Monday, February 16, 2009

Heavyweights in the Classroom - The Road to Cedar Rapids (Part 5)

During the 2008 NCAA Division III heavyweight wrestling finals, announcer, Sandy Stevens pointed out that the two combatants each had 3.85 GPAs. Champion Dan Laurent from UW-La Crosse is majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology and Wartburg’s runner up, Brian Borchers majored in mathematics. Both were academic All-Americans. Borchers won an NCAA post graduate scholarship and is now working toward his PhD in math at the University of Iowa.

Laurent was named biochemistry student of the year and is working to return to Cedar Rapids to defend his heavyweight title March 6th and 7th. Dan and his coach, Dave Malecek, were kind enough to take a few minutes to share some thoughts on the life of a Division III student athlete.

I asked Dan, who was a two-time Division I Wisconsin state qualifier (placing third in 2005) from Mishicot High School, why he wanted to continue wrestling in college.

“After my high school career, I didn’t feel like I was finished with sports. I felt like my wrestling skills were still improving and I wanted to know just how good I could become. To me, the only logical choice was to continue competing as I furthered my education.”

To Coach Malecek this is the beauty of Division III athletics.

“I truly believe that at the DIII level, the athlete is competing because they love the sport and they love to compete and compete at a very high level. With no scholarships, they are there for the right reason which is the quality of education they are getting. That is the main reason that I love coaching at this level is that you get the athletes that are very focused on education and then the icing on the cake is that they get to compete and be on a team.”

What’s a typical day like for a student athlete who is excelling both in the classroom and on the mat? Here’s Dan’s description.

“Well, this can vary a lot depending on my class and practice schedule for any given day. As a heavyweight, my day typically revolves around eating. I wake up, cook breakfast, and hurry to class. Some days I don’t have time to come home for lunch so I pack some food. I go to lectures and labs all day, then wrestling practice at 4 p.m. I return home after, cook some supper and start studying. Usually I’ll eat again before I go to bed and start all over again. Other days we will have practice at 6:30 a.m. which really makes for a long day. I’ll admit, every once in a while if I don’t have too much homework, I’ll just chill and watch TV most of the night. Everyone needs a break sometimes.”

How has wrestling contributed to Dan’s education?

“Wrestling, besides serving as a necessary diversion from classes, has also helped me to focus more zealously on my academic goals. There are times when schoolwork becomes overwhelming and wrestling provides a time to ‘relax’ and relieve some stress. However, there are other times when wrestling makes it more difficult to perform as a student, mainly due to time constraints. I’ve found that with less time to study, it helps me to utilize the time I do have more effectively. Overall, wrestling has helped me stay goal-oriented and kept me out of the trouble that a lot of college students find themselves in as a result of too much free time.”

What does Coach Malecek think of Dan’s accomplishments?

“I have been very fortunate to have a young man like Dan on our team. He leads by example not only in the wrestling room, but in the classroom also. I have never met someone so serious about academics and so organized and I have been around many student athletes in the past 15 (years) and Dan is by far the most dedicated one.”

After watching just one period at last year’s Division III Championships, I knew I was going to like Glenn Geesman, the heavyweight from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His aggressive, attacking style of wrestling appealed to the Hawkeye fan in me. It turns out this was no coincidence. MIT’s coach Tom Layte patterns his coaching after Iowa coach Tom Brands.

Glenn was leading in his first round match against second-seed, Kyle Bilquist, of Delaware Valley when he tried a high-risk move and got reversed to his back. After that loss he dominated his way through the consolations including an 8-1 win over Bilquist in their rematch and a 39 second fall over number one seed Trevor Hiffa from Oneonta State in the third-place match.

Unlike Dan Laurent, Glenn Geesman did not intend to wrestle when he went to MIT. According to Coach Layte, “I always encourage my wrestlers to talk to their classmates and friends to find anybody with a wrestling background. This happened with Glenn. He came in and talked to me his freshman year, but wouldn’t come out for the team.”

Glenn joined the team his sophomore year and struggled a bit. He started to focus more on wrestling last year and then had the solid run at last year’s national tournament. Coach Layte admires Glenn’s work ethic and praises his ability to learn quickly. “He’s come a long way.” What is equally impressive to coach Layte is the environment in which Glenn has made this improvement. “The academic workload at MIT is like no other place in the country. We only practice two hours a day because of all the time our athletes have to spend in class, labs and the library.”

The role of sports in education is often questioned and criticized. In these challenging economic times, far too many institutions are considering the elimination of athletic teams as a cost saving measure. Wrestling has been a component of higher education for 2500 years and the lessons it teaches are needed now more than ever. To quote UW-La Crosse coach Malecek, “I feel the main value taught is discipline. With trying to be a student athlete you cannot cut corners and you have to be disciplined with not only your training, but your studies. I also feel that mental toughness comes into play as a big part of the whole college experience. … It also teaches you how to overcome adversity.”

I hope both Dan and Glenn qualify for this year’s Division III Championships on March 6th and 7th in Cedar Rapids. I’ll be there to watch them. Please join me. Let’s give these young student athletes the acknowledgement they deserve.

Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference NCAA Championship Site

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