Once coined by Jesse Ventura as ‘a ballet with violence,’ Greco-Roman wrestling has been considered by many as the oldest competitive sport known to man. While Greco-Roman wrestling has a storied past, Team USA Wrestling is focused on it’s future. In the fall of 1999, USA Wrestling implemented the first Greco-Roman wrestling program in the country to offer both world-class training from an expert Greco-Roman coach and an opportunity to receive a great college education. This place is now known as the Northern Michigan University U.S. Olympic Training Site.
If you’re not from the area, you might ask, why Northern Michigan? Marquette, Mich. is the largest city in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with a population of about 20,000. The region is known for its safe, friendly and natural environment. For athletes who live an active lifestyle, this region is perfect for you. Marquette offers 11 hiking trails, 96 miles of cross-country ski trails, 11 accessible waterfalls, 10 miles of city bike paths, and numerous other natural wonders that are waiting to be explored.
Northern Michigan University is located just a few blocks away from beautiful Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. The campus is comprised of roughly 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students and offers 147-degree programs. The campus is known for its manageable size and most students say that everything is within easy walking distance. NMU has also been named one of the most unwired (wireless) campuses in the U.S., with both Wi-Fi and Wi-Max connecting all students located in Marquette and the surrounding area. Additionally, all students receive a ThinkPad laptop once they are admitted to NMU.
Many Olympians have passed through this small-town in Michigan, and while most know this city for it’s natural landscapes, it has quietly become one of the most effective Greco-Roman training programs in USA Wrestling history. Matt Lindland, National Coach for USA Wrestling, said of the program, “For elite athletes looking to pursue their Olympic goals and get a college education for after their career on the mat, then there is no other option that makes sense.” Most of the current Greco-Roman wrestlers are ranked nationally, and several have represented the U.S. in World Championship Competitions at the FILA-Junior, University and Senior levels. The program has seen eight alumni athletes go on to compete in the Olympics, with one athlete (Adam Wheeler) earning a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. Senior athlete Nick Alvarez, a senior political science major from Miami, Fla., talked about the opportunities NMU-OTS has provided him, and the impact this program is having on future World and Olympic success. “Almost all of the people we are competing against have trained here at one point or another. On the 2012 Olympic team, seven out of eight Greco wrestlers attended NMU at one point. This is a right of passage for someone with Olympic aspirations,” said Alvarez. The diversity of opponents this program draws is also quite an accomplishment. Typical visiting teams include the Marine Corps team, All-Navy team, Sweden, Japan and France. Each year, athletes travel to such locations as Panama, Cuba, Sweden and Austria.
The NMU Greco-Roman team is a ‘band of brothers’ who put in hard work everyday, and who push each other to be the best they can be, pound for pound. “You tend to create a special bond with a group of guys that help push you until you have nothing left to give, but are the first ones to pick you up and encourage you to keep going. The same guys I’m battling with every day in the wrestling room are the same guys I’m going to the movies and hanging out with on the weekends,” said Joey DeNova, a senior economics major from Fortson, Ga. The diversity among the athletes also is an advantage for NMU-OTS wrestlers. You have options for practice partners of many different skill sets, so you can prepare yourself for any potential opponent you may have. When you have 40 athletes fighting for the same goal, it helps create a sense of team. These athletes may have individual goals, but they work at it from a team mindset.
The day-to-day life of a typical resident athlete is very consistent. The average week starts with a Monday morning technique session at 6:30 a.m. for two hours, and afterward the student-athletes attend their classes at NMU throughout the day. At 3:30 p.m. they re-convene for an intense practice session for two hours. Following practice is a team dinner at the schools dining hall, and then the team gets the night off to catch up on homework or to explore the town and be a normal college student for the night! On Tuesdays and Fridays, technique sessions are replaced with weightlifting and sprint workouts in the morning. Wednesdays provide the Greco wrestlers with a half of a day to recover so that they can finish the week out just as strong as they started. On these mornings, the wrestlers cross train. It may be soccer one time and ultimate Frisbee the next. This allows for competitiveness even while recovering from off of the mat. Days like these are also key days for focusing on conditioning. Once these workouts are finished, wrestlers have the rest of the day off. When Saturday comes around, it switches between really tough mat workouts, to light mat workouts, running, or anything else that the coaches have in mind—usually for about an hour. Sometimes the workout is even a swimming workout. Along with the optional session on Wednesday night, there is a yoga session after every Saturday morning workout. This helps wrestlers stretch out, cool down, and prepare for their day and a half of recovery before the next week comes around.
This structured schedule has proven to be very successful for first-year students in the program. Even if you don’t know anyone at NMU, your day-to-day structured activities with the team makes for easy adjustment to a new city. NMU-OTS also does their best to ensure that tuition is not a barrier to a potential athlete coming into the program. Athlete scholarships are available that cover all or portions of room and meal costs. Additionally, NMU-OTS also offers all athletes the in-state tuition rate ($4,661 per semester, compared to $7,277 for out-of-state students).