For Gophers senior heavyweight Billy Pierce, it all started in a small, dirty wrestling gym at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School.
The practice mat wasn’t even regulation size. But that didn’t matter to Pierce, who has since emerged as the nation’s top collegiate heavyweight.
Pierce is a rare breed of athlete. He is one of only four Minneapolis natives currently competing for the Gophers in any men’s sport.
Men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart, who played football at De La Salle High School in Minneapolis, said kids who attend city schools are often at a resource disadvantage.
“Billy is a tremendously gifted athlete who has overcome some big hurdles,” Dienhart said. “His success speaks volumes.”
Pierce, who will graduate in March with a history degree, was so interested in Minneapolis high school athletics that he decided to write his senior paper on the subject. That paper is the final requirement for history majors.
“Whether it’s wrestling or any other sport,” Pierce said, “there aren’t good programs for kids in Minneapolis schools. Many families move out to the suburbs so their kids can play at better schools with better teams, with better facilities.”
Although Pierce experienced success individually at Roosevelt, his high school program was never that stable. The team had three different head coaches during his career.
“That’s the other problem with Minneapolis schools,” Pierce said with a laugh.
Considering the poor athletics facilities at Minneapolis high schools, Pierce’s accomplishments are astounding. He said he got good support from his parents, and received additional training at the Minneapolis Wrestling Club.
Out of high school, Pierce was recruited heavily for wrestling and football. Just about every Big Ten college was interested in Pierce for either his wrestling or football talent.
But he signed early at Minnesota on a full scholarship before any schools could contact him to play football. He is the only Gophers wrestler who is on a full scholarship this year.
Success came quickly for Pierce at the University.
In 1993 he won the Big Ten title and earned All-America honors, placing fifth in the NCAA tournament. From that point, it looked as though Pierce was on a course to become Minnesota’s ninth individual national champion.
“It was one of those things where you didn’t really know any better,” Pierce said. “You just went out and you wrestled. I was ranked pretty low and every match that year was a stepping stone to the top.”
During his sophomore and junior years, Pierce did not win the conference or national title as he had hoped. Entering this year, Pierce trained especially hard to prevent title hopes from slipping away a third time.
Coach J Robinson worked with Pierce every day in the fall to help him get in shape for the season. Pierce was weighing in at about 255 pounds during most matches last season and Robinson helped him get down to 230 this year.
“Everyone wants to win a national title,” Robinson said. “The question is are you willing to pay the price to do it? I wanted him to understand how hard it was to get there because he’s worked harder than anyone else.”
Pierce spent hours every day during the fall in the weight room and on the stationary bikes, an atypical scene for most heavyweights. But this wrestler was on a mission, and the extra work was nothing compared to thoughts of winning a national title.
“It sucked a little bit,” Pierce said of the extra training. “It was getting a little frustrating, but it got me in better shape before the season started.”
And Pierce’s hard work paid off early in the season when he beat Nebraska’s Tolly Thompson, who was then ranked No. 1 at heavyweight. But in a change of fate, Pierce injured his right knee in his match against Illinois in the finals of the Virginia Duals tournament on Jan. 12.
“That first week afterward was real hard to deal with,” Pierce said. “Each day it got better and better, and by the Iowa dual it felt like I hadn’t even injured myself.”
Pierce was, in fact, healed by Minnesota’s Jan. 26 dual with the Hawkeyes. The heavyweight pinned his opponent and it looked as though Pierce was back on course to win a title.
But he re-injured the knee during practice the following week. This time, it was much more serious.
“The thing swelled up like a volleyball.” he said. “It was a lot more painful.”
Now Pierce faces his biggest obstacle since he began wrestling at Minnesota. He’s hoping to get back on the mat and wrestle at the Big Ten tournament beginning March 9 so he can qualify for nationals.
Pierce began wrestling again this week in practice for the first time since his latest injury. And he’s more determined than ever.
“I’ve done so much,” he said. “Why should I give up now.”