Clarksville, Ark.-Just days after losing in the NCAA Division III National Wrestling Championships in March, Nathan Rankin had a strange, yet revealing, request of University of the Ozarks Sports Information Director Josh Peppas. Rankin wanted Peppas to send him a photo of Rankin getting pinned at the NCAA Championships.
"I wanted to put it as the background on my phone so that it was a constant reminder," Rankin said. "Seeing that photo on a daily basis reminds me that there are wrestlers out there who can pin me without breaking a sweat and that motivates me to get better every single day."
It's hard to imagine Rankin having a better year than his freshman campaign last year. The multi-sport standout from Plano, Texas, put together one of the most impressive athletic seasons in school history by winning the American Southwest Conference cross country championships in November and following it up five months later by qualifying for and competing in the national wrestling tournament in Cleveland.
Walking around campus, the 5-foot-4, 125-pound bespectacled Rankin looks more like the honors student he is than one of the top dual-sport athletes in all of NCAA Division III.
Eagles Wrestling Coach LeRoy Gardner said Rankin's mental toughness and competitive nature set him apart from other student-athletes.
"Nathan is an intense competitor as any I've known. He leaves 100 percent of his heart and effort on the mat, every time" said Gardner. "He will out-compete most people. He holds himself to a very high standard in everything he does. He hates losing but he isn't afraid of failing – rather he's afraid of not giving his all."
Rankin, whose father ran track and cross country at Texas State University, flashed on the collegiate cross country scene in an impressive way last November at the ASC cross country championships in Round Rock, Texas. Despite having just the eighth fastest time in the conference heading into the meet, Rankin made his move with two miles to go in the 8K race and held on to become the first runner from Ozarks to win the individual title since the University joined the league more than 20 years ago.
"I made my move early on and was worried that I went too early," Rankin said. "I actually ran my two fastest miles at the end. I really expected someone to catch me and was pretty surprised that no one did."
Rankin's time of 26:41.6 was a personal best as he became the first freshman to win the conference since 2009. Even more astounding was the fact that it was the first varsity race Rankin had ever won.
"I made it to the Texas state championships all four years in high school but the state is so competitive that I never won a varsity race," Rankin said. "The summer before my freshman year at Ozarks I had wrestled all summer, so I wasn't in cross country shape when I started the season. But the weeks leading up to the championships I was setting PR's each week, so I knew I was peaking at the right time."
Rankin would go on to compete at the NCAA III South/Southeast Regional in Virginia, where he set another personal best and school record in the 8K (25:25.1) and finished 29th overall.
Like cross country, Rankin's wrestling season started off slowly but quickly gained momentum.
"I didn't step on a mat during all of cross country season, so I wasn't sure what to expect," Rankin said. "I could tell I was getting better each time out and that's what I wanted."
While he normally wrestled in the 125-pound weight class, Rankin lost a wrestle-off with senior teammate Devon Jackson to determine who would wrestle at that weight in the regional meet. Rankin moved up a weight class and won the 133-pound division at regionals as both he and Jackson became the first national qualifiers in the program's five-year history.
"I had never wrestled at 133 so I was surprised how well I did," he said. "I definitely think my cardio from cross country helped me in my wrestling. My strategy was to go as hard as I could for seven straight minutes, until my competitors wore down, and that seemed to happen."
At the national championships, Rankin competed against wrestlers from the nation's top programs, going 1-2 with his only victory via forfeit.
"The quality of wrestlers was definitely an eye-opener and it showed me what I have to do to compete on that level," Rankin said. "It's a whole different level and I realized that I'm not there yet, but it's motivated me even more to get back there."
Gardner said Rankin's sports of choice complement each other.
"I believe cross country provides a 'big motor' endurance where athletes are able to keep coming," Gardner said. "Running also requires toughness mentally and physically in a different way than wrestling, but definitely complementary. Nathan loves a fight, loves
a battle, whether it's powering through the last bit of a race, or up a hill or on the mat."
Rankin's goals are as grand as his competitive spirt. He wants to compete in the Olympics in either wrestling or running—or perhaps both.
"One of the reasons I came to Ozarks is that the coaches here not only supported me competing in multiple sports, but they encouraged that," Rankin said. "I love the competition and the mental toughness it takes to compete in multiple sports. My goals are to win NCAA championships and compete in the Olympics. I want to take these two sports as far as I can."
By Larry Isch, Director of Public and Media Relations