June 18, 2012
By Courtney Ratkowiak
Kellen Russell had no time to rest.
After wrapping up his collegiate career with his second straight national title at the NCAA Championships in March, Russell started training for the Olympic Trials in April just a week later with the six other members of the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, a post-collegiate freestyle program based in Ann Arbor.
The two-a-day, high-intensity practices left Russell perpetually sore. Twice a day he visited the hot tub and cold plunge tubs in the hydrotherapy room of the state-of-the-art Bahna Wrestling Center, the Wolverines' new wrestling facility.
Those vital recovery workouts before the biggest test of Russell's career wouldn't have been possible at the Wolverines' former practice site, a basement room in Crisler Arena. The team didn't have a hot tub, and the cold tub was makeshift at best.
"We had a metal tub, like a bucket we'd fill with ice, but it's not as good as a cold tub, and it was kind of a pain because we had to lug 20 pounds of ice halfway across Crisler to get it into the locker room," Russell said. "So if you wanted to, you could make an ice bath, but it took a lot of work and it wasn't always worth it in the end."
The advantages of training for the Trials in one of the nation's most impressive facilities, and the fact that Russell was one of seven Olympic hopefuls training right in Ann Arbor, were testaments to the changes the Michigan wrestling program has seen since Russell came to the University in 2007.
In the three short years since the completion of the Bahna Wrestling Center in 2009, the pedigree of the Michigan wrestling program has skyrocketed. The hiring of assistant coaches Sean Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff in June 2011 attracted a flurry of top post-collegiate wrestlers to train in Ann Arbor. All seven members of the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club competed in the Trials, with one sealing a spot on the 2012 Olympic team. Taylor Massa, the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, committed to Michigan three months after the coaching change.
"It was exciting, and a little bit scary -- it was a lot of change really fast, but you could almost see right away the coaches were elevating the competition in the room, and their expectations for the whole team were a lot different than before," Russell said.
In 2009, the Wolverines moved from sharing locker room facilities with the basketball team to boasting only the second stand-alone college wrestling facility in the nation (Cornell's Friedman Wrestling Center opened in 2002). The 18,000-square-foot Bahna Wrestling Center includes 7,500 square feet of mat space, a locker room and team lounge, an adjacent training room and a second-floor strength and conditioning area.
The high ceilings and lack of columns in the training room, coupled with the sheer space for the mats, create an open atmosphere more similar to a field house than a traditional wrestling facility. One of the biggest advantages of the new facility is the fact that the wrestling room, training room and weight room are all interconnected, facilitating an ease of workouts unmatched at even elite venues like the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.
In January 2010, the University Regents elected to name the wrestling center after former Michigan wrestler and current Priceline.com chairman Ralph Bahna (1962-64) in recognition of his gift to build the facility, the single largest Athletic Department donation from a former varsity student-athlete. Though he had specified the donation be anonymous, the 1964 Big Ten champion accepted the naming honor when he became convinced that it would encourage other letterwinners to contribute to the program.
"Wrestling had made a man out of me, and Michigan needed a new facility to help it make men out of other young persons," Bahna said. "Wrestling is a mind game, and when you go out there, you have no clue what's going to happen -- it's like going into a whirlwind. Eventually, I overcame it and was able to be a champion. That experience was very helpful in my life after sports, and it made me a champion outside of wrestling."
Head coach Joe McFarland's hiring of Bormet in 2011 signaled a continued commitment for Michigan to become one of wrestling's elite programs. Bormet, a Michigan alumnus (1991-94) and two-time NCAA All-American, returned to Ann Arbor after founding and running the Overtime School of Wrestling, a 12,000-square-foot freestyle gym in Naperville, Ill.
In Bormet's 11 years at the helm of Overtime, he worked with top athletes like three-time NCAA All-American Jimmy Kennedy (Illinois) and 2010 NCAA champion Andrew Howe (Wisconsin) since they were in junior high school. Former Michigan standout wrestlers Tyrel Todd and Josh Churella, as well as 2009 World silver medalist and two-time NCAA champion Jake Herbert (Northwestern), frequented Bormet's gym since college. When Bormet moved to Ann Arbor, his athletes moved with him, boosting the caliber of training at the Bahna Wrestling Center almost instantly.
Along with superior coaching and the quality of the new facility, the promise of a collaborative training program drew athletes like Herbert -- who will be representing the U.S. in the 84-kg freestyle competition on Aug. 11 in London -- to Ann Arbor. The freestyle wrestlers and collegiate wrestlers often practice at the same time, meaning it is common for athletes like Herbert to ask a Michigan collegiate athlete to be his training partner for a quick freestyle workout.
"The biggest thing about the facility is the people in it, and I was really blessed to have guys here pushing me," Herbert said. "It was great to have the college guys here. I might not be able to get on a world champion or something like that, but if you have a college kid wet behind the ears, it's good to have that whole range of partners."
Over the past year, that environment also forced all of the current Wolverines -- whether starters, developmental athletes or redshirts -- to live up to a higher level of competition every day in practice. Those increased expectations made recruits take notice. Massa was en route to completing a perfect four-year high school career (223-0) when he made his final college decision in October 2011.
Touring the Bahna Wrestling Center is a key part of recruiting visits. Bormet said the most common reaction from potential Wolverines when they see the facility for the first time is "disbelief." But even Bahna himself is quick to emphasize that "the facility can't win matches" -- to him, the mental attitude taught through solid coaching is the key to success in wrestling. Building the infrastructure to attract top coaches and athletes though was the first step in elevating a program that those recruits and coaches now mention in the same breath as traditional powerhouses like Penn State and Iowa.
"Compared to the top programs, our facility was behind, and with this new facility, it's one of the best in the country," Bormet said. "We also now have a top-notch staff for freestyle wrestling, a senior-level program and a tremendous training partner system. When you mix all those things together, it really is the best package a student-athlete could be looking for."