June 9, 2021

PU Wrestling’s Jackson Battling on Two Fronts, Helping to Coach Tigers, Competing Internationally

Princeton University wrestling vs. Lehigh, Princeton, NJ, November 23, 2019

ACTION JACKSON: Nate Jackson exhorts one of his charges in his role as an assistant coach for the Princeton University wrestling team. In addition to coaching, Jackson, a former All-American wrestler at Indiana University, is competing at freestyle on an international level in a quest to be a world champion. He recently represented the U.S. at the Pan-American Championships in Guatemala City, Guatemala, taking gold at 92 kg (202 pounds), and is competing in Poland this week at an UWW World Championships Ranking Series Event.

By Bill Alden

Nate Jackson is taking multitasking to a new level.

Jackson is an assistant coach for the Princeton University wrestling team, is competing at freestyle on an international level in a quest to be a world champion, and has a busy home life with his wife, Raychelle, and their four young children, ages 3-8.

Jackson, a two-time All American wrestler at Indiana University who turns 27 this August, lives by a simple philosophy as he juggles his many pursuits.

“‘Wherever you are, be there’ is something one of my Indiana coaches used to say,” said Jackson, who recently represented the U.S. at the Pan-American Championships in Guatemala City, Guatemala, taking gold at 92 kg (202 pounds), and is competing in Poland this week at an UWW World Championships Ranking Series Event.

“If I am an athlete, I am going be training. When I leave the practice and come home, I am a father so I need to be all in there. When I step into the office, I am a coach so I need to do exactly what I am supposed to be doing there. That is the only way I can live.”

Excelling at both baseball and wrestling at Marian Catholic High, Jackson, a native of Crete, Ill., went all in on wrestling after his baseball coach insisted that he focus his efforts on the diamond year-round.

Joining a local wrestling club, the Harvey Park Twisters, Jackson started making a lot of progress on the mat.

“They have a lot of people who have won state titles and Big 10 championships,” said Jackson.

“There were a lot of role models in there for me to grow into the sport. They also wrestled over the summer and said you should wrestle more. You should wrestle year round. That year, my sophomore going into junior year, I wrestled over the summer and I made a lot of gains. I think that is what really started it off.”

After winning the Illinois state title at 170 pounds in his senior year at Marian, Jackson headed to Indiana University and joined its wrestling program. Early on, Jackson took his lumps as he adjusted to the intense competition he found in the Big 10, which has dominated the NCAA tournament in recent years.

“It is easy to get down on yourself and say, ‘oh man, it is hard,’” said Jackson.

“It is really easy to give in to the pressures of the college lifestyle and all of those different things. Night in, night out, you are going against really tough guys in the practice room and every week you are wrestling against some of the best guys in the country. It can be deflating at times because you really have to pick yourself up. Nobody wants to be that guy who is getting beat up. Wrestling is a super physical sport. It is technical but if you are losing, a lot of times that stuff is painful.”

Picking things up, Jackson finished fifth at 174 pounds in the NCAA tournament as a junior and eighth at 184 as a senior to end his career with the Hoosiers as a two-time All-American.

“I have always been a pretty confident individual, just thinking that everything is going to work in my favor,” said Jackson.

“I think that confidence really helped me; it was even delusional at times. I would say something to my teammates and they would say ‘what are you talking about?’ They didn’t always see that vision. Once you get in that position, you are able to capitalize on it. People think that wrestling is this incremental growth, and it is really not. It is a lot of up and down and then a boom. Like stock market stuff, there is a volatility and then there is a breakthrough. I was a three-time NCAA qualifier. The first time I qualified I was just happy to be there, but once I got there and wrestled those guys I realized it is the same. I feel like I belong here. That was all I really needed to catapult myself to that next level and when I got there again, I placed.”

After not enjoying an internship he had in sports broadcasting upon graduation, Jackson returned to the mat to compete in freestyle and coach.

“I felt I had so much left on the table and so much untapped potential,” said Jackson.

“I did want to continue to compete but I thought about the joy that I took when I had some mentees that were younger and still trying to become All-Americans and chase that dream. Working with those guys, my Indiana teammates, really motivated me to want to continue to put my hat in the ring and battle for other guys as well. That is how I started with the coaching.”

Jackson quickly realized that he had a knack for coaching. “I fell in love with it, I was really passionate about it,” said Jackson.

“It is different; I think coaching is even tougher mentally and emotionally than competing. The physical aspect is not there but the emotional toll that it takes for a day of coaching at a tournament for me is a lot harder for me than competing. You are really invested in these kids and want to them to have success. You experience all of their highs and lows.”

In 2017, he joined the Princeton staff as an assistant coach, sensing how invested Tiger head coach Chris Ayres and associate head coaches Sean Gray and Joe Dubuque were in putting the program on the map. 

“I wanted to go somewhere where it was on the rise,” said Jackson.

“It is just so happened that the guys who were leading the momentum and making those changes and resurrecting this program are also great individuals. They had been together for a while. Coaching collegiately is almost like a revolving door; guys don’t stick around. It is tough. I have been here for going on four years and the other guys have been here together for more than seven years.”

Juggling coaching with his training at the New Jersey Regional Training Center (NJRTC) kept Jackson busy on the mat.

“During the typical year, we were doing our things a little before,” said Jackson, who is coached by Reece Humphrey at the NJRTC.

“We were doing our training seasons before the team would train, it was really hard to keep me off the mat. There were different points where I was getting two-a-days in, wrestling with our guys and with the training center. I had to figure out the healthy balance between those two — when I should be wrestling live with our best guys and when I should be sitting back letting them take on other guys, watching and coaching.”

Honing his teaching skills has helped Jackson in competition.

“Coaching has made me a really good wrestler,” asserted Jackson.

“When I have an issue about something and I am trying to learn about something, I try to teach it. Then I can go back and forth with things that I am thinking about. It is just like solving a math problem. There are formulas to every technique and there may be a different way of getting there. The answer is going to be the same and we can replicate it. Coaching has really made me a different wrestler. Before when there were things that I did well, I didn’t always know why.”

Having just started to wrestle freestyle after college, Jackson has made big strides in the last few years.

“I look at my growth over the last three years, which is when I started this process, and I don’t think that there is anybody in the country who has grown as much as I have by results and by influence,” said Jackson.

“That speaks a lot to the environment we have fostered here at Princeton and speaks a lot to the leadership of my coach. I also think that I have a lot of buy-in and I believe in myself.”

Wrestling at 86 kg the U.S. Olympic Trials in April, Jackson had mixed success. He lost 3-0 to Aaron Brooks in the first round and then won a pair of consolation matches, 9-2 over Brett Pfarr and 2-1 over Myles Martin. Zahid Valencia ended Jackson’s run with a 10-0 win.

Last month, Jackson won the UWW Senior Nationals title at 92 kg. Jackson defeated Chris Droege of Compound Wrestling at the Great Lakes National Training Center 10-0 in the quarters. He beat Scottie Boykin of TMWC/Spartan Combat RTC 12-1 in the semis, and the win in the final came 6-1 over Kyven Gadson of the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club.

Benefiting from some intense training during the pandemic and seeking out as many matches as he could with Princeton wrestling on hiatus, Jackson believes he is headed in the right direction.

“During this time, I have actually wrestled more matches than anybody else on the senior level, not just in the country but in the world,” maintained Jackson.

“Right now might not be when I am going to be a world champ. I know if I keep pushing myself and I learn, I am going to expedite that process. That is what I have been working on. I have been chasing guys down. I know it is just a matter of time before I beat them.”

If Jackson achieves that goal, he is considering taking one thing off his busy plate.

“I just want to be the best in the world,” said Jackson. “After I taste it, I might want to do it more or I might be done.”