Chelsea Wilson had just enough time to get in with her best shot.
Then she and her RPI wrestling teammates had just enough time to get out.
The sophomore from Menlo Park, California, used an outside sweep single to get control of the leg of her opponent, Allicia Mahoe of Schreiner University in Texas, with 18 seconds left in their match, and Wilson got the takedown and added a point for riding time with seven seconds left to win 6-3 at the Allen Event Center.
This was on Saturday, March 14, as the world was in the process of furiously battening down the hatches against the coronavirus. The National Collegiate Wrestling Association national championships was one of the last sporting events to reach completion before virtually everything outside of horse racing was postponed or canceled entirely.
And Wilson, wrestling at 109 pounds, used that quickly closing window of opportunity to become a national champion. By the next morning, she and her team were flying out of Dallas/Fort Worth International back to the Capital Region, grateful to have been allowed to complete that mission, which, for Wilson, started last year when she lost in the NCWA finals.
“She’s not one to jump up, yell and scream after winning a humongous match like that, but, uncharacteristic of her … she knew she did the job that she didn’t get done last year, and she was super-happy about it,” RPI wrestling coach Brad Nelson said on Tuesday afternoon.
“Still, even in victory, under those circumstances, she was very poised, knew she had a job to do, knew she was representing her school, herself, her high school. So it was a big deal.”
This was the 23rd season for the NCWA, which started as an offshoot association welcoming college wrestling programs that were being dropped from NCAA status.
It was supposed to have been a temporary solution, especially for programs that were dropped as schools looked for ways to comply with Title IX law. But it never went away, becoming a fixture in the college wrestling landscape and is home to teams from 162 institutions now.
RPI joined the NCWA 17 years ago, and Nelson has been the coach for 15.
After a close loss in the national championship match last year, Wilson and Nelson focused on getting her to finish her takedowns more effectively, and that paid off throughout the season, including the title bout.
But not without some drama with 1:13 left in the third period tied at 3-3.
Wilson picked up her third stalling penalty, giving Mahoe a 5-3 lead, but Nelson used his last available challenge to ask for a video review of the call.
As the coach described it in a recap email, Nelson believed the call was wrong because Mahoe “appeared to be ‘mirroring’ Wilson, not allowing her to enter back into the wrestling area and pushing her out.” The head official agreed, and the score reverted to 3-3.
“That late in the match, everybody in the venue is watching you, everybody is screaming because they want the call overturned, so there’s a lot of excitement going on … everybody likes a good video review challenge,” Nelson said with a laugh.
“When I was talking to her during the review, she was still very calm. I said, ‘Listen, even if this doesn’t go our way and it’s 5-3, we still have a lot of time left. We’ve got 1:13 left, we’ve got to get a takedown, and we’re close to [a point for] riding time.’ This is a scenario that we kind of practice during the year all the time.”
Much of the goal of all that practice was to get Wilson conditioned to finishing her takedowns with better angling and leverage to get around to the back of an opponent and avoid being stuck underneath.
And the score — 3-3, 5-3 — didn’t matter, because that next takedown was going to be hit-or-miss for the championship. Wilson didn’t miss. And she added a riding time point to get to 6-3.
“It takes a lot to get her frazzled and out of her game plan,” Nelson said. “She’s pushing the pace, but she knows not to push so much where she’s going to create an opportunity for somebody else.
“You could see in her head that, win or lose on this video review call, we still had a job to do to get a takedown and control the opponent, get the riding time and we’re still going to win. She held character, held her poise, a minute-thirty left, everybody’s screaming …”
Because of rule changes aimed at physical distancing against COVID-19, Wilson and the referee raised their hands simultaneously from a few feet apart, instead of the traditional arm raise.
She became RPI’s first national champion in wrestling, Nelson was named NCWA national women’s coach of the year and just for good measure, Wilson, who carries a 3.59 GPA in engineering, was named 2019-20 Academic All-American by the National Wrestling Coaches Association Academic, which covers collegiate wrestling across all associations, including the NCAA.
The team was on edge wondering whether they were even going to make the trip, with last-minute questions being raised by the school about their itinerary and what the NCWA was doing to make the tournament in Texas safe.
A few teams were recalled by their schools after having arrived on Thursday, March 12, and Nelson said the Engineers were worried, even after RPI had arrived, that the event suddenly would be called off.
When he said, “We were lucky to finish our season the way you’re supposed to,” he was referring to just being fortunate to get the tournament in.
But it applied to Wilson’s championship, too.