The bottom floor of Anderson Hall is, by normal human standards, far from the most pleasant place to spend an afternoon. Known as "The Dungeon," Northwestern wrestling's practice facility is uncomfortably stuffy and natural light is non-existent. But there is no place that Jason Tsirtsis feels more comfortable.
After all, he spends hours on hours in The Dungeon.
He wakes up at 6 a.m. to lift weights. After class, he heads to The Dungeon to watch film before practice. He stays after practice is over to work on anything he feels he can improve, before trying to take his mind off wrestling before bed. But Coach Drew Pariano doubts that wrestling ever fully leaves Tsirtsis' thoughts.
"He's a student of the game," Pariano said. "It happened to me last night, you watch one wrestling video of a guy in Russia, then you watch an Iranian guy, then it turns into an obsession and all the sudden it's 2 a.m. I think Jason does that."
Jason Tsirtis grew up in Northwest Indiana, which is known as "The Region" by the rest of Indiana because it's a quazi-suburb of Chicago and its residents speak with a distinct Chicago drawl. He was born into a family of wrestlers; his father wrestled in high school and his brother, Alex, was an All-American at Iowa.
It is not uncommon for families to encourage their children to start playing soccer or basketball at a young age.
"When Alex was 12 and I was four, I started going to his practices," Tsirtsis said. "It wasn't serious or anything, but that's when I started wrestling. And I haven't stopped every since."
The Region is a hotbed for wrestling, home to the best high school programs in the state of Indiana. But stiff competition didn't stop Tsirtsis from asserting himself as one of the very best high school wrestlers in the country. He is one of eight in Indiana state history to win four straight state titles, and posted an absurd 176-2 record in his four years at Crown Point High School (the two losses came during his freshman campaign, naturally).
Tsirtsis became the number one recruit in the entire nation for his then-weight class of 141 pounds. But he came to Evanston as what is known in wrestling as a "tweener," a guy who is probably a few pounds too heavy for one weight class but not quite big enough for the next. Pariano was faced with a difficult decision regarding how to use his prized recruit during his freshman year: would he play Tsirtsis at 141 and hope he could maintain the weight? Or would he redshirt him in hopes that he could bulk up to 149?
In the end, Pariano decided that redshirting Tsirtsis, although detrimental to the team's immediate success, was what was best for the freshman.
"As a coach, you have to think about how long and grueling our season is, and if by the end of the year making 141 would have been good for him," Pariano said. "He was probably ready, but maybe he wouldn't have won a national title. So that's what I thought about."
The decision was a success in the most spectacular fashion. Tsirtsis put on the necessary muscle and viewed the redshirt season as a unique opportunity to improve while preserving his four years of eligibility. He posted a 32-3 record during that redshirt freshman campaign and a 7-1 record in Big Ten play. Yet the powers that be still didn't tout Tsirtsis as the favorite to win the NCAA title at 149, seeding him fifth for the national championship.
Tsirtsis, however, saw things a bit differently.
"I wasn't the favorite in everyone else's eyes, but I was confident that I could win the tournament," he said. "I'd wrestled the top guys in the country all year, so I knew the competition. I'm confident in myself and the work that I put into my wrestling. I know I can win."
The dream was realized for Tsirtsis, as he won four matches in a row to reach the final against the 11th-seeded Joshua Kindig of Oklahoma State. After a tight match, Tsirtis managed to pull out a 3-1 victory to become the first freshman national champion in the history of Northwestern wrestling.
Naturally, Tsirtsis was recognized on campus and congratulated for his accomplishments for a short while. But instead of becoming a local legend, Tsirtsis says the week-or-so stretch of his celebrity was an aberration. He goes through most days as any other student does, minding his own business without the nuisance of strangers engaging him in conversation.
Which he's more than fine with.
"I kind of like being under the radar," he said. "As long as I'm accomplishing my goals, it doesn't matter to me whether people recognize me or not."
Tsirtsis isn't driven by outside sources, but instead by a burning desire to be the very best version of himself. He speaks constantly of improving his weaknesses, and seems to have shored up all aspects of his craft. Incredibly, Tsirtsis is having a better year than he did as a redshirt freshman, currently sitting at 28-1 and ranked third nationally in his weight class. He doesn't hide his goals, and seemingly everyone in the program knows that Tsirtsis won't be satisfied unless he repeats as champion in 2015. And in 2016. And 2017.
"He's a guy that wants to win four national titles. But first things first, he's got to win his second before he wins his third," Pariano said.
Jason Tsirtsis knows that in a little over two short years, his college career will expire. And he knows that at some point, he may have to put his Northwestern degree to use and secure a job in the real world. But before that potentially becomes a reality, there's one huge journey he wants to embark on. It's a journey that will, ideally, end in Tokyo in 2020.
"I want to train to be an Olympic Champ," he says. "I want Olympic gold."