Olympic hopefuls pursue dreams and degrees at NMU
Marquette — Mikaela Mayer was going to a community college and training to qualify for the Olympics when she broke up with her boyfriend, quit her job and left Los Angeles for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Mayer, a model turned boxer, moved to train under a new coach and attend Northern Michigan University, home to one of the nation’s five Olympic training centers connected to higher educational institutions — and the nation’s oldest.
NMU’s 30-year-old Olympic Training Site gives Olympic hopefuls an opportunity to train six days a week while earning a degree to fall back on after their athletic careers end.
The facility, housed in NMU’s Superior Dome, is abuzz this time of year when current and former students finally realize their dreams and qualify to compete in the Olympics.
In recent weeks, Mayer, along with five wrestling alumni who have trained at NMU, qualified to represent the United States at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. For Mayer, 25, a boxing coach was part of what lured her to the shores of Lake Superior, but the education component was just as important.
“I got to do what I love and pursue an education,” Mayer said. “A lot of athletes have to sacrifice pursing an education because training for the Olympics takes all of your time. I wanted to have an education. I wanted to have a backup plan. It’s risky to be an athlete. That’s why I wanted to have a degree.”
NMU is one of 18 Olympic Training Sites established by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 15 states. Of the 18 sites, five are linked to a college; the others are at Auburn University in Alabama, East Tennessee State University, the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Illinois.
The idea of bringing a center to NMU originated in 1965 but didn’t come to fruition until 1985, according to Michael Kaurala, NMU’s operations manager of the Olympic Training Site. That year, NMU beat out nine other possible locations, and joined Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Lake Placid, New York, as the nation’s third Olympic Training Site.
NMU is the state’s third-smallest public university with 8,303 students. It’s known for its remote location in the Upper Peninsula in Marquette, and for giving a laptop to every student.
Over the years, athletes have trained for multiple Olympic sports at the training site, including ski jumping, biathlon, cross country skiing, short track speedskating, boxing, women’s freestyle wrestling and luge. The program has produced 30 Olympic medalists who have won 36 medals, and 139 athletes who have earned degrees.
Currently, Olympic hopefuls in Greco Roman wrestling and weightlifting attend classes at NMU in between a grueling schedule of training. For students to be admitted into the program, they must get approval from Olympic Training Site staff and NMU.
Most attend NMU while training and receive free or reduced room and board, access to training facilities and academic tutoring. NMU waives out-of-state tuition fees, but athletes must pay for tuition at the in-state rate ($9,619 a year), along with their training and travel costs.
The center’s budget this year is $324,000, funded from license plate revenues, sales and services and support from NMU, said Derek Hall, a university spokesman.
“These students bring something unique to the campus,” said NMU President Fritz Erickson. “They are incredibly hard-working, dedicated athletes and students that really add to the vitality to the campus and to the vitality of the community.”
The training sites at higher education institutions are part of the U.S. Olympics Committee’s mission to offer as many resources to athletes as possible, said Alicia McConnell, director of training sites and community partnerships.
“So athletes can focus on their lifelong careers, and what they could do after a shift,” McConnell said.
This year, 80 students are enrolled in two Olympic training programs at NMU.
While many Olympic hopefuls leave NMU before earning their degrees, at least half earn a degree from the school, Kaurala said.
“Most of those kids will never make an Olympic team but will get a degree and move on,” he said.
While Mayer made Team USA in boxing, she is not finished with her business degree. She missed seven weeks of school in the fall because she was traveling for training and trying to make the team. When she was at the national championships, she had to write final papers for classes in a hotel room. She is taking a break now, but plans to finish her education after the Olympics.
“I am not settling for anything less,” Mayer said. “I am going to go for it all.”
It’s not clear yet how many more former and current students will qualify for the Summer Games since the weightlifting trials won’t be held until May. But NMU officials say they will be watching those who are on their way to the Summer Games.
“We watched them progress as a student and an athlete,” Kaurala said. “We are proud of what they are accomplishing.”
Besides Mayer, among those who NMU will be following at the Olympics is Andy Bisek, 29, who will compete for the U.S. in Greco Roman wrestling.
Bisek, a native of suburban Minneapolis, started wrestling when he was 5 years old with his older brother, who was wrestling in high school. When Bisek graduated from high school, he planned to go to Minnesota State University in Mankato, southwest of Minneapolis.
But one of his friends, also a wrestler, mentioned he was going to NMU to study and train for the Olympics. So Bisek changed his plans and went too.
Training and traveling for competitions took Bisek away from his studies, and he was removed from the university because of his academic performance. But he appealed, made changes, got on the dean’s list and graduated in 2010 with a degree in physical geography.
“I had a plan and intended to see it through, despite different things coming up,” Bisek said. “I went to Northern intending to graduate there and I did. It’s like anything else in life where there are adversities. I saw my plan through to graduate. Just like I have this plan of winning the Olympics.”
Road to Rio: The Games of the XXXI Olympiad
When: Aug. 5-21
Where: Rio de Janeiro
Who: 10,500 athletes from 206 countries
What: 306 medal events (161 men’s, 136 women’s, 9 mixed), including 42 contested sports. Two are new: golf and rugby