Experience is everything for Tsirtsis
Andy Hamilton ? Iowa City Press-Citizen ? March 18, 2009
Sitting on the couch in the foyer of Iowa's wrestling offices, Alex Tsirtsis looked up at the portraits of national champions hanging around him and looked back at his quest for a place on the wall.

His senior season was just getting started at the time when he reflected on his first four years with the Hawkeyes.

Tsirtsis arrived at Iowa with a set of skills that were perhaps only exceeded by his expectations and acclaim. His resume included four Indiana state high school titles, a 236-0 prep record and numerous illustrations that demonstrated a readiness to compete against high-level college opponents.

As it turned out, Tsirtsis was physically ready to compete against high-level college opponents during his first season with the Hawkeyes. He was ready enough to win his first two tournaments as a true freshman and take top-ranked Nate Gallick of Iowa State down to the wire twice.

But Tsirtsis said he wasn't mentally ready to handle defeat.

"I wanted to win a national title as a true freshman," he said. "I didn't want to lose at all. I never lost in high school, so I thought it was possible in college. I'm not saying it's not possible, I'm just saying it didn't happen. Since I was kind of expecting that of myself, and it didn't happen, I didn't hold up the way I should have.

"I wasn't ready to lose. I wasn't ready to be able to take a loss and be tough enough to say, 'Whatever, I'll do better next time and keep trying to get better.'"

Tsirtsis lost to Gallick in a tiebreaker for the second time as a freshman during the semifinal round at the Midlands. It was the beginning of a stretch where he won just three times in 10 matches.

"I kind of lost the excitement to go out there and compete," he said. "I lost in the semifinals to Midlands and lost three matches in a row. After the semifinals, I didn't even want to wrestle. I just felt different inside. And that's something I wasn't ready for. I should've came back and been ready to take third place instead of getting ready to take sixth place."

He finished 22-12 as a freshman and went 1-2 at the NCAA Championships. Tsirtsis made gradual improvement as a sophomore, going 22-10 and placing seventh at the national tournament. But after compiling a 25-10 record as a junior in 2007 and missing the medal stand after another two losses in three matches at the NCAA meet, he realized he was missing the fervor he once had to compete and needed a break.

It took a redshirt season last year for Tsirtsis to arrive at a point where wrestling was more enjoyable again and less of a chore, where he could approach with the idea of making daily improvements and not get caught up with big picture results, where he could brush off the past and keep looking forward.

"I think one thing he had to get past, more than anything, was not worrying about what people think of him -- that's some conversations we've had, meaning that here's this phenom and (outsiders are wondering) what's wrong," Iowa coach Tom Brands said earlier in the year. "Maybe that goes back to how he handled it. I think he's gotten past that more."

Tsirtsis has just one tournament left with the Hawkeyes. He takes a 25-5 record and the No. 4 seed at 141 pounds into Thursday's first round of the NCAA Championships at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

"I think I had regrets maybe at the beginning of my career here and wished I would have done things differently," Tsirtsis said. "But now that I look back, it's something where you've got to look forward and try to make the most out of what you have in front of you, not dwelling on the past. That's an area where I've matured a lot."

Tsirtsis isn't looking too far ahead yet, though. He said he hasn't yet decided whether he will continue to train for a career on the international freestyle circuit. Iowa assistant Doug Schwab, a member of the U.S. Olympic team last year, said Tsirtsis has the skills to win at the sport's highest levels.

"I know it's there," Schwab said. "I've felt it. It's just getting that connect to him believing it. The physical (tools are) there. Usually, it comes down to getting that mental edge."

Tsirtsis said another option is Wall Street. He said he has followed the stock market closely throughout the past two years and may pursue a career as a stock strategist.

Tsirtsis laughed when he looked up at the portraits of Iowa's national champions hanging on the office wall earlier in the year. He never would've guessed five years ago how much his perspective on winning an NCAA title would change.

"There's a lot worse things that happen to people than not winning nationals," he said. "(As a freshman), I felt like it had to be done."

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Tsirtsis said his main objective hasn't changed.

"That's definitely what my goal is and has been," he said. "It keeps you working, it keeps you coming in and trying to get better every day in practice. It would mean a lot."

Reach Andy Hamilton at 339-7368 or ahamilton@press-citizen.com.