Going to the Mat, From UNC Wrestler to a 2024 Summer Olympics Hopeful
November 13, 2023
For Andrew Alirez, his goal is as clear now as it was when he was 3 years old – and just starting wrestling – to make it to the highest level of the sport: to qualify for and win an Olympic medal. The Greeley native arrived at the University of Northern Colorado as the No. 1 overall for the 2019 class and a storied career. But this year he will step away from his academic career and college wrestling in pursuit of realizing that goal next summer at the 2024 Olympics in France.
Ranked the No. 1 wrestler in the United States and the No. 9 wrestler in the world in 2023, according to FloWrestling, this goal is no pipe dream. At 23 years old, Alirez has never doubted his path, taken his eyes off the prize or stopped to celebrate his many accomplishments.
His accomplishments are numerous: winning the NCAA 141-pound title in March, capping
a 28-0 record for the year, being named 2022 Big 12 wrestling champion, an NCAA wrestling
qualifier for the last three years, named to the second team Academic All-Big 12 in
2021, a 2020 All-American Honorable Mention
by the National Wrestling Coaches Association among many other accolades.
This summer, he beat one of his childhood idols, Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan, a three-time Olympic medalist, at the Poland Open in Warsaw.
“I believe in my skills. I know this was the path set out for me. I know it’s almost a pre-determined destiny. It’s just my job to do what I’ve got to do, to stay on the path and go get it done,” Alirez said.
While the Sports and Exercise Science major has taken this year off from UNC to train for the Olympics, that doesn’t mean he’s taking a break. Alirez trains daily in the mornings and the afternoons, works outs, watches recorded matches to improve his technique, coaches young wrestlers at his local Greeley club, Top Notch Sports Academy, and even stops by the UNC weight room to connect with his fellow Bear wrestlers.
Alirez plans to finish his degree after the Olympics before pursuing his next goal, which is to box, like his father and uncles have done.
“You start something, you finish it,” Alirez said, whether that means his degree, wrestling or even something as mundane as household chores.
Wrestling runs in the family
As a third-generation athlete, Alirez has three brothers, all of whom wrestle, plus cousins and an extended family of athletes, including his father and uncle who box and do mixed martial arts (MMA).
“Growing up in Greeley gives you a sense of toughness…. My family is well known for being tough individuals, whether that be wrestling, boxing or MMA, so at family gatherings wrestling shoes or gloves always come out. This taught us how to embrace the fight and learn to love it!” he told USA Wrestling in 2023.
His youngest brother, Vladmir, who is 6 years old, attends Alirez’s Top Notch Sports Academy, which he started while he was a full-time student at UNC and an active college wrestler. This hectic schedule taught Alirez discipline, responsibility and maturity. He admits that when he started as a first-year student, he was immature about many areas of life. But since running a wrestling company with his father, managing a full-time training schedule for himself and mentoring the students he coaches or his fellow wrestlers at UNC, Alirez has grown up a lot.
“I wouldn’t be who I am without [UNC], I am extremely grateful for it,” he said.
Building a Foundation at UNC
Alirez didn’t always plan to attend college. But after meeting with UNC Wrestling Coach Troy Nickerson, in eighth grade, he changed his mind. As a kid growing up in Greeley he also saw the UNC team evolve from division II in 2002 to division I during the 2007-2008 season.
Unlike at a bigger school with a focus on other athletics, such as football, Alirez said he wouldn’t have gotten the same level of support.
“I wanted to go to a place where wrestling is really supported. You win a national title here in Greeley, Colorado, and they love you. And I’ve felt that love throughout the community,” Alirez said.
Nor would he have had the chance to see the Bears wrestling team evolve the way it has – recruiting more and more top picks.
“I started to see a shift in the program. I built a really good relationship with Coach Troy [Nickerson]. As time went by, I saw the direction the program was headed, and I saw an opportunity to build something here in my home city and that’s always something that I wanted to—put Greeley on the map. And that’s what I did…” Alirez said.
“I came here to get the ball rolling on a program I believed in, and now you’re starting to see it. We constantly, every year, get top 100 recruits in the country, we’ve gotten guys who are top 20 in the country, or in their weight class, are No. 1 in the country. We’re getting guys and moving in the right direction.”
And that’s what he teaches the kids in his club, it’s less about having your arm raised at the end of the match than it is about developing skills and improving over time.
With more than 50 kids in the program, ranging from 4 to 18 years old, he has all skill levels and abilities.
“We’re not worried about wins and losses. We’re worried about things we can control like effort and development. I’m not coaching these guys to win now…I’m coaching them to be able to get a DI, DII scholarships, to be able to be successful later on,” he said. “Wrestling is a sport that sets you up for life, with a work ethic, learning how to persevere and rise above adversity. There’s a lot more to wrestling than just the result.”
Many of these lessons were learned on the mat at UNC with Head Wrestling Coach Troy Nickerson.
“We want them to grow up in life and become great human beings,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson has been working with Alirez for 10 years, ever since Nickerson joined UNC from Iowa State University, and Alirez was a high school freshman at Greeley Central High School. In wrestling, K-12 students can join local wrestling clubs before they enter college, which means Alirez has been training on the UNC campus since he was in ninth grade. Alirez’s father also lived only a few houses down the street from Nickerson and his family.
In the past decade, Nickerson has seen Alirez grow, not only as an athlete but also as a student, mentor and young adult.
“Andrew shows that you can have success as a student athlete at UNC,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson, who was a lifelong wrestler himself, competing at the collegiate level at Cornell University, was a New York high school state champion and four-time All American. So he knows all too well the pressure to become the best while also maintaining perspective, which he tries to instill in his 33 student-athletes.
“This is a sport, a game. It’s not what defines them as young men. They are more than just wrestlers.”
While Nickerson has no doubts about Alirez making the Olympics, he is already proud of the man he has seen him become.
Timeline to the Olympics:
- Dec. 15, 2023: Alirez competes at U.S. Open in Texas and must place in the top five.
- April 2024: If he places in the top five, he then competes in the Olympic Trials Tournament in April in Pennsylvania.
- July – August, 2024: If Alirez wins the Olympic Trials Tournament in his weight class, he will then go on to represent the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Paris.
– written by Christina Abel