “Sure, why not?” I started out my first practice when I was five — wow, that’s so long ago — and I fell more and more in love with the sport, and here we are today.
DP: I know you had a very successful high school career. Could you tell me a little bit about what your experience with high school athletics was like, and what it felt like to go through that?
NM: Yeah, my high school career was awesome. I was a four-time Georgia state champion — I was the third ever from my school to do it, which was such an amazing feeling. It was partially pressure relief, because once you win three, you’re expected to win the fourth. But I was the guy to beat senior year. It was amazing to know that I would have my name in the history books. I ended my high school career with 216 wins and seven losses.
DP: Wow. That’s pretty good.
NM: Yeah. I got lucky, I guess. I hold the current record for most pins at my high school. Outside of the season, I did a lot of postseason stuff that is more geared toward the Olympic styles. I was an All-American with the postseason tournaments multiple times; placed on the World Team trials, which was super awesome; high school nationals three-time All-American, and would’ve been a fourth if we didn’t have the situation this year.
There were a lot of cool things that were able to happen, and looking back on it now, I realize that I was lucky, honored, and blessed to be in the position where I had a support system that was able to see the dreams that I wanted and fuel the fire that burned that passion.
DP: Is there anyone in particular who you felt helped to facilitate that success?
NM: I think one of my biggest influences is a coach I had from when I was really little to just before high school. He’s now the head assistant at [the University of Northern Iowa]; his name is Lee Roper. He helped me so much with maturing, not only as a wrestler, but as a man.
I owe so much of who I am today to him, and a lot of where I’m at to him. He really took me under his wing, and he took me from someone who could be good in high school, good in middle school, to someone who can compete on a national and international level. I owe a lot to him.
DP: It seems like there’s a history of talented wrestlers at your high school. Did you feel pressure because of that, to live up to history? What did that feel like, to come with a line of success at the school?
NM: It was interesting because we’ve had a lot of success in the past, but we had a little slump in the last few decades, so I was able to — almost — revitalize it. We brought in a new head coach right before my freshman year. I just bought into his vision.
He said, “These are the tools we have. With you, I think we can be such a great program that leads a lot of kids into really great places.” I bought into the program — we bought into it before anything, really, it was great. And now we have kids winning multiple state titles, multiple national titles.
I had a little bit of a bleak outlook at the beginning, because even though I bought into the program, it didn’t seem like it would be a possibility. And now, with the immense jumps that program has made, being part of the group that kickstarted it — that’s an awesome feeling.
DP: When and how did you find out you were recruited to Princeton to wrestle?
NM: Recruitment started early junior year. I was physically sought after by places like Brown and West Point. But I sat down one day with a list of colleges that I wanted to go to and started sending emails. And Princeton just happened to be one of them. I didn’t think much about it, because I had my eyes set on bigger programs, like Ohio State and Penn State.
I was a little bit naive in my younger years — like, “Wrestling’s all that matters in college!” But then I started thinking about it: One day, I have to hang up the shoes. It doesn’t last forever. I really started looking into schools like West Point, Brown, Princeton.
I got into communication with the coaches through that email, went up for a visit, and just fell in love — absolutely fell in love. And it’s almost nothing to do with the wrestling. It’s just the energy around the campus. The campus is gorgeous. The students seem vibrant. It seems to be a school that really offers the raw education coming out of it.
The wrestling side also didn’t hurt. The team was one of the reasons I bought in so hard. I didn’t feel like a burden or a recruit on my trip — I just felt like a member of the team. It was a pretty amazing experience, and I was almost sold by the first hour that I was on campus.
DP: How do you keep both academics and athletics working at the same time? How do you keep yourself from falling all the way into being the person who just does wrestling? How do you keep those multiple parts of yourself working at the same time?
NM: It’s a really hard balance. A lot of people say, “You’re juggling, and you have a ball that’s your academics, a ball that’s your social life, and a ball that’s your athletic life, and you can only juggle two.” Sometimes, you just gotta learn how to juggle three balls. Does it get hard at times? Yeah. Nobody’s perfect. But you have to sit there and realize that this one thing doesn’t define you.
And there are so many aspects of life that I am yet to experience and that I am going to experience. I leave myself open for the world, to see where it takes me with different experiences. Wrestling helps out a lot with that, by being able to travel to different places and to meet different people.
On a more microcosmic level on campus, I want to try to do Fuzzy Dice; I’m on the First College Council right now. I think finding the balance is: Do what you love, but don’t stretch yourself too thin.
DP: When and how did you find out that Ivy League sports were canceled for the fall?
NM: After the whole COVID-19 summer in quarantine happened, we all had our doubts a little bit. We were all in contact with our coaches, and they were like, “Hey, right now the Ivy League is gearing up for not having any sports until Jan. 1. Be warned — be ready in case something happens.”
And sure enough, [University President Christopher] Eisgruber [’83] sent out a message that sports wouldn’t be happening until Jan. 1, and we would be completing the semester virtually. We had a jump on a few ideas, though. Five of the first-year wrestlers decided to get a house in Princeton, so we could be close to the campus and we could get some kind of experience, because we wouldn’t have our first year on campus together.
It was a little hard, because of the nine recruits we had, two of them just decided to take a gap year. So there was definitely a decision over whether to take a gap year or not. It was a tough decision, but I think we made the right one.
DP: Especially because you’re living with four other wrestlers, how have you been staying in shape or practicing without being able to actually be with the entire team?
NM: We do our own stuff at the house. It’s a hilly area, so we do a lot of hill sprints. We do a lot of our own workouts at the house. There’s a lot of film study. I Zoom in with the coaches every once in a while, to talk about how things are going, to look over my previous film from high school and kinda break it down. It’s been a unique experience, but it’s almost brought us closer together.
DP: That’s really cool. How did it really feel when you found out sports were canceled, and how do you think it will feel once you can be back on campus and start to work with the team?
NM: It sucked. There’s no way around it. It sucked. We all have these dreams of walking out to our first game, our first duel, our first whatever. Every first-year has — they sit on it; they dream about it, the first time they lace up their shoes and walk out in front of the fans. And that dream has been cut down.
We’re still not sure about our season — hopefully we’ll get it. But especially for sports like football ... It was a blow to the gut. It hurt. But it will make the first time that we get to do these things much more special. It’s almost that feeling of getting something back after you’ve been robbed. Lacing up for the first time, hearing the crowd cheer, it’s going to be an electrifying experience.
DP: So far — I know we’re only seven or eight weeks in — do you have a favorite class? What have you been enjoying this semester?
NM: I’m a B.S.E. kid, so it’s been a little math- and science-heavy. So MAT 103 — so Calc 1, physics, chemistry — but I really love my writing sem with Professor [Ardon] Shorr. It’s This Course is Out To Get You, about conspiracy theories and stuff, and it’s been really great.
I love my classmates, I love the teacher. He’s got a doctorate in neuroscience and biology, but he teaches a class at Princeton on conspiracy theories. The dude’s a genius. It’s been so fun — it’s just been a fun class. I know a lot of people have writing sems where they’re like, “This is boring,” but we walk into every class excited to be there. Like, “What are we gonna talk about today.” Even though it’s a late class, it’s been a great time.
DP: You were talking about some of the extracurricular things you were involved with. How did you get into those, and how are they going so far?
NM: I’ll start out with the one I’m actually in, because that’s the only one I can really speak to. That would be the First College Council. I saw an email, and I’ve always been really involved in high school. It didn’t really feel like I was USG [Undergraduate Student Government] material, but I could do it on a smaller scale. So I thought First College Council seemed like a great idea. I’ve met some great people in there. I’ve been having a good time. I’m really excited to see what happens as it moves forward.
I’m trying to be a part of Fuzzy Dice, next year whenever we can actually be a part of it. It’s something out of my comfort zone. I like to think I’m a little bit of a funny guy. So I thought, “Why not throw yourself out there, and you either get it or you don’t.”
DP: What is one thing that you are looking forward to experiencing when we get to be back on campus?
NM: There’s so much. From an athletic standpoint, being with the whole team and practicing together; from an academic standpoint, actually getting to meet these professors and pick their brains; and just actually meeting these people that I’ve been in group chats with and seen on social media for almost a year now. It’ll actually be that college experience. I’m trying to model my room as much as I can like a college dorm, but it’s not the same. I’m super excited to get on campus and be a real college student.
DP: What is something that you do when you’re procrastinating on your schoolwork?
NM: I’m probably on my phone, especially when a class gets boring, especially with things like TikTok. I know video games sometimes get in the way a little bit. But you give and you take. You have to take little breaks.
DP: You can’t have your brain turn into mush if you’re working all the time.
NM: Slushy brain does not do well for school.
DP: Well said. If you could play any other sport, for Princeton or otherwise, what would it be?
NM: Probably baseball. I’m too small for football, which was the second sport I chose when I was a kid. But if I put in the same time as I did with wrestling into baseball, I think I’d be pretty solid.
DP: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
NM: I get this question so often, and my answer is always the same. I would like to manipulate the atomic structure of things.
NM: Just like, “Pencil? Manipulate the atoms: Boom. Now it’s a banana.”
DP: So you’re almost God, at this point.
NM: More or less. I can’t create or destroy anything, but I can manipulate the atoms however I choose.
DP: Wow. That’s a pretty sweet answer. I haven’t heard that before. Alright. And this is the last one. And I want to hear your answer and your reasoning: Would you rather have a cat with a human face or a dog with human hands? It’s four human hands.
NM: Four human hands?
DP: Four human hands.
NM: I’m probably going to go with the dog with four human hands. The cat seems more like a sphinx, and that scares me. I think having a dog with human hands, I can pretend like that’s normal. And I can give him high-fives and little fist bumps. I have my own little personal fist bump guy.
DP: That’s a good answer. Well, Nick, thank you very much for talking.
NM: For sure, thank you.