116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Nelson Brands’ first love is wrestling.
Make no mistake. He devotes his heart and soul to the sport, but he does possess interests away from the mat, including a penchant for video games.
Brands was in search of a different endeavor. One that offered more of a physical, mental and even spiritual pursuit, like wrestling. In 2019, he discovered an activity that filled the void: Telluride, Colo., and learning about the majesty of 14,000-foot high peaks that people climb.
“I knew there was a limited amount of them and I’m a huge OCD guy,” the University of Iowa 174-pound senior said. “If there is a list of things to do then I want to do them, especially things that aren’t considered easy. There are 58 ‘14ers’ in Colorado and 96 in the United States. It’s something I just kind of picked up as a hobby.”
Brands balances his offseason climbing quests with the intense wrestling season, which continues when second-ranked Iowa hosts No. 11 Nebraska in a Big Ten Conference dual Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, starting at 8 p.m. (BTN).
“I think it adds to my wrestling in some aspects,” said Brands, who is ranked 16th and expected to face the Huskers’ No. 2 Mikey Labriola. “Obviously, you can’t become too obsessed with anything if you want to be good at wrestling, or the best you can be at wrestling.”
A relationship exists between climbing and wrestling. Both test your limits, pushing you to higher thresholds and powering you past barriers. Sometimes they demand physical exhaustion of the excursion to earn the exhilaration of success.
“I really like how it adds to my wrestling,” Brands said. “That’s basically what I love about it. It builds your shape. You’re hiking at 13,000, 12,000 (or) 14,000 feet. It’s not easy on your lungs. I love it.”
Brands has scaled 22 14,000-foot mountains. Most are in Colorado with some in California, Washington and Alaska. Brands has failed just once, making his first attempt in jeans and tennis shoes and without proper gear in 2 to 3 feet of snow during June. He didn’t even research routes or weather, deciding the risk wasn’t worth it and heading back down.
It made him more appreciative and determined and taught him to be better prepared.
“I like to be uncomfortable,” Brands said. “I like to be alone because it tests your mind, too. All those things add into it.”
Teammates, friends and family have joined on the treks. Fourteeners are a passion. He appreciates the challenge and the time spent with others that accompany him.
“I did a few of them alone this summer, which is eerie but mind-opening,” Brands said. “It gets you thinking. When you’re done, you really appreciate having that time with your friends, family and fiancée.”
One special occasion occurred just outside of Vail, Colo., on a 14er called Mount Holy Cross. The name seem like an appropriate place to propose to his fiancee, Olivia.
“It wasn’t my favorite. It wasn’t the most fun to hike but it is my favorite now because that is where I proposed to Olivia,” Brands said. “It’s just cool. She loves doing them, too, and she’s done five or six. Hopefully, she keeps doing them with me because I like having her company, too.”
The views are breathtaking and provide a sense of wonderment from newer mountains like the Grand Tetons in Wyoming to the longstanding Rocky Mountains. The activity has a spiritual element being isolated with nature, which strikes a chord with Brands, who describes himself as a “God-fearing” person.
“I love that God created this world for us, especially when it is in its raw, natural form,” Brands said. “It’s crazy that mountains just rise up from the ground … It’s just so cool to me, especially being able to traverse through those with no phone service or anything like that.”
Iowa Coach Tom Brands described his wrestler, and nephew, as a competitor, who is laid back and funny outside of wrestling. He said Nelson is adventurous, like many of his teammates, but hasn’t reached extreme levels, yet.
“Sometimes the head coach would like guys to be a little less danger-seeking,” Tom Brands said. “There’s a lot of time to do that when you’re done competing.
“He does not let the grass grow under his feet and he’s always been that way.”
Retreating to the outdoors may serve as a respite to the grind of wrestling. Tom Brands said there is time for those hobbies in the future, but when the former Iowa City West three-time state champion and NCAA qualifier clocks in, he’s dialed in on work.
“He’s all business when it’s time (for) business but when he’s away from the sport he wants to be away from the sport,” Tom Brands said. “That’s where for me, when I look at my career, you have a lot of time to do that when you’re retired, so we don’t have to rush off into the abyss.”
Nelson Brands is 4-2 this season, coming back from injury in November after not competing since December of 2021. He is coming off two straight wins, outscoring his opponents 12-2. Brands said he has struggled and he is not satisfied with his results.
“I’m not exactly loving how my wrestling is going,” Brands said. “It’s really not coming easy right now.
“A lot of personal talks with Tom and (associate head coach and father) Terry (Brands) and (assistants) (Ryan) Morningstar and (Bobby) Telford, for sure. This season is pretty personal.”
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The lack of matches in a 13-month period has caused issues. More action helps with timing, quickness and creating angles to attack foes. Brands compared it to learning how to wrestle again.
“Confidence is definitely a piece,” Brands said. “I think there are so many pieces to the puzzle that you stay in that prayer, self-talk. It makes you a better person, too, going through adversity, especially for me the last year or two years. It’s been rough.
“That adversity helps you with life, not just wrestling and that’s something I’m learning and maturing as I’ve been in college. I’ve got to keep plugging away and with that self-talk, trusting myself and being positive. Not turning to the negative side of things.”