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Best of Both Worlds
L. Jon Wertheim
December 10, 2001
Academics and athletics go hand in hand at the U.S. Olympic Education Center
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December 10, 2001

Best Of Both Worlds

Academics and athletics go hand in hand at the U.S. Olympic Education Center

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Napoleon Tested his soldiers' will by waking them at ungodly hours and ordering them to perform calisthenics. Al Mitchell goes one better. Mitchell, the boxing coach at the U.S. Olympic training site in Marquette, Mich., rouses his fighters five days a week at 5:30. A bone-deep chill lingers in the air most of the year as Mitchell sends his men on three-and four-mile runs along the banks of Lake Superior. Then, once his charges have showered and eaten breakfast, Mitchell makes sure that they attend their morning classes at Northern Michigan.

Mitchell's 18 boxers are among the 65 athletes training at the U.S. Olympic Education Center (USOEC). The only U.S. Olympic training site (the others are in Lake Placid, N.Y., Colorado Springs and San Diego) at which academics are mandatory, the USOEC is open to elite athletes in sports for which no college scholarships exist. "If you're a swimmer, a volleyball player or a freestyle wrestler, you can get a full ride and train for the Olympics at the same time you're getting your education," says Jeff Kleinschmidt, director of the USOEC. "But what happens when your sport is Greco-Roman wrestling, badminton or biathlon? Once upon a time, you had to choose between pursuing your Olympic dream or going to school. Now you don't."

Olympic aspirants training in Marquette receive free room and board at Northern Michigan. The athletes are charged tuition at the in-state rate of $4,400 per year, but some qualify for financial aid or the school picks up the tab. (For trainees who haven't graduated from high school, USOEC coaches go to probate court and become guardians, enabling those athletes to establish residency and attend Marquette Senior High.) Almost all the USOEC members live together on the third floor of a nondescript dorm, Meyland Hall. Otherwise, they are indistinguishable from Northern Michigan's 8,200 other undergrads, toting laptops and backpacks, cramming for midterms, complaining about the food in the dining hall.

"Too many athletes, boxers especially, get done competing and say, 'Now what?' " says Mitchell, whose fighters occupied four of the 12 spots on the 2000 Olympic team. "When you come here, even if you don't graduate, you get locked into a career path."

USOEC success stories abound. Cathy Turner, a two-time gold medalist in short-track speed skating, received a computer systems degree from Northern Michigan in 1991. Welterweight boxer Vernon Forrest graduated from Marquette Senior in '90 before competing in the Barcelona Games and then becoming the IBF champ. Andy Erickson was a pre-med major at Northern Michigan in '98 when he made the U.S. biathlon team for the Nagano Games. He's now attending the University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

The running one-liner at Northern Michigan is that the best athletes on campus can't compete in a Wildcats uniform. Beyond the $125,000 the university receives annually from the U.S. Olympic Committee toward athlete support, Northern Michigan benefits from its partnership in other ways. "The athletes who come through the USOEC help diversify the university," says school president Judi Bailey. "They also give us a niche. Not every school can say dozens of its students are Olympians."

For an athlete like Ron Biondo, a 20-year-old short-track speed skater expected to challenge for a medal in Salt Lake City, the USOEC is a blessing. A middle-class kid from suburban Cleveland, he had always planned to attend college. Now he can do so and train at a top-notch facility under Northern Michigan coach and former Olympian Scott Koons.

For others the transition is rockier. Roberto Benitez, a flyweight boxer from Brooklyn, enrolled at Marquette Senior five years ago when he was 16. Immediately he was struck by the cold weather, a campus and community that were overwhelmingly Caucasian, and social options that didn't extend far beyond the movie theater. "My mom knew to expect a call every night," he recalls. "It was a combination of culture shock and climate shock."

He endured both, and now he's practically a naturalized Yooper, as Upper Peninsulans proudly call themselves. "I've grown to appreciate the peacefulness here," says Benitez. "I will never get used to the cold, but it gets a little warmer each year." Having graduated from Marquette Senior in 1998, he's a Northern Michigan sophomore, majoring in general business and taking a full load of six courses this semester.

Stuffed schedules such as Benitez's render free time sparse. The other knock on the USOEC is that the required academics mean that athletes can't give their undivided attention to training, but this isn't necessarily bad. "When you train for the trials and for the Games, you get so consumed," says Brett Piper, a top U.S. biathlete and Northern Michigan sophomore. "Sometimes there's nothing better than a reading assignment to get your mind away from your sport for a few hours."