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Dinos wrestling team pins down a culture of excellence

By Emilie Medland-Marchen, October 11 2016 —

While most students are out celebrating the start of the weekend on a Friday evening, the University of Calgary’s wrestling team is hard at work in the basement of the Kinesiology building.

Their training centre is a large room padded from floor to ceiling. The space is dimly lit, with decades of sweat giving it a distinct smell. Strategically placed posters are plastered around the room, boasting slogans like “for the impossible” and “step out of your comfort zone.” It’s motivation for the grind these athletes put themselves through every day.

This is where Rio Summer Olympic Games gold-medallist Erica Wiebe trained for eight years. This past summer, she had her moment in the spotlight.

Wiebe’s story is just one of the dozens that make up a culture of excellence in the Dinos wrestling program. But for many of the athletes currently training on campus, their time to shine is years away.

“Being in this room, I have found it amazing,” first-year wrestler Amy Bellavia said. “There’s so many high-level athletes that it just makes you want to be better. It just has that effect. The whole reason I’m here is because I know the people who come out of here are great athletes.”

Bellavia came to Calgary from Ontario after high school to train with some of the best in Canada. After wrestling for three years, she was named to the Pan-American Championship team and claimed the title of Canadian Junior champion in the 55-kilogram division last year. 

For Bellavia, making the move to Calgary is the first step towards learning what it takes to compete with the best in world.

“I want to be a next level athlete in the program,” Bellavia said. “I want to win. Every tournament I want to win.”

Led by head coach Mitch Ostberg, Bellavia has a good shot of following in Wiebe’s footsteps. A quick glance at the average Dinos practice shows that Ostberg runs a tight ship. It’s all part of his philosophy — push his athletes hard and prepare them for the kind of professionalism expected from top wrestlers.

“There’s no secret move in amateur wrestling,” Ostberg said. “The secret is that you have to work hard every day to be the best. And that’s what I tell the athletes — that it’s their career and they have to come in motivated [for] every practice and try their best. I guide the technical plan, but it’s their hard work that’s going to pay dividends in matches.”

Along with the expectation that his athletes come to each practice prepared to train hard, Ostberg uses a hands-on approach to coaching. The team wrestles for 10–20 minutes before Ostberg calls a break, demonstrating a grappling technique on one of the athletes.

Ostberg’s success as one of the top coaches in Canada makes him a valuable asset. Besides coaching with the Dinos for over 20 years, Ostberg is also a level four certified Canada Coaches Association National Certification wrestling coach and has won the Wittenauer Coaching Award of Excellence three times. His commitment to excellence makes him internationally renowned, attracting athletes from all over world to train at the U of C.

“We’re very proud of people who have represented us at the Olympics,” Ostberg said. “We’ve had three Olympic medals come from our room — two of them were from Carol Winn and now Erica Wiebe most recently in Rio. It’s a very proud thing for our entire program. Every athlete in the room and every athlete that came during the time that those medals were won contributed in some way — they were a training partner, they were part of the spirit of the team. We’re very proud of everyone who’s been involved. I’ve had a part to play as a coach, but only part of a role.”

For Ostberg’s athletes, a typical day of training consists of a 6:30 a.m. weightlifting session followed by classes. The athletes are back on the mats again at 4:00 p.m., practising technical moves and scrimmaging one-on-one.

Fifth-year Kathryn Richey is a veteran this season. Her ability to balance student-athlete life, especially in an environment that is so demanding, puts her in a leadership role on the women’s team.

“The women’s team is always focused on winning Canada West and winning CIS this year,” she said. “Obviously it’s performance based, but to get there every point, every match matters.”

Wrestling for a varsity team like the U of C provides plenty of academic support. With staff dedicated to each individual team, athletes are set up with valuable physiotherapy, psychology and nutritional assistance. But wrestling is also an individual sport, which makes the team dynamic different from other Dinos teams.

“It’s a crazy-high level compared to other programs in the country,” Richey said. “But it does set amazing role models and really high standards. It’s really great for girls coming in. Obviously at tournaments you’re competing for yourself, but I would say the team is really together. We hang out outside, in the evenings or during the day. We’re like a big family and it’s great for kids who aren’t originally from Calgary.”

The expectation of excellence in the Dinos wrestling program means its athletes have some big shoes to fill. But at the end of the day, success is a team effort. In a sport that pits one person against another in a one-on-one fight for the gold, developing a team culture is difficult. Ostberg’s ability to do so may be one of the elements that sets the Dinos program apart from its rivals.

“Our focus is to be a championship team come championship time in February,” Ostberg said. “We’re a very competitive team. We’ve had great success having athletes develop. It’s our cooperative effort here and it’s the investment of all the coaches together — that pattern of hard work that has led to the athletes’ success.”

The Dinos will compete in their first home tournament of the season on Oct. 29 in the Red Gym before heading on to the Canada West championships in Saskatoon in February. Entry to the Dino Open in October is free for students.

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