For seven years, the Greco-Roman wrestling program at the U.S. Olympic Education Center (USOEC) on the campus of Northern Michigan Univ. was regarded as a strictly developmental program.
After last year, that theory changed.
In its first six years of existence, it was rare for a USOEC wrestler to finish in the top six at the World or Olympic Team Trials. Never before, had any of its wrestlers earned a spot on the U.S. National Team.
At the 2005 U.S. World Team Trials, however, four wrestlers earned spots on the U.S. National Team. One wrestler, Adam Wheeler (Lancaster, Calif.) was close to earning a trip to the World Championships. Another wrestler, Harry Lester (Akron, Ohio) did earn that spot.
Lester, regarded as one of the more explosive wrestlers in the U.S. in any style of wrestling, has now become the poster child for what is a program on the verge of producing Olympians for the first time.
"I don't look at myself in that light, but I'm having a lot of fun doing what I'm doing," Lester said. "We have what I feel is the best coaching staff in the country and everybody here wants to succeed. They aren't just here to float by."
That coaching staff Lester speaks of is Ivan Ivanov and Jim Gruenwald.
Before taking the head coaching job at Northern Michigan in 2002, Ivanov was one of the most successful junior coaches in America, producing numerous All-Americans and national champions in Greco-Roman. As a competitor, he was a silver medalist at the 1994 Greco-Roman World Championships and placed fifth in the 1996 Olympic Games while competing for his native Bulgaria.
Gruenwald competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games for the United States. He was also a three-time U.S. World Team member, placing as high as fourth in 2003 only after a dislocated shoulder forced him to injury default from the semifinals.
It is a coaching staff that has already helped develop some of the top U.S. Greco-Roman wrestlers. But with past success comes future expectations - something that Ivanov looks forward to.
"We want to have a bullseye on us," Ivanov said. "We want other competitors, other countries and other coaches to look at our wrestlers and try to figure out how to beat us. We want them believing that to get to the top, they have to go through us. We believe that."
And even though Lester dropped a tough first-round bout at the World Championships, he is one wrestler that does have a target on him. He has begun to dominate the U.S. Greco-Roman scene at 66 kg/145.5 lbs.
Joe Betterman (Chicago, Ill.), another of the U.S. National Team members from the USOEC, has defeated last year's World Championships participant at 55 kg/121 lbs. in a tournament this year.
In all, 22 wrestlers are working to get to the level that Betterman, Lester, Wheeler and Willie Madison (Metairie, La.) are at right now. All 22 of those wrestlers moved to Marquette, Mich. with one goal in mind - to learn what it takes to win an Olympic gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling.
The USOEC Greco-Roman wrestling program is run just like any folkstyle college wrestling program.
The athletes in the USOEC program are eligible for direct financial support in terms of scholarships. The B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarship Program is a federally-funded grant program, provided for Olympic hopefuls in wrestling, as well as in the other sports in the program: boxing, speedskating and weightlifting. This program allows the USOEC athletes to have their education costs covered, similar to an athletic scholarship at a school competing in folkstyle.
These athletes must learn to manage their time for training with their time for attending class and studying, just like student-athletes in the NCAA system or the other levels of college wrestling.
"My goal is to build a good technical and physical foundation for all the guys on the team," stated Ivanov.
"Our goal is to recruit the most talented Juniors in the U.S. to our program," said Ivanov. "We have excellent training and educational facilities, good food, resources to travel, and solid support from USA Wrestling. When you put it all together, the USOEC Program has all the tools needed to develop Olympic wrestlers," he added.
USOEC wrestlers have in the past succeeded at the University National Championships, and even held high placements in such international tournaments as the Sunkist Kids/ASU Open, the New York AC Holiday Open and the Dave Schultz Memorial International.
Eventually, Ivanov's hope is for these athletes to move on to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. after they have received their college degrees. That is a possibility that has USA Wrestling Greco-Roman National Coach Steve Fraser excited.
"The USOEC program is my secret weapon for the U.S. Greco-Roman program," Fraser said. "It is the bridge between our young Greco-Roman wrestlers and the Senior athletes. In the past, a lot of top athletes went from high school to folkstyle in college. The USOEC program gives us a way of offering the opportunity for a wrestler to train in Greco-Roman full time during those college years."
For more information on the USOEC Greco-Roman program, or to find out how you can qualify to earn a college scholarship while training to become an Olympian, contact Ivan Ivanov at (906) 227-2869 or Ike Anderson at (719) 598-8181.USOEC Greco-Roman Wrestling Roster
55 kg/121 lbs. - Joe Betterman (Chicago, Ill.)
55 kg/121 lbs. - Spenser Mango (Flourissant, Mo.)
60 kg/132 lbs. - Jeremiah Davis (El Cajon, Calif.)
60 kg/132 lbs. - Marco Lara (Long Beach, Calif.)
60 kg/132 lbs. - Willie Madison (Metairie, La.)
60 kg/132 lbs. - Kerry Regner (Beaver Falls, Pa.)
60 kg/132 lbs. - Chaz Tillman (Howell, Mich.)
66 kg/145.5 lbs. - Tim Bleau (Ishpeming, Mich.)
66 kg/145.5 lbs. - Jacob Curby (LaGrange, Ill.)
66 kg/145.5 lbs. - John Dibala (Silverton, Ore.)
66 kg/145.5 lbs. - Mervin Ford (Miami Beach, Fla.)
66 kg/145.5 lbs. - Harry Lester (Akron, Ohio)
66 kg/145.5 lbs. - Dallas Seavey (Seward, Ak.)
74 kg/163 lbs. - Andy Bisek (Chaska, Minn.)
74 kg/163 lbs. - Jacob Fisher (Platte City, Mo.)
74 kg/163 lbs. - Cheney Haight (Orem, Utah)
84 kg/185 lbs. - Chas Betts (St. Michael, Minn.)
84 kg/185 lbs. - Adam Haake (Winona, Minn.)
96 kg/211.5 lbs. - Jeff Courtney (Fairmont, W.Va.)
96 kg/211.5 lbs. - Robby Smith (San Ramon, Calif.)
96 kg/211.5 lbs. - Adam Wheeler (Lancaster, Calif.)
120 kg/264.5 lbs. - Justin Wren (Crowley, Texas)
Head Coach - Ivan Ivanov
Assistant Coach - Jim Gruenwald