Higher learning

The Baltimore Sun

MARQUETTE, Mich. -- Each year, from early fall to late spring, snow blankets this quiet college town of 20,000. It paints roads, clings to tree branches and sticks to shingles like melted marshmallow.

Houses butt against the southern shores of Lake Superior, and the wind, as it swirls off the icy waters of the world's largest freshwater lake, doesn't chill to the bone. It singes the skin in a way that makes the locals chuckle when they spot an outsider walking the streets, shivering, bundled tightly in wool hat, coat and gloves.

The cold is just a fact of life in the Upper Peninsula - or the U.P. as residents call it. It takes a certain conviction and charm to be a Yooper, to adapt and go about your business in the face of giant icicles and mammoth snow drifts. With an average of 141 inches per year, Marquette is the second-snowiest city in the continental United States (trailing only Blue Canyon, Calif.). A year ago, 14 inches fell in a single day.

Yet if you can beat the dawn out of bed and wipe the sleep from your eyes, you might be lucky enough to spot some of them. Wrestlers. Weightlifters. Speedskaters. Some are high school age, but most are college kids. Every morning, you can see them in the Superior Dome - an egged-shaped building that bills itself, without irony, as "the largest wooden dome in the world!" - lifting weights, pounding speed bags, jumping ropes or gliding across the ice.

Olympic aspirations, in this town, begin before sunrise.

They pretty much have to. The United States Olympic Education Center at Marquette's Northern Michigan University is home to the only program in the country where aspiring Olympic athletes can train and attend school at the same time. So as soon as the morning workouts are completed, it's off to class, right about the time plenty of Northern Michigan students are stumbling out of bed or shaking off a hangover.

The Beijing Olympics are six months away, and while that ticking clock has added a buzz to the athletes here, it's unlikely anyone training at Northern Michigan will be on the cover of a Wheaties box coming to a supermarket near you.

Those athletes, such as decorated swimmer Michael Phelps of Rodgers Forge, are training at the U.S. Olympic Committee's massive and well-financed Colorado Springs facility. If they're not in Colorado, they're bunkered down in Lake Placid, N.Y., using the latest technology to hone their skills in winter sports. When China dreams of knocking off the United States as the world's dominant athletic and economic superpower, it's the athletes in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid who provide the inspiration.

This, though, is the U.S. Olympic training program at its absolute grass-roots level, strung together at times on a paper-thin budget funded by little more than donations and the sale of Olympic license plates. The USOEC exists for philosophical reasons as much as practical ones. The athletes who train here on scholarship compete in sports typically not offered at the varsity level at U.S. universities. It's the only place in the nation a short-track speedskater or a weightlifter with Olympic dreams can use those skills to get a free education.

In China, athletes are identified at an early age and sent to sports academies where they can train while they attend school, similar to Northern Michigan. But the program here isn't fully funded by the USOC, which many believe seems to support the program almost half-heartedly.

"The USOC really cares more about Olympic medals than they do degrees," says Jeff Kleinschmidt, the USOEC's director. "They want to fund a program that will lead directly to Olympic medals."

Unique opportunity

The program at Northern Michigan is based on the belief that education should be a part of the Olympic ideal. The idea began in 1965, when Northern Michigan was trying to find ways to use its excess land, but didn't fully take shape until 1985. Since then, athletes have been able to live and train at the university and focus on competing internationally while getting an education. Athletes are required to enroll in a full schedule of classes to participate in the program.

"If you look at how the Olympic teams are selected, if you're a basketball player, there are 100 colleges in this country where you can compete in your sport and get an education," says Kleinschmidt, who has been a part of the program since its inception in 1986. "But if you're a short-track speedskater, a Greco-Roman wrestler, a boxer or a weightlifter, you don't have that opportunity. This program provides that."

The result is an atypical life for a college kid. Some days, you'll see the athletes jogging through the snow in their sweats, bounding down deserted wilderness trails and leaping over fallen branches until their sneakers are soaked. They run through the woods and across open fields, into places so snowy and so quiet, only the wildlife is there to take notice.

"I think the remote location helps in many ways," Kleinschmidt says. "It's like the Rocky movies when Rocky got away from the city and to places where he could just focus on what he needed to do. That's what we always tell all the athletes."

There are many athletes who need convincing to commit to the USOEC program. But just as many are drawn by the unique opportunity Marquette offers.

Harry Lester, a sardonic 24-year-old from Akron, Ohio, was supposed to be the kind of wrestler who etches his name in the NCAA record books. He was a four-time state champion in high school, and The Plain Dealer in Cleveland told its readers that Lester "might be the best wrestler in Ohio history." He signed with Iowa State, a program that regularly produces All-Americans.

After a year, though, Lester decided his childhood dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal were more likely to be achieved by focusing on Greco-Roman wrestling, not freestyle wrestling. In Greco-Roman wrestling, a competitor can attack and defend using only the upper body, not the legs. And for Lester, whose chiseled arms are as wiry and immovable as the thick roots of an oak tree, it was a better fit.

It also meant transferring to Northern Michigan, the only school in the United States where Greco-Roman wrestling is a scholarship sport.

"I was supposed to be a multiple-time NCAA champion, this big thing in college wrestling," Lester says, leaning back his chair and fiddling with his cell phone during a break between classes and practice. "A lot of people were just baffled by my decision."

No one is baffled now. Lester represents the United States' best bet to win a Greco-Roman medal in Beijing. At the recent world championships in Azerbaijan, he took bronze in the 66-kilogram (145-pound) weight class.

"You never know what will happen, though," Lester says. "Nobody's spot is guaranteed."

Lester has never been particularly interested in living up to anyone's expectations but his own, but in many ways, he's the perfect example of how the USOEC can produce an ideal Olympian. The youngest of six kids, Lester is charming and witty, humble yet playful with a reporter's questions.

His interests include chess, cooking shows, video games and collecting wine. He has a degree in history and geography, and this semester he's pursuing a graduate degree in marketing.

"It's basically the only classes I haven't taken yet at this school," Lester said. "I should really be a doctor by now. ... For me, it's routine. It keeps me balanced. The more credits I have, the better I do in school, and the more focused I am with wrestling."

Plenty of Olympic athletes would consider Lester's schedule sheer madness in an Olympic year, which is why very few USOEC athletes are likely to make the U.S. team this year. It's a training ground for the next step, as athletes will occasionally leave the program to focus on their events full time as they gain experience and stature. But Kleinschmidt, the program's director, sees it as an invaluable step in the process.

"Take two athletes who are competing at the Olympic trials," he says. "Let's say both athletes have spent 25 years of their life training for their sport. One athlete has done nothing but train and dedicate their life to their sport. The other athlete has a college degree, has other friends and has a life beyond their sport. Which athlete is going to be more nervous? It doesn't mean they have less desire to succeed. They just want something beyond that."

Kleinschmidt's sentiments are echoed in the Olympic charter:

"Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."

Philosophically, that's a noble pursuit, but in reality, especially in the past 50 years, the Olympics have become as much about big business, international relations, celebrity and a country's self-esteem as they are about life philosophy. That's part of the reason Kleinschmidt was so disappointed when the USOEC had to end its boxing program in January.

Knockout blow

The program - which had produced world champions Jermain Taylor and Vernon Forrest - could not pay its coaches. The Olympic committee fully funds the Olympic training centers in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid, but not the one at Northern Michigan. The university doesn't fully fund the program, either. So Kleinschmidt is constantly scrambling for revenue to pay his coaching staff.

Al Mitchell, the USOEC's boxing coach, was let go after 19 years. During that time, he turned around countless lives by pulling young black men off the streets in rough inner-city neighborhoods and bringing them to Northern Michigan. It was the only school in the country that offered boxing scholarships.

David Reid, who won a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta as a light middleweight, grew up in a gang-infested Philadelphia neighborhood and is convinced he would have ruined his life had Mitchell not given him the opportunity to be a part of the team when he was 16.

"It was a culture shock coming from a big city to a town in the middle of a forest," says Reid, who was the World Boxing Association's light middleweight champion from March 1999 to March 2000. "I was so homesick. But I would probably be in jail or shot dead somewhere if Al hadn't given me a chance."

The are dozens of stories like Reid's. The decision to end the boxing program had repercussions felt as far as Baltimore. James Berry III, a 20-year-old Golden Gloves Maryland state champion whom The Sun profiled last year - one whose mother and father are recovering heroin addicts and former drug dealers - was to attend Northern Michigan on a scholarship. When the USOEC dropped boxing, it ended Berry's best chance to go to college.

Forrest, the current World Boxing Council light middleweight champion, attended a USA Boxing conference this year with Kleinschmidt and Mitchell where he pleaded for the organization to provide the funds to keep the program going. Forrest said, growing up in Georgia, he hated white people, thought they were the devil. It wasn't until he came to Northern Michigan that he began to see things differently. He was the first person in his family to earn a high school diploma.

"I read a study 10 years ago," Kleinschmidt says, "that talked about how the federal government was so concerned with the plight of inner-city youth, that if anyone could come up with a solution to the problem in inner cities, that it would almost throw money at that program. Well, we have a program that's proven itself over 20 years. These kids can go back and they can make a difference in their communities with their friends and relatives, and yet we can't seem to get the financial support we need."

The USOEC, though, soldiers on in other areas. Lester's grappling skills might represent the program's best shot at a medal in Beijing, but Northern Michigan continues to be one of the best places in the country for short-track speedskaters to train.

A sport that sometimes resembles roller derby on ice skates, short-track speedskating has grown in popularity since the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, when American Apolo Anton Ohno emerged as the focus of the International Olympic Committee's campaign to draw younger viewers. Ohno wasn't a student at Northern Michigan, but he did live and train in Marquette for a year and still returns periodically because of his affection for the coaching staff.

Speedskater Shani Davis, a minor star at the Turin Olympics in 2006, is a graduate of the USOEC program. He and Ohno have won gold medals and remain inspirations for the skaters who train here today, especially those who spend countless afternoons making loop after loop around the quiet, empty hockey arena, their lungs burning as they race against the clock.

Kyle Carr, a short-track speedskater originally from Reading, Pa., joined the program as a high school athlete, leaving home for the first time at 17 to dedicate himself fully to a sport that grabbed him at an early age.

"I don't remember this, but my mom always tells people this story: When I was 4 years old, I was skating [on roller skates] around my parents' kitchen," says Carr, a laid-back sports science major with dark hair that covers his ears. "I skated up to her and said, 'I'm going to be in the Olympics someday.' I guess it was in my subconscious even then."

Like many of the USOEC athletes, Carr, a self-described "adrenaline junkie" who came from a family of in-line skaters, was forced to be an adult at a young age. He had to figure out how to manage his money, how to get out of bed each day at 5:30 a.m. for the team's morning workout, and how to focus in school with so little time for studies.

"A lot of kids, they don't understand when they get here that it's a very controlled environment," Carr says. "Some kids are broken emotionally and some kids are broken physically. It's not as easy as everyone thinks."

Some of the difficulties - like missing weeks of class at a time to compete in Europe and in Asia - were foreseeable. He learned how to get class notes and take tests early. Others were more difficult to cope with. In 2005, in the months leading up to the Olympics in Turin, Italy, Carr's skating was peaking. Making the U.S. team felt as if it was within his grasp.

"No one's spot is guaranteed, but I was a definite contender," he says.

It's a sacrifice

That dream was erased, though, by a freak accident on the ice. During warm-ups at the Junior U.S. trials, Carr went into a turn and felt the ice break beneath his right foot. His ankle buckled and a bone snapped. It took two surgeries, two pins and six weeks before he was allowed to walk again.

"I wasn't even convinced I was going to come back after that," Carr says. "I talked to the coaches up here and decided I was going to give it another shot. I think when something like that happens, it teaches you not to take anything for granted. I know that any day, any practice, any lap, it could be the end."

Carr's burning desire to chase an Olympic medal couldn't be extinguished. Had the injury led to the end of his career, he would have dealt with it. He would have finished his degree and probably gone into coaching or personal training, fortunate to have an education. But he isn't finished. There is still a hunger to race, to compete, to prove that when he puts on a pair of skates, on the right day, no one is faster.

"I just love to race. I love that thrill of racing," Carr says. "I love the tactics and the strategy and the physical conditioning. ... You look around sometimes and you see people driving nice cars, see them able to work a job, and it's hard. But it's sacrifice. Most people aren't going to go to Europe or Asia and see the world. I have the rest of my life to drink and have fun. I want to make those sacrifices now and push the envelope to know what I'm capable of."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

Six months until Beijing

Olympic dates: Aug. 8-24

Paralympics: Sept. 6-17

Where: Beijing

Time difference: 12 hours

Maryland athletes to watch: Carmelo Anthony (basketball); Brett Heyl (whitewater kayaking); Katie Hoff (swimming); Courtney Kalisz (swimming); Jessica Long (Paralympic swimming); Khan "Bob" Malaythong (badminton); Scott Parsons (whitewater kayaking); Michael Phelps (swimming); Philip Scholz (Paralympic swimming)

Team trials: Whitewater canoe/kayaking, April 25-27; gymnastics, June 19-22; track and field, June 27-July 6; swimming, June 30-July 7.

Precious medals

U.S. Olympic medalists who either were enrolled at the United States Olympic Education Center or trained at its camps (*-denotes athlete was enrolled in USOEC program):

Boxing

Tim Austin, bronze, 1992 Chris Byrd, silver, 1992 Oscar De La Hoya, gold, 1992 *David Reid, gold, 1996 *Jermain Taylor, bronze, 2000 *Clarence Vinson, bronze, 2000 Andre Dirrell, bronze, 2004 Andre Ward, gold, 2004

Greco-Roman wrestling

Rulon Gardner, gold, 2000; bronze, 2004 Garrett Lowney, bronze, 2000

Long-track speedskating

Eric Flaim, silver, 1988 Chris Witty, silver, bronze, 1998; gold, 2002 *Kip Carpenter, bronze, 2002 Derek Parra, gold, silver, 2002 Jennifer Rodriguez, 2 bronze, 2002 Casey FitzRandolph, gold, 2002 *Shani Davis, gold, silver, 2006

Luge

Chris Thorpe, silver, 1998; bronze, 2002

Short-track speedskating

Darcie Dohnal, silver, 1992 *Amy Peterson, silver, 1992; 2 bronze, 1994 *Cathy Turner, gold, silver, 1992; gold, bronze, 1994 Nikki Ziegelmeyer, silver, 1992; bronze, 1994 Randy Bartz, silver, 1994 *Karen Cashman, bronze, 1994 John Coyle, silver, 1994 Eric Flaim, silver, 1994 *Andy Gabel, silver, 1994 Apolo Anton Ohno, gold, silver, 2002; gold, 2 bronze, 2006 Rusty Smith, bronze, 2002; bronze, 2006 *Alex Izykowski, bronze, 2006 *J.P. Kepka, bronze, 2006

About the USOEC

The United States Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Mich., is one of four Olympic training centers in the U.S. It is the only training center located on a college campus.

About 100 athletes - competing in Greco-Roman wrestling, short-track speedskating, weightlifting and women's freestyle wrestling - receive scholarships to participate in the program, which means they must also be enrolled full time at Northern Michigan University or Marquette Senior High School.

The program is not fully funded by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the governing body that oversees all American Olympic teams, and thus relies on fundraising drives (such as the sale of USOEC license plates) and private donations to pay its coaches.

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