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USOEC women's freestyle program continues to grow and thrive

Craig Sesker USA Wrestling

Shannyn Gillespie's career was thriving. He was making good money and taking care of his young family.

But something was missing for the successful stockbroker from Chicago.

He missed wrestling.

So when women's freestyle wrestling was added to the United States Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan two years ago, Gillespie saw the potential involved with a program like this and he jumped at the opportunity to become the program's first head coach.

The 35-year-old Gillespie's passion, drive and commitment have been evident right away as the USOEC program for women's freestyle wrestling is excelling under Gillespie's direction.

Five members of the 2006 U.S. Women's National Team are current or former USOEC resident-athletes. One of the five, Mary Kelly, still has a chance to make the 2006 U.S. World Team.

"We're very excited about what we've been able to accomplish at the USOEC," said Gillespie, who placed third in the NCAA Tournament while competing for Lock Haven in 1993. "Sticking to the basics is what's made this program a success. Once you master the basics and fundamentals, and do them in a second-nature fashion, you can put yourself up there against anybody in the country and anybody in the World."

Kelly won the U.S. World Team Trials at 48 kg/105.5 lbs. and is expected to face U.S. Nationals champion Clarissa Chun in a special wrestle-off next month. The winner qualifies for September's World Championships in Guangzhou, China.

Chun, who is coming back from an injury, was allowed to wrestle-off at a later date by virtue of being the U.S. Nationals champion.

The four other wrestlers with USOEC ties who made the U.S. National Team this year include Sharon Jacobson, Amy Borgnini, Stefenie Shaw and Randi Miller. Jacobson placed second at the U.S. World Team Trials at 55 kg/121 lbs. and Borgnini was third in the same weight class. Shaw and Miller placed 2-3 at 67 kg/147.5 lbs. at the World Team Trials.

"I really enjoy being in this program," said Borgnini, who has been with the Northern Michigan women's program since it started. "It's the first program I've been in where you have a set schedule with two practices a day. I like the atmosphere and I really like the fact we are going to college and we are still on a college campus.

"I have a lot of good training partners. All the weight classes are deep and you have a variety of people to work out with and everybody is a good wrestler. All the girls work so hard and we constantly push each other. The intensity is pretty high and we all support each other. It's a real close-knit team. We have real good camaraderie."

The USOEC women have made an impact in numerous events. Liz Short won a bronze medal at the World University Championships at 48 kg/105.5 lbs. Jacobson won the U.S. Nationals and was named Outstanding Wrestler. She also was named OW at University Nationals. Dany Hedin was named OW at FILA Junior Nationals after winning the title at 55 kg/121 lbs.

Jacobson lost a tough, physical battle against two-time World silver medalist Tina George in the finals of the 2006 World Team Trials, but it still has been a breakthrough season for the 22-year-old Jacobson.

"Sharon has taken her wrestling up a level from last year," Gillespie said. "It was a bittersweet end of the season for her, but she really did have a sweet season. Sharon is very determined and she's making the right steps toward peaking in the Olympic year."

Kelly cleared a major obstacle when she defeated past World silver medalist Stephanie Murata in the finals of the World Team Trials.

"That was a very good accomplishment for Mary because she had never beaten Murata before," Gillespie said. "That was big for her confidence to get over that hurdle. She's really developed a strong work ethic."

Jacobson, Kelly and Miller recently moved from the USOEC program and become resident-athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

"They've developed and they've proven they are ready to move on to that next level," Gillespie said. "This developmental program is helping us create a stronger National Team."

Gillespie said he had 16 girls on the USOEC team this past season and hopes to fill 24 spots for the 2006-07 school year.

The success of the USOEC women's freestyle program has coincided with the success the USOEC Greco-Roman program. The Greco-Roman program at Northern Michigan has seen Harry Lester make the last two Senior-level World Teams and Spenser Mango win a World University Games championship this year.

"The men's and women's teams support each other and pull for each other," Gillespie said. "They get along real well and stick together. They live in the same dorms and spend a lot of time around each other. We appreciate having their support."

The Northern Michigan campus is located in Marquette, Mich., a city of 22,000 people located in the Upper Peninsula. It is an eight-hour drive from Chicago and is located 3 hours north of Green Bay.

Gillespie and his assistant coach, Tony DeAnda, are busy putting together the recruiting class for Year 3 of the program.

"We've recruited two very good 17-year-olds, Nikki Darrow and Melissa Simmons, and we're looking for them to do big things," he said. "We will bring in some other recruits and see how they develop. Once they get to a certain competence level they can move on to Colorado Springs. A lot of the kids we recruit are ones we see coming up through the ranks at USA Wrestling national events and camps. Those are kids we recruit."

Borgnini said she is in an ideal environment for trying to improve and progress.

"I really like the coaches - they've done a great job," Borgnini said. "They really push us and they've taught us so much. Shannyn and Tony complement each other pretty well."

Gillespie said the support system for the student-athletes at Northern Michigan is strong.

"The girls have everything a student-athlete needs," Gillespie said. "They have academic counselors and psychologists. It's a great place to train and go to school."

With women's wrestling becoming an Olympic sport in 2004, Gillespie said that adds to the appeal of joining his program.

"People recognize that women's wrestling is a more viable sport now that it is in the Olympics," Gillespie said. "Women's wrestling is on the rise. The women have never had a dedicated program like this designed to take them to the next level. It will also allow them to get college scholarships, college credit and college degrees. This is a program that will allow our athletes to shine.

"I'm happy it is an Olympic sport, but I would like to see the U.S. include wrestling as a high school and collegiate sport and give more females an opportunity to pursue their Olympic dream," he said.

Gillespie said girls and women's wrestling needs to grow more at the high school and college level. Hawaii and Texas have the only sanctioned state high school tournaments for girls. There are a handful of college programs for women to compete in.

"Women's wrestling is a great sport and it can help you in a lot of ways," Gillespie said. "It helps you build discipline and self-respect. If more states take hold of that notion, we can get more girls at the high-school level and that will increase our numbers at the Olympic training centers."

Gillespie, an Evanston, Ill., native who won an Illinois state high school title, said he's enjoyed running the USOEC women's freestyle program.

"To see athletes grow in wrestling and in all aspects of life is very gratifying," he said. "I really enjoy what I'm doing and seeing these young people excel. This is what I love to do. I love to teach and coach. It's working out well."
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