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 premed 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
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."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II No skating Olympic trainees Biondo (left), Jason Nunn (top left) and Justin Millard also must wrestle with the books.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II Big lift Athletes in the USOEC program, such as Joe Espinoza (in red) and Mervin Ford, bring diversity to Northern Michigan.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II Lonely start Marquette High graduate Benitez (left) is now at Northern Michigan, majoring in business and boxing for Mitchell.
"Not every school," says Bailey, "can claim that dozens of its
students are Olympians."
Mitchell rouses his fighters for training at 5:30 and then sends
them to class.