Seniors go Olympian

Northern Center for Lifelong Learning class visits Olympic Training Site

Rob Hermann, head wrestling coach at the Olympic Training Site at Northern Michigan University, talks about his program March 22 to tour participants from the Northern Center for Lifelong Learning. The visitors also learned about the site's weightlifting program. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Marie Watanen of Marquette, a longtime area resident, had her curiosity satisfied during her March 22 visit to the Olympic Training Site at Northern Michigan University.

“I’ve always wondered, where do they train?” Watanen said.

Although the OTS athletes weren’t around during the tour sponsored by the Northern Center for Lifelong Learning, the coaches of the two programs at the OTS — weightlifting and Greco-Roman wrestling — were on hand to talk about their respective sports to the seniors.

Giving an overview of the site was its operations manager, Michael Kaurala, who said most of the OTS athletes are NMU students. The OTS also has an “unofficial partnership” with a cross-country skiing group from Madison, Wisconsin, that comes to the site for camps.

The OTS does offer some room-and-meal scholarships, but things like tuition and travel are the athletes’ responsibility, Kaurala said.

Finances for the OTS itself can be a challenge.

The OTS gets no funding from anywhere, although license plate sales and camps bring in money, plus NMU gives back some tuition dollars, he said.

The current OTS is reduced from what it had been, with short-track speedskating no longer part of the site since US Speedskating combined that program with long-track because of financial issues, Kaurala said. Similar issues with USA Boxing also took away that program.

However, he stressed the weightlifting and wrestling programs are steady.

“Wrestling and weightlifting are very successful, so I don’t see them going away anytime,” Kaurala said.

Kaurala first showed visitors the sports medicine clinic, run by UP Health System. UPHS, he said, donates equipment and services for the OTS athletes.

Rehabilitation and keeping people healthy, he said, are the goals of the clinic.

“Another thing they do is they work with Northern’s athletic training students, so the students are able to get some hands-on experience,” Kaurala said.

Vance Newgard, head weightlifting coach, talked about his program to the NLCC visitors, with some athletes planning to attend the upcoming Pan American Junior Championships.

He demonstrated the sport’s two movements: the snatch, which involves bringing the weight from the floor to overhead in one motion, and the clean-and-jerk, which brings the weight from the floor to the shoulders and then overhead.

The visitors didn’t try to execute those movements, but they got an idea of what it takes to succeed in the “pure manual labor” sport.

Consider that some weightlifters in the snatch category can lift twice their body weight, according to Newgard, with those in the clean-and-jerk category lifting up to three times their body.

“It’s considered a speed/strength sport,” Newgard said. “It’s not necessarily the strongest guy that wins, but it’s usually the most powerful, the one that can lift the bar very fast.”

In fact, he pointed out it takes eight to 10 years to master that skill — and with heavy weights.

That’s tough on a body.

“But for some reason, some people really like that,” Newgard said.

Fortunately for the athletes, most of the injuries come through overuse with few traumatic injuries, particularly if they’re properly taught, he said.

Rob Hermann, head wrestling coach, elaborated on his program, the main purpose of which is to be a developmental program for USA Wrestling for the Greco-Roman style.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, athletes are forbidden to use their legs for attack or defense.

“Without this program, I don’t know where USA Wrestling would be,” Hermann said. “Six out of seven guys out of this program made the 2012 Olympic team. Three out of the six made the 2016 Olympic team.”

The OTS program draws many athletes from all over, and there’s a reason for that — and it’s not because of the harsh winters.

“There’s no other program, so we’re not competing with anybody,” Hermann said.

Another big draw is that athletes receive in-state tuition at NMU.

“The reason I got eight guys from California here? It’s not the winter. It’s because they know this is where they need to be to make the next Olympic team or win a medal,” Hermann said.

And the athletes who do train at the OTS, he said, all feed off each other and get better.

Fixating about weight, though, is not part of his regimen.

“I try to get the best athletes in this room, and that’s your horses, your thoroughbreds,” Hermann said. “I try to get them all in one room, training at one time, Greco-Roman wrestling.

“And I don’t preach on cutting a lot of weight. I preach on getting bigger, getting stronger. I’m developing them, and when you’re losing a lot of weight, you’re more worried about the weight instead of developing.”

The OTS visit was one of many NCLL classes scheduled for March through June.

Based at 406 Cohodas Hall, NCLL members plan, coordinate and provide informal educational programs and activities. For more information, visit

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is