Josh Harper can remember the exact moment he decided to become a great wrestler.
It was in the sixth grade after losing to a rival in a local tournament. Until then, Harper had been wrestling only as a means to hang out with friends. But after
losing yet again (he didn't have a single tourney win to his credit after four years of competing), he figured it was time for a change.
"It just hit me all of a sudden," Harper says. "I was tired of losing. I said,
'I want to win,' and I decided to do whatever I had to do to get there."
Good plan. The Mishawaka (Ind.) senior has since become one of the most decorated wrestlers in state history, a three-time state champion who's looking to close out his high school career this winter as a
member of the rarified four-time state champions club.
Of course, it wasn't as simple as flipping a switch and writing himself into the history books -- Harper admittedly doesn't possess amazing athletic ability. Luckily his appetite for
learning is second to none.
With study habits that bordered on fanatical, Harper devoted himself to learning the ins and outs of the craft. He started practicing with an elite wrestling club 90 minutes from Mishawaka, traveling to train with the best of the best three days a week after school.
Competing above his element was tough at first, but even as Harper was taking a beating he was studying his opponents' every move.
"Every day I was getting my butt kicked, but I tried to do one thing every day to get better," he says. "I'd say, 'Today you're only going to take me down 10 times,' and the next day five times, and sooner or later you're catching on and holding your own."
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Harper coupled his thirst to learn technique and
master the mental aspect of the sport with intense workouts and practice sessions. Soon he started transferring his
newfound knowledge and skill to the mat. He relied on nuances like positioning and angles, scoring most of his points by out-thinking opponents.
That style of wrestling suited Harper perfectly. By the time he entered high school, the kid who had never even won a local tournament before ninth grade suddenly couldn't lose.
"He went from never winning to winning everything," says Mishawaka coach Darrick Snyder. "After his first week of practice as a freshman, we thought he was one of the top wrestlers at his weight. A month into the season, we knew he was going to win the state championship."
Harper fulfilled his coach's prediction, going
undefeated (49-0) and claiming the state title at 103 pounds. And while he went the entire season without so much as being pushed to the limit, that didn't
satisfy his desire to get better.
After moving up to 112 pounds for his sophomore season, Harper went 41-1 and had little trouble claiming another state title. His only loss came when he bumped up a weight class for the state team finals.
He then spent the entire summer before his junior year traveling to various camps and clinics, looking for anyone who could teach him something new. In a sport where strength, agility and athleticism are prized, Harper has proved there's room for a classic tactician as well.
"I'm not a freak of nature that can just blast through people," says the 5-foot-7 Harper. "I can still take people down, but creating angles and
getting in position is just as important as that stuff to me. I can give myself a competitive edge just through studying other wrestlers and learning what works for me."
Harper went undefeated again (48-0) last year, winning the state title at 125 pounds and then clinching Mishawaka's second team wrestling championship in school history with a picture-perfect takedown.
"It was so fast, it was beautiful," says Snyder. "Josh just doesn't make mistakes. He's like an encyclopedia of wrestling where he knows the counter to the counter to the counter. He knows stuff that I don't know. He could probably write a book on wrestling, and I would definitely read it."
As gratifying as it was to take Mishawaka to the promised land, Harper could do something even more extraordinary this winter. Because of Indiana's one-class wrestling format, there have been only seven
four-time champs in state history. By winning another state title, Harper would add one more name to that exclusive club.
Though he's trying not to get ahead of himself, Harper admittedly has thought about what it would be like to see his name next to some of his idols in the state record books.
"It sort of boggles my mind," he says. "It's so hard to do, everyone that's done it is like a legend here. But I expect to win another state title, and anything else would be a failure."
Even if he does complete the historic four-peat, don't expect Harper to rest on his laurels. The smartest people understand that no matter how good they are, they don't know it all. And to have the same sort of success in college (he has signed with Michigan State) that he's had at Mishawaka, Harper must continue to improve.
"I know a lot of wrestling, but there's so much more," he says. "I've gone everywhere you can think of and learned from so many great wrestlers, it's ridiculous. But you can always learn something new and change and get better."
Harper's path to greatness is proof of it.
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.