Feb. 5, 2004
For Illinois' Alex Tirapelle, or the entire Tirapelle family for that matter, success is nothing new when it comes to both athletics and academics.
Alex was the valedictorian at Clovis High School in Colvis, Calif. So was his older brother Adam and his sister Brooke. His younger brother Troy is on his way to achieving the feat this spring.
Last year, Alex became the first freshman NCAA finalist in the history of Illini wrestling and earned All-America honors. But again, that's nothing new to the Tirapelle family. His father Stephen, who coached all three of his sons at Clovis High, was a Division II All-American wrestler. Adam won the 2001 NCAA Championship at 149 pounds and is currently a graduate assistant for Illinois while training for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
In fact, Alex lists his biggest thrill in sports as watching Adam win it all 2001. During his tenure at Illinois, Adam was a three-time All-American, a four-time NCAA qualifier and the Big Ten Champion in 2000. He finished his career as the all-time wins leader with 127 and all-time pins leader with 33. In addition to excelling on the mat, he was an Academic All-American and Academic All-Big Ten.
In talking with Alex, you get the feeling that the sophomore's family is a special one. A close-knit family, bound by the sport of wrestling, but fueled by its competitive drive to succeed.
"Coming to Illinois, I really wanted to make All-American my freshman year and I did that," says Alex. "Now my eyes are set on the ultimate goal in collegiate wrestling, and that's an NCAA Championship."
That goal was magnified when he was in the stands watching his older brother claim victory just a few years ago.
"Watching him accomplish the ultimate goal was amazing. It made me feel so good and just motivated me to do the same."
Alex nearly accomplished the feat last year.
He finished seventh at the 2003 Big Ten Championships to earn his first qualification to the NCAA Championships and then upset the defending national champion and No. 1 seed Luke Becker of Minnesota in the quarterfinals. But Alex fell to Ryan Bertin of Michigan in the finals to take second, an NCAA Championship moment that some wrestlers spend an entire four years to try to experience.
One might wonder why the Tirapelle wrestling family committed to a school so far from Clovis, a town just outside of Fresno in central California.
Alex notes that the Orange and Blue won the family over after Adam had decided to transfer from Stanford.
"He went to Stanford as a freshman but it just wasn't meant to be," he says. "Then he went to Illinois and it was a perfect fit for him academically and athletically. That made it an easy choice for me."
If Illinois served to be a perfect fit for the first two Tirapelle sons, surely parents Stephen and Jayne had no problem watching Troy, a two-time state champion, send his National Letter of Intent to Champaign back in November.
"When I was looking at schools, I wanted a good athletic program but one that was also great on the academic side," said Alex, a business administration major. "I didn't want to focus completely on athletics, and Illinois was that fit. I would like to get my degree in accounting, which Illinois ranks No. 1 nationally in."
The No. 1 rank is nothing new to Alex as well, as he is currently the top-ranked 157 lb. wrestler in the nation according to Amateur Wrestling News, The Wrestling Mall and W.I.N. Magazine. So far this year, he has captured the Cliff Keen Invitational and Midlands titles, and was also able to top Bertin in a rematch of last year's national championship final.
His performances have also vaulted the Illini to the No. 1 rank in the nation this year. Illinois currently ranks third nationally at 10-0 and 4-0 in the Big Ten.
Despite the success he has found in college, Alex doesn't see wrestling as a career after Illinois. Instead, he's focused primarily on obtaining his degree and "going on from there."
Alex also talked about how, in addition to his father and uncle, he looked up to wrestling great Cael Sanderson when he was growing up. It appears though, that when describing what he admires about Sanderson, he could have been equally describing the characteristics that others look at him as having.
"Great work ethic. Talented. Yet a very humble individual."
Those words defined Alex Tirapelle when he gave his answer when asked if he was a leader:
"I'm not so much a leader that takes charge and keeps people in line. I think I try to lead more by example and push guys to be their best."