When it comes to Nick Suriano, people have a tendency to get lost in the past.
It’s understandable really, because with a resumé and a career as jam-packed with excitement, drama and intrigue as Suriano’s, it’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the storylines. There’s simply so many of them.
There’s the unblemished 159-0 high school career. The dramatic commitment to — and later the transfer from — Penn State. The return home to New Jersey, the injuries, the yelling, the loss to Spencer Lee in the 2018 National Championship, the chippy matches with Austin Desanto. And of course, the culmination of every dream he ever had with an overtime takedown of Dayton Fix to win a national championship, the first in Rutgers program history.
Whether or not it was something that Suriano had wanted, he has been one of the biggest names in the wrestling world. All over social media, his career has been analyzed and examined, because with so much to talk about, how could it not be?
But in many ways, the dramatic highs and lows of Suriano’s career have tainted people’s perception of who he is. There’s a belief that Suriano — now a graduate transfer at Michigan — is exactly and only the person who triumphed on the mat three years ago, and that his journey is the journey of a wrestler alone.
But Suriano’ purpose is much deeper than that.
“I think people get caught up in the accolades and the brochures and the T-shirts,” Suriano said. “And I think it just comes down to the being. It comes down to who I’ve become and how I become what I want to become. I think people always try to label and calculate, or put things on a timeline, but it’s so much more natural than that. It’s so much more universal than that.”
Tucked in Suriano’s Instagram bio is the phrase “more than a wrestler.” That phrase is key to understanding who he is. Suriano is someone whose journey is deeply intertwined with the sport. But in his vision of who he is and who he wants to become, wrestling isn’t the end goal — it’s a vehicle.
“Wrestling is the forefront of my life, and my goals have kind of revolved around it,” Suriano said. “The craft of it, the skill of it, the passion, the fire, the intuition, the essence of it. But, in that essence is something much more vast and cosmic. I think wrestling is kind of a vehicle where I hop in, put my hands on the wheel, keep my eyes on the road and I keep crawling to where I want to go.”
What has propelled him to success in wrestling is the sheer intensity with which he works. If you ask anyone who has trained or practiced with him what he’s like, each person has a similar response.
“(Suriano’s) mentality and dedication to the sport and the lifestyle is unmatched,” 184 lb graduate student Myles Amine said. “And when I tell you unmatched, I mean nobody is as bought in as Nick Suriano when it comes to the sport of wrestling. It shows when he goes out there.”
Suriano wrestles at a furious pace. He’s in constant motion, circling, head snapping and always shooting first. He wrestles like his life depends on it, because in his eyes, that’s exactly the case.
“When I show up on a wrestling mat, I show up ready to go to the extremes of life and death, because that’s just how I perceive it,” Suriano said. “It’s just something very primal.”
His intensity has been a constant throughout his career, and it has brought him success. His victories, titles and goals have come because of just how hard he is willing to push himself. But mixed into this intensity is something darker. Wrestling can be a painful sport, physically and mentally. And while Suriano’s commitment and dedication to wrestling have brought him great highs, they have also caused him great pain.
“As much as it’s a great sport that has brought much community, camaraderie, success and achievement, it’s just something very primal, that at least through my upbringing has brought much trauma,” Suriano said. “So when I go out there, I don’t want to face that, so I have to go through it.”
Suriano has seen the dark sides of wrestling. His career has been plagued by injury, and for the amount of sacrifice that he makes to live the wrestling lifestyle, losses are more than painful — they’re devastating.
But the moment that impacted him the most, a moment that would crush him and force him to rebuild himself took place not on a wrestling mat, but on a phone call in a Fort Worth hotel room.
Following the 2019 season, Suriano set his sights on the Olympics, and he took a redshirt to train for Tokyo. For months, he was trained with a new, bigger goal in mind.
He went to New York, Italy, Russia and Arizona, training with the world’s best. In March, it was announced that the Olympics would be moved back a year. This didn’t deter Suriano; his goal was still in front of him, his all-encompassing effort still had the opportunity to pay off. It would just be delayed.
So Suriano took another Olympic redshirt, and did the exact same thing — he pushed himself to extreme limits.
But the day before the Olympic trials, the culmination of everything he’d worked so diligently and sacrificed so much for, his dream died off the mat.
He tested positive for COVID-19. An external factor had killed his internal quest.
“There was a dark side to it for sure where I didn’t know how to live,” Suriano said. “I knew that something bigger was coming. But for me, I turned into a psychopath for a little bit. It took some time of real reflection to just kind of persevere with life itself. It was that extreme because, you prepare for so long, you live a lifestyle a certain way, you become somebody. … How could I prepare for so long and have it externally be taken from me? … It was kind of like a bad dream.”
It crushed him, but it forced him to become someone new.
The Suriano of today is not the same person from three years ago. The intensity, work ethic and drive remain, but what is gone is the showmanship. The gloating after victories, the tussles after losses and the frequent usage of social media have been left in the past, replaced by a deep focus.
Suriano’s focus has once again led him to wrestling’s highest peaks — an undefeated season, another Big Ten Championship and no surrendered takedowns. But his focus was forged from the depths of wrestling, from the injuries, traumas and a positive COVID-19 test in Fort Worth. Suriano’s drive doesn’t come from the summits of his career, it comes from the depths.
“Over time, (the COVID test) really really motivated me, but at the time it crushed me,” Suriano said. “Ultimately as I get closer to where I see myself being on top of that podium in Detroit, I’m so blessed and grateful it happened. It’s those harsh traumas that actually force me to change. Unfortunately I’ve had to go through some pain and serious adversity to see the light … and get to where I really need to go.”
This weekend’s NCAA Championships in Detroit have become Suriano’s new driving goal, but it isn’t just about picking up some extra hardware or ending up on top of the podium. Instead he’s chasing a better version of himself. A version of himself that cannot be restricted by fears or outside chatter. One that is more in tune with who he truly desires to become.
In the three years since he stepped off of the mat at the NCAA championships in 2019, Suriano was subsumed by wrestling, only to have that identity shattered. But through this pain, he realized that the end goal of his purpose couldn’t be wrestling alone, it had to be something greater and more universal.
So as the NCAA Championships approach, the end goal remains the same for Suriano — individual and team glory. But aside from the thrill of victory, success in Detroit isn’t just about proving to others that he’s the best. It’s about proving to himself that he can’t be shaken from his path or changed as a person.
The emotional and physical pain he has dealt with in wrestling have forced him to become someone new, and Detroit is about proving to himself that he’s now strong enough to vanquish that pain.
“The difference between now and (2019) is that … I’m going out there to set myself free of fears that have happened over and over that I haven’t gotten through,” Suriano said. “It’s almost how I’m going to be empowered to get what I want and what feels right, versus letting this chatter get in the way and make it wrong. I think that’s the most exciting part of it. I think that the opportunity I’m truly blessed with is going out there and setting myself free of fears that have held me back. As a man, as a person, as a wrestler, as Nick Suriano.
“As who I am.”
Detroit is about proving to himself that he can conquer external stimuli, that outside voices telling him who he is and who he isn’t can’t change his path, that only he gets to decide who he is. And what he is is more than a wrestler.
He’s everything that the sport turned him into.