MARQUETTE — Nick Alvarez was one of America’s best young Greco-Roman wrestlers when he was attending high school in southern Florida, a rare talent who could have wrestled for any number of university programs.
He chose Northern Michigan University, even though the small university on the shores of Lake Superior is 1,800 miles and a world away from Alvarez’s hometown of Miami, Fla.
The reason: Northern is home to the U.S. Olympic Education Center, one of 15 Olympic training sites in the United States and one of the few places athletes can earn a college degree while pursuing their Olympic dreams. It’s the only Olympic training site that focuses exclusively on the Greco-Roman wrestling technique, also known as wrestling above the waist.
“It’s the best program in the country,” Alvarez said. “Northern is the only university with an Olympic developmental program that does Greco only.”
There are currently 38 Greco-Roman wrestlers and 24 weightlifters in the Olympic training program at Northern. But those programs are the last vestiges of an Olympic training program that has hosted some 25,000 athletes from 29 different sports since opening in 1985.
And a growing cloud of uncertainty now hangs over the training center’s future.
The U.S. Olympic Committee in 2011 changed the way it funds training centers, which resulted in the loss of the Olympic speed-skating and boxing programs at Northern.
That same year, Congress eliminated the B.J. Stupak Scholarship. The $1 million per year scholarship, CORRECTION -- named for the son of the former congressman from the Upper Peninsula
named for the former Congressmen from the Upper Peninsula, helped pay tuition for student athletes training in the Olympic program at NMU.Most recently, in a surprise move, the International Olympic Committee voted on Feb. 11 to drop wrestling from the Olympics in 2020. Wrestling could be reinstated as an Olympic sport, but only if it beats out seven other sports vying for one spot in the 2020 games.
The IOC vote was the latest in a series of changes that threaten the survival of an Olympic training center that has brought athletes from around the world to Northern’s Marquette campus and provided an economic boost to the town.
Community hopes to keep center open
“It’s unfortunate that the speed-skating program was dropped,” said Amy Clickner, CEO of the Lake Superior Partnership, Marquette County’s economic development agency. “To bring athletes from around the world into our community for a world cup (speed-skating) event, there was a definite economic impact.”
Clickner said the training center remains a community asset, even with its scaled back programs. “To have that caliber of athletes coming into our town helps market the community in ways that money can’t buy,” she said.
Brian Gaudreau, associate athletic director at NMU and interim director of the Olympic training center, said university officials are trying to secure long-term funding to support what’s left of the Olympic training center’s programs.
“Our main focus now is keeping the two sports that we still have,” Gaudreau said.
USA Wrestling announced last year that its Greco-Roman Education Program would remain at NMU.
“The program has been an invaluable part of the development of our international Greco-Roman effort since it was created,” said USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender. “We look forward to continue providing Greco-Roman athletes with the opportunity to earn a university degree while pursuing their Olympic dream.”
USA Wrestling and NMU now share funding of the Olympic center’s $426,000 annual budget.
A record of success
Rob Herman, head coach of the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team that trains at Northern, said the Marquette facility is essential to America’s Olympic hopes in wrestling. He said the remote location of Northern’s campus in Marquette helps wrestlers focus on their sport.
“We have great facilities and this area is nice because there are fewer distractions for the athletes,” Herman said. “We’ve produced world champions and Olympians here. If it’s not broke, why fix it?”
Dozens of Greco-Roman wrestlers who competed on U.S. national and Olympic teams trained at Northern during some point of their career, Herman said. One of those was Adam Wheeler, who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics.
More than 50 Olympic weightlifters have trained at Northern’s facilities, said weightlifting head coach Vance Newgard.
Weightlifter Sarah Robles, who finished seventh at the 2012 London Olympics, trained at Northern.
The 20-year-old Alvarez, who is studying pre-law at Northern, is one of 38 wrestlers trying to earn spots on the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team that will compete at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
Three years removed from high school, Alvarez said he couldn’t imagine a better place to chase his Olympic dream.
“We had seven Olympians in our sport (at the 2012 Olympics) and six of them came through Northern,” Alvarez said. “That speaks for itself.”
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." A former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle, Alexander writes a blog on the Great Lakes at http://allthingsgreatlakes.wordpress.com/.