Joe Russ grew up taking on tough competition.
The Nassau Community College wrestler never had to go far to train as the youngest of four boys in his family.
"I was always getting my butt kicked by them, but it made me stronger," said Russ, who is from Smithtown.
Russ proved just how strong on Feb. 28 when he was crowned champion at 133 pounds at the National Junior College Athletic Association championship in Des Moines, Iowa.
He knocked off some of the top wrestlers in the country, including Springfield Tech (Massachusetts) sophomore Mizam Tamaradze, who Russ said is the top-ranked 133-pounder in the nation.
"Mentally I just got stronger from my senior year of high school into college," the No. 8-ranked wrestler said. "I was down 4-1 in the finals. In high school I would have freaked out but I was able to stay calm and just keep wrestling."
Russ rallied to win the final, 8-5, after beating fifth-ranked Lawrence Otero of Clackamas CC and third-ranked Jake Nicholson of Jamestown CC in the semifinals.
He was prepared for the bright lights and the top competition thanks to the challenging schedule he faced while at St. Anthony's High School.
"We went to Georgia and Virginia and went all over and wrestled on big stages," he said. "I wasn't nervous at all because I had prepared for this my whole career."
Russ also took sixth in New York State at the Times-Union Center in Albany during his senior year of high school.
"Going up against kids in New York -- there are just so many good wrestlers here," he said. "Even kids who didn't place in the state tournament are really tough."
He would love to prove himself on an even biggest stage at some point in his college career but is still not sure where he wants to wrestle next season.
"This definitely is opening up a huge door for me," Russ said. "I might be able to go away or wrestle for a big school. I want to go wrestle for a Division I school eventually. I'm looking at all my options and my coaches are getting calls now. I'm not sure if I'm going to stay."
No matter where he ends up Russ knows that he won't have to go far to find strong wrestlers to test himself against -- starting at home.
"My brothers are still talking smack to me," Russ said, "and saying I can't beat them."