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Tiger woods was two years old when he started playing golf. Serena and Venus Williams learned to play tennis at age three. Weinberg sophomore Jason Tsirtsis was four when he learned to wrestle.
After sitting out his first year of competition to save a year of eligibility, Jason, now 21, went on to become the 2014 Big Ten Champion and the NCAA champion in the 149 lbs. weight division in his freshman varsity season.
Jason grew up in a wrestling family. His dad and two older brothers, Alex, 29, and Michael, 35, wrestled in high school. Alex went on to wrestle at the University of Iowa, where he qualified for NCAA championships all four years. Despite their eight-year age difference, Alex and Jason were close, and Jason followed Alex to practice at a young age.
“I would just roll on the mat to get comfortable,” Jason says. “Ever since theveren I’ve gotten more intense. It’s been a lifelong sport, that’s for sure.”
Jason grew up watching Alex wrestle as a role model. Alex was undefeated in high school but had difficulty adjusting to losses in college.
“The sport is so mental and people don’t see that. He just put so much pressure on himself so he just always kind of underperformed,” Jason says. “ I learned from his downfalls.”
Alex never made it to NCAA finals, but Jason considers his brother one of the best wrestlers he’s faced and frequently practices with him. Today Alex runs a wrestling club in Gary, Ind., and he is heavily involved in Jason’s training. Once a week he visits Northwestern or Jason travels to see him.
“It’s not about wins and losses, but about doing the right thing in terms of strength training, conditioning and progressing,” Alex says. “If he does all the things we say he should do, he should win. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.”
Northwestern wrestling coach Drew Pariano calls Jason a student of the sport. He watches international wrestling videos to learn from the best wrestling countries in the world, like Iran and Russia, and dreams of competing in the Olympics.
“Jason has a high wrestling IQ,” Pariano says. “He has meticulous technique. He can make adjustments in matches with opponents in ways other athletes can’t.”
After having shoulder surgery before his freshman year of college, Jason decided to redshirt the year to recover and ease his way into Big Ten competition. He had a year to get comfortable with all the nuances of college wrestling, like learning to diet and cut weight the right way.
The next year he planned on winning an NCAA title.
Jason wrote “2014 NCAA Champion” atop of every page of his practice log, and on his door and desk.
The 2014 NCAA tournament took place in Oklahoma City, where 16,217 spectators came to watch the competition. To make it to the finals, Jason had to win four prior matches, but he wasn’t intimidated.
“I was more confident than nervous,” he says. “When you’re nervous, you hesitate.”
The closest match was in the semifinals when Jason wrestled Drake Houdashelt, the No. 1 seed in the tournament from the University of Missouri.
In double overtime and with one second left, Jason made a narrow escape to win the match, cutting his eye in the process. With blood rushing down his face from his eyebrow to his chin, Jason lept into Pariano’s arms. It was a picture-perfect moment, captured on the Northwestern Athletics website, wrestling posters and newspapers across the country.
“It’s something we will never forget,” Pariano says.
But it wasn’t the final match. The next day Jason won another, but less intense, overtime match. When he won the crowd erupted in cheer, respectfully watching the new champion with his hand raised overhead by the referee. Jason blew a kiss to the stands where his dad and his brother stood hugging, rocking side to side.
Jason fulfilled the family dream.
Now the bracket posters from his titles hang on his bedroom walls above his NCAA and Big Ten trophies. On his nightstand is his new notebook, with “2015 NCAA champion” written on the heading of each page.