|USOEC Greco-Roman men's program producing national champs|
By Cristina Seiter USOEC media relations
MARQUETTE, Mich. - Every day at 3:30 p.m., a constant thud resonates through the United States Olympic Education Center main office in the Superior Dome on Northern Michigan University's campus.
The sound comes from the second floor as 18 Greco-Roman wrestlers hit the mats for an afternoon practice in the USOEC wrestling gym.
Their efforts are beginning to pay off as recent competition results prove them to be some of America's best up-and-coming Greco athletes.
USOEC resident athletes Joe Betterman (Chicago, Ill.), Harry Lester (Akron, Ohio), Spenser Mango (St. Louis, Mo.) and Adam Wheeler (Lancaster, Calif.) are considered to be some of the most decorated Greco-Roman wrestlers in Michigan.
They recognize the unique opportunities they and other wrestlers are offered at the USOEC and each attributes much of their success to the program and its coaches. The Olympic Education Center provides athletes the chance to transition from freestyle to Greco fresh out of high school instead of waiting until they finish college. The program arranges training around athletes' class schedules, so they can pursue academic and athletic goals at the same time.
In addition to providing educational opportunities, the six-time University National Champion USOEC Greco-Roman Team is headed by two world-class coaches. Head coach Ivan Ivanov is a six-time Bulgarian National Champion, a 1994 World Championships silver medalist and a 1996 Olympian. Ivanov believes the USOEC program offers young men the chance to excel.
"If young men really want to wrestle Greco and have dreams of winning world and Olympic titles, then the USOEC Greco-Roman program is the right place for them," Ivanov said. "Through the USOEC Greco-Roman wrestling program, it could only take two to four years for a young wrestler to make the senior world team."
Ivanov is assisted by two-time Olympian Jim Gruenwald. The 2002 World Cup champion is a two-time national champion and a Pan American champion. Gruenwald believes trends in Greco training are changing.
"Four years ago, the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs was the only facility where year-round Greco training was available. In the mid to late 1990's to today, the program at the USOTC has made it very clear that if you wanted to be the best, Greco athletes had to train in Colorado Springs. That trend is slowly changing as young athletes combine their college careers with Greco training at the USOEC," Gruenwald said. "The program has risen above expectations as a USOTC feeder program by placing young men on the senior national team. This demonstrates that a new age of Greco has come to the United States, and the road to a possible world or Olympic gold medal starts at the USOEC."
Betterman, Lester, Mango and Wheeler are among the athletes who are reaching a new level of wresting at the USOEC, winning national junior, senior and university titles. Their stories are a testament that the USOEC Greco-Roman program is producing champions.
Betterman considers his wrestling career to be a "Cinderella" story. He came to the USOEC right out of high school in 2002 with a fifth-place finish at Junior Nationals. He didn't consider himself to be a good wrestler, but after spending one year at the USOEC, he began to realize his own potential. In his first year, he wrestled his way to FILA Junior National champion and finished second at University Nationals. He went on to place 11th at Junior Worlds. In 2004, he became FILA Junior National champion for the second time and won gold at University Nationals.
Betterman also finished sixth at Senior Nationals and qualified for the Olympic Trials. In 2005, he improved his finish at Senior Nationals by one place, finishing fifth. Later, he claimed the titles of Sunkist and University National champion, and won bronze at World Team Trials. This year, Betterman improved his Senior Nationals finish again, taking third at 132 pounds.
"I wouldn't be where I am today without this program," Betterman said. "There isn't another program in the country that has the caliber of coaches and partners that the USOEC offers."
Lester came to the USOEC in 2003 with an impressive resume. He excelled at the junior level in both Greco-Roman and freestyle, claiming titles at Cadet Nationals and Junior Nationals, in addition to earning gold at the Cadet World Championships in 1999. In 2000, Lester was the Greco-Roman Junior National Champion and was named the outstanding wrestler at the tournament. His success continued in 2001, as he took second at Junior Nationals, losing to Ivanov's student Cam Jones.
Lester was in his last year of eligibility at the Junior level when he came to the USOEC. He ended his junior career with a first place finish at Junior World Team Trials. Lester moved on to his senior career, finishing sixth at Senior Nationals and first at University Nationals.
In 2004, he bettered his Senior Nationals performance, placing fifth. He went on to successfully defend his title at University Nationals and ended his season with a sixth-place finish at the Olympic Trials. A year later, at age 21, Lester claimed his first Senior National and World Team Trials titles at 145.5 pounds. He went on to win gold at University Nationals for the third consecutive year and earn bronze at University Worlds.
Lester credits much of his Greco-Roman wrestling success to his coaches at the USOEC.
"Ivan [Ivanov] has helped me grow into a Greco-Roman wrestler," Lester said. "I've excelled at folkstyle and freestyle, and he took my skills from both styles and developed me into the Greco-Roman wrestler I am today."
Mango is one of the youngest wrestlers in the USOEC Greco-Roman program. He came to Marquette in 2004 with a pair of third place finishes at Junior Nationals in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. That same year, he improved his finish at Junior Nationals by one place, taking silver.
After spending a year in the program, Mango placed second at University Nationals, sixth at Senior Nationals and fifth at Senior World Team Trials. This year, Mango won his first FILA Junior National title and took second place at Senior Nationals the very same weekend, in addition to being named the outstanding wrestler. Two weeks ago, he won the University National Championships.
"Before I came to the USOEC I didn't really wrestle Greco," Mango said. "Ivan [Ivanov] helped me become a Greco-Roman wrestler and National Champ. The program at the USOEC is the finest in the country because it has the best coaching staff and facilities."
Wheeler wrestled for the U.S. Navy before he came to the USOEC. He was a three-time Armed Forces silver medalist and was ranked 10th in the country in 2003. During Wheeler's first year at the USOEC, he made the 2004 World Cup and University World Teams. That same year, he finished fifth at Senior Nationals and fourth at the Olympic Trials.
His efforts that season were enough to move him up six spots in the national rankings to No. 4. A year later, he finished second at Senior Nationals and made the national team. His performances moved him up to No. 2 in the national rankings at 211.5 pounds. This year, Wheeler made the Pan Am team and successfully defended his spot on the national team. In February, he was ranked No. 1 in the country.
"Ivan [Ivanov] is the best coach in the country," Wheeler said. "He brought me from being ranked 10th in the nation to No. 1 in three years. I have entered a new level of wrestling because of Ivan and the USOEC program."