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Penn State Wrestling

From ‘The Garage’ to Penn State: Aaron Nagao Looking to Build Wrestling Legacy at National Championships

Here’s how Penn State wrestling stater Aaron Nagao got started. 

If you’re a UFC fan, you probably know the names Aaron Pico, T.J. Dillashaw, Juan Archuleta and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. 

College wrestling fans should know the names David Taylor, Kyle Snyder and Lance Palmer, the latter of which crossed over into the MMA world. 

Nagao doesn’t just know these guys: he’s competed against them in exercises and did it when he was an early teenager, his trainer, Sam Calavitta, remembers. 

Calavitta is the owner of “Treigning Lab,” which is a gym located in Anaheim, California. Nagao is from La Habra, which is roughly 20 minutes away, so the commute wasn’t difficult. 

But the work certainly was, and the work took place in a setting known as “the garage.”

A Penn State wrestling legend remembers “The Garage” quite well.

“I don’t even like to talk about the garage,” Bo Nickal told Joe Rogan this past December, “because it’s like PTSD, like seriously, you know?”

So what makes it that way?

“The floors, the concrete are etched with sweat,” Calavitta told Nittany Sports Now. “The walls are basically just old… it’s full of old equipment. But I train the best athletes in the world in there.”

Calavitta referenced Nickal’s “PTSD” quote, and said Nagao “lived in that PTSD for years.”

“And not only lived in it,” he said, “but thrived in it.”


Calavitta has known Nagao for almost a decade, and upon first getting to know him, remembers a “young boy that gave his heart and soul to everything he did in the wrestling room.”

That passion led to Nagao becoming a winner.

In high school, competing for Esperanza in Anaheim, he was a two-time state champion. 

That success earned him a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he redshirted his first season, and then became a Big Ten runner-up and All-American in his second.

After that season, he transferred to Penn State, where he’ll look to become a two-time All-American– and win his first national championship– this week in Kansas City.

At last year’s tournament in Tulsa, Nagao ended up finishing in fifth place, losing in the NCAA quarterfinals to two-time national champion and three-time finalist Roman Bravo-Young.

Nagao’s high school coach, Christian Holiday, feels that the bout with RBY was greatly beneficial. 

“I think that that match and the growth, he learned a lot,” Holiday said. “Roman, obviously, he’s the best. He’s a three-time (national) finalist, and what he’s accomplished.”

Nagao’s goal is to be a three-time national champ, and less than two months after last year’s national championships, he decided he wanted to succeed RBY at 133 and transfer to Penn State. 

Calavitta said the reason for this transfer was Nagao wanting to learn from the great Cael Sanderson, as well as the rest of the staff. 

“Aaron did not take any deals to (name, image and likeness,” Calavitta said. “He had NIL deals to every college out there… I mean, we’re talking NIL deals that are in the half-a-million dollar range. But he chose to go to be with the best and wrestle for the greatest ever, Cael Sanderson.”


Nagao’s in a good place.

At the Big Ten championships, he went 4-1 for Penn State wrestling, with the only loss coming in sudden victory to the tournament’s top seed, Michigan’s Dylan Ragusin, in the semifinals. 

Nagao beat Nebraska’s Jacob Van Dee, seeded one spot ahead of him at No. 4, twice, with the second being a pin to secure third place.

But Nagao’s first season with Penn State wrestling hasn’t always been easy. 

In his first bout of the campaign, he wrestled Lehigh’s Ryan Crookham, who’s the No. 2 seed for NCAAs.

Nagao, who’s seeded 10th, fell to Crookham.

He’s lost four other times, two to Ragusin (seeded fifth in the NCAAs), once to Ohio State’s Nick Bouzakis (seeded 16th) and once to Rutgers’ Dylan Shawver (seeded fourth). 

But all of those losses, three (both Ragusin matches and the Shawver bout) have been in sudden victory, and the other two were decided by a combined eight points. 

Nagao’s wrestled some of the best in the country and has competed in every bout. For Holiday, Nagao’s ability to learn from his setbacks is a big asset. 

“Knowing Aaron’s mindset,” he said, “I think the more he wrestles a kid, generally, the worse it is for that kid. Because Aaron’s a student. He tries to go back and figure it out. He’s very coachable. You can ask him to make a style change, and he’ll do it. He’ll commit to it.”


Nagao wouldn’t have thrived in “The Garage” without a strong work ethic. 

“He is, without a doubt, the hardest worker I know,” Holiday’s son, Eli, who wrestled with Nagao in high school and is now at Presbyterian, said. “Without a doubt. He’s inspirational, man. I’ve never seen someone put as much work in as he does and not complain about it.” 

This goes beyond wrestling. 

“In anything that he’s done or set himself to, he’s literally working harder than anybody else,” Nagao’s father, Eric, said. “If it’s not on the mat, it’s studying film, if it’s not studying film, it’s studying other great wrestlers, new moves. It’s mentality. It’s a mental focus. It’s his faith and growing in his faith and relationship with God and believing that that has a direct result upon his walk and his wrestling, even. So, he lives it, breathes it and eats it, and he’s always done that since he was a small child.”

Eric describes Aaron as “an excellent son.”

“I do compliment it, my wife and I from all who are around him and he’s truly been a blessing,” Eric Nagao said. “He’s my oldest, and he’s… I don’t know if I can say enough about him.”



Of course, Nagao would love to win his first national title.

But for Calavitta, Nagao isn’t one to let what he does on the mat define them. 

“Whether he is first or whether he is last in the NCAAs, it’s not about that,” he said. “It’s about the journey and the person that you become, and he fully is aware of that. He’s trusting God along the way, and after the NCAAs are over, Aaron will be back out helping kids. He’ll be back helping coaches, he’ll be working, and he will be loved and cared for as the same Aaron Nagao. He doesn’t tie anything in his identity to his success out there.”

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