Meet Nate Jesuroga, Southeast Polk’s star wrestler who is competing at the Cadet world championships this week
Nate Jesuroga is laying on a bunk bed looking at his phone. This isn’t surprising. He’s a teenager, after all, a rising-junior at Southeast Polk and arguably Iowa’s top high-school wrestler.
It’s what he’s watching that’s interesting.
While scrolling Instagram, Jesuroga discovered an old wrestling match, between Gadzhimurad Rashidov and Hassan Yazdani, two of the sport's biggest international stars. In 2011, they met in the finals of the Cadet world championships (Rashidov won).
As the match unfolded, Ryder Block, Jesuroga's teammate at Sebolt Wrestling Academy, walked over.
“Nate,” Block said, “will you please stop watching wrestling for just one moment?”
Jesuroga cracked a smile — but his eyes never left the screen.
This week, Jesuroga has an international opportunity of his own, the latest chapter in his own budding standout wrestling career. He is representing the United States at the Cadet men’s freestyle world championships, which runs all week in Budapest.
“It’s exciting,” Jesuroga said. “I try to visualize it as best as I can, but I’ve never wrestled overseas. It’s going to be a different style of wrestling, just against different kids.”
Jesuroga is competing at 51 kilograms, about 112 pounds. He will wrestle early Tuesday morning and again Wednesday if he wins. He is just the fourth Iowa high-schooler to earn a spot on the U.S. Cadet world team since United World Wrestling, the sport's international governing body, re-instituted the Cadet world championships in 2011.
The fact that he earned a spot on the Cadet world team instantly strengthens his case as perhaps the most decorated Iowa high-school wrestler in recent memory. But the accomplishment is just the latest in what’s been an exceptional 2020-21 season.
In February, Jesuroga won his first state title to cap a 31-0 season. In April, he went 5-0 in arguably the toughest bracket at the Cadet world team trials to qualify for Budapest, knocking off Marc-Anthony McGowan, a past world champ, along the way. Last month, he went 7-0 at the Junior National Duals, helping Iowa win the team title.
Taken together, Jesuroga’s dominance becomes clear. Across those three competitions, he went a combined 16-0 and outscored his opponents 148-30. He scored 53 total takedowns and allowed one, to McGowan, and 20 of the 30 points he's allowed were gifted escapes.
“He just does things that a lot of high school wrestlers don’t do,” said Fort Dodge senior Drake Ayala, who trains with Jesuroga at the Sebolt Wrestling Academy. “He’s really fundamental. He keeps a low stance, elbows in, and he’s hard to score on. He stays in good position all the time.
“And then he can also hit some moves that you just don’t see normal high-schoolers hit. He’s just insane.”
These results are a product of an obsession with the sport. Block may have been teasing Jesuroga about watching wrestling all the time, but there is truth behind it.
Jesuroga started when he was just eight years old. His family lived in Texas then. Oldest brother, James, won a state title for Liberty Christian in 2017. A year later, they moved to Iowa, where the family has added to Southeast Polk’s storied wrestling tradition. Another older brother, Joel, also won a state title this year, at 145 pounds.
Nate Jesuroga was drawn to the sport almost instantly. He remembers the joy he felt after perfecting a basic double-leg takedown — lowering his level, the penetration step, corralling both of his opponent’s legs, then driving him to the ground. He was hooked.
“It was just really fun,” he said. “My first tournament, I took second, and I wasn’t really sure what the rules even were. I would hit a double-leg and just let my opponent back up.”
That passion soon became an obsession, and everything that’s unfolded since has been a product of that drive.
In his first two high school seasons, Jesuroga is a combined 69-2. He is ranked No. 1 in the country at 113 pounds, by MatScouts, and is considered the No. 7 overall prospect nationally in the 2023 class. His peers at school and in his club have two nicknames for him: "Nater-Tot" when he’s off the mat, and the "GOAT" when he competes.
Jake Agnitsch, Southeast Polk’s head coach, says Jesuroga sometimes goes to a dark place when he competes, a kind of fury reserved for the opponents who refuse to wrestle him. It has to be reeled in sometimes, Agnitsch explains, but it’s also what makes him dominant.
Block has experienced that wrath firsthand. At a recent practice, Block and Jesuroga wrestled live. Block locked up an over-under upper-body tie and fished for an inside trip, then eventually scored on an outside trip, taking Jesuroga to his back.
“I just took down a world team member,” Block, who wrestles at 132 pounds, said with a smile.
On the restart, Jesuroga came back with a vicious collar-tie, which led to a head-outside shot. He came up and ran Block into the wall on the other side of the mat. A few wrestlers nearby chuckled.
T.J. Sebolt, the head coach at Sebolt Wrestling Academy, laughs at the memory. He met the entire Jesuroga family at one of his camps a few years ago, when Nate was in middle school, and his gut told him then that Nate could be special. He is not surprised at all by Nate’s rise.
When the family moved to Iowa, Sebolt began working with Nate and Joel. Sebolt recently sent Nate a video of Russian star Abdulrashid Sadulaev, widely-regarded as the best pound-for-pound wrestler on the planet. Sebolt wanted Nate to watch it for the technique Sadulaev used in his matches.
A week later, Nate was hitting some of the same moves in practice.
“He just has that 'it factor,'” said Sebolt, who will be in Budapest to coach Jesuroga. “He’s obsessed, but he’s got gifts that go right along with that. He’s tough, he craves improvement, he puts in the time and sets his goals high. He’s special.”
The United States has a strong history at the Cadet world championships. Over the last five years, 15 athletes from the U.S. have combined to win 18 Cadet world titles in men’s freestyle, and the Americans have finished in the top five in the team race every year since 2014.
Nate Jesuroga now his own opportunity this week, in what he hopes is a long and fruitful career that includes more state, national and, potentially, world titles. And maybe one day, videos of his wrestling prowess will populate on a social media app, and young wrestlers across Iowa and around the country will watch him and dream big, too.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.