Banners of the University of Pittsburgh’s 16 national wrestling champions hang from the rafters of Fitzgerald Fieldhouse. Nino Bonaccorsi of Bethel Park sees them every day when he practices and he envisions his picture filling the vacancy next to Panthers’ head coach Keith Gavin, who was the 174-pound NCAA champion in 2008.
“That will be me,” Bonaccorsi said.
“Growing up, I always watched the finals. I said that will be me some day. To win a national championship would be surreal.”
Bonaccorsi almost achieved that goal this past spring when he finished runner-up at 197 pounds during the NCAA championships held in St. Louis.
“Running out there and being in the spotlight was pretty amazing,” he said, “but I am using the loss as motivation. It fuels me and makes me work harder.”
Bonaccorsi’s labor paid off recently as he works toward what he said was his “ultimate dream” of eventually becoming an Olympian. He won the 92-kilogram freestyle title at the United World Wrestling Under-23 National Championships. He will now represent Team USA when it travels to Serbia in November for the World Championships in Belgrade.
“When you go to a tournament, you always wish for the best but you never know what will happen,” Bonaccorsi said. “I was really, really excited and pretty happy to win but at the same time I was also relieved when it was over.
“Wrestling is such an unforgiving and humbling sport,” he added. “You will lose. On any specific day you can win or lose.”
Representing the Pittsburgh Wrestling Club, Bonaccorsi was making his fourth and final appearance in the U-23 nationals held in Lincoln, Neb. After he failed to place his first time while a freshman at Pitt, he finished fifth in 2019 and earned a bronze medal in 2020.
After winning his first matches, he defeated NCAA qualifiers Thomas Penola from Purdue, 7-0, in the quarterfinals and Cameron Caffey from Michigan State, 5-4.
In the best-of-three championship match, Bonaccorsi defeated Missouri’s Rocky Elam. He won the first bout, 2-2, on criteria and the second, 8-1.
“The first match wasn’t a lot of offense because we both were feeling each other out,” Bonaccorsi said. “The second one was easier because I shot more on offense and attacked more.”
The tournament provided Bonaccorsi an opportunity to make the World team as well as a chance to hone his freestyle skills, which are used in the Olympics, while competing against premier wrestlers.
“I always had aspirations of making a World team,” Bonaccorsi said. “It’s a tough tournament and a good challenge to wrestle those guys. It was my last time to compete so I didn’t want to miss that.
“A lot of guys try to protect (their) accolades,” he added. “I put myself out there because I want to improve. It makes me a better wrestler. If you want to be the best, you gotta wrestle the best.”
When he goes to Belgrade, Bonaccorsi knows he will encounter some of the world’s best wrestlers but he will not adjust his style. He said he will not “study tape” on his opponents. Rather, he will wait and see who he wrestles that day and focus on himself.
“That’s the best option,” he said. “Sure, the goal is to win but I also want to take in the whole experience. Not many people get to do what I’m doing so I’m going to cherish this and embrace this opportunity. I know when I look back on it this will be one of the greatest times of my life, so I want to take it all in.”
Bonaccorsi is also anxious for his USA gear to arrive.
“When you wear that USA on your chest, it’s a totally different feeling,” he said. “So much more than your local club. You want to do so much more for the whole country. It’s going to be crazy but awesome. It will make me so proud to represent my country. I don’t get overly nervous but definitely that’s an incentive to wrestle better because the whole country is watching.”
By 2024, Bonaccorsi hopes to be an Olympian, like his mentors.
Sunny Abe, who coaches North Allegheny and the Pitt Bull Club, represented Japan in the Olympics and Nationals while Gavin was a member of the U.S. National team for more than six years. Gavin placed third at the 2012 Olympic Trials before capturing back-to-back national championships in 2013 and 2014.
Gavin is pleased with Bonaccorsi’s progress as well as his style of wrestling. He believes Bonaccorsi’s potential is limitedness.
“Nino loves wrestling and is committed to being the best wrestler he can be. He has really developed a good understanding of the sport,” Gavin said.
“What makes Nino special is his commitment level,” he added. “A lot of athletes say they want to be the best but Nino lives that out and that is why he is experiencing this type of success. As long as Nino stays persistent and keeps his perspective clear the sky’s the limit for him.”