When the fall arrives, it will be two full years since Alston Nutter (63 kg) left Wisconsin to attend Northern Michigan University. For “Mr. Fantastic” Benji Peak (60 kg), the summer will represent one flip of the calendar removed from his decision to do the same. What makes all of this is noteworthy is that up to this point, both Greco-Roman athletes have been living and training in Marquette while technically still in high school.
On Saturday at the Combat Wrestling Club in Blue River, Wisconsin, Nutter and Peak officially signed on to enter Northern Michigan University this coming fall as bonafide collegians. In essence, the whole thing was a formality. There was never a question as to where they would wind up once their high school coursework is completed. Northern Michigan’s Olympic Training Site is home to the nation’s premier collegiate Greco-Roman program, which is why both wrestlers left high school early to get a head start in Marquette originally.
Nutter, who began his time in the Upper Peninsula at the dawn of the current quadrennial, has established himself as one of America’s best-known young commodities with numerous international placings that are the result of his disciplined yet explosive approach to the classical style. Peak has experienced similar rapid-fire success and made his presence known right out of the gate with three consecutive overseas medals, including a gold at November’s Malar Cupen in Sweden. Both wrestlers also medaled in their respective weight classes at the highly-competitive Austrian Open just a few weeks ago.
Although their plans for college were never a secret, a certain significance surrounded the signing ceremony. US National Team head coach Matt Lindland and NMU assistant coach Andy Bisek were in Wisconsin for a weekend training camp hosted by Combat’s Lucas Steldt. Since both coaches were already going to be in the area, and with Nutter and Peak available, the goal was to provide the same kind of setting for a “signing day” that higher-profile sports typically enjoy. Think football players donning the caps of their schools on ESPN to a chorus of cheers — or folkstyle stars declaring their impending allegiances to places like Penn State or Iowa — and you get the idea.
“It is a big deal,” Nutter said of the hoopla. “We have our Greco family and any time we bring a new person in there should be a ceremony like that. Any time another person commits their life to the sport of Greco-Roman it should be acknowledged this way. Whether they are going to NMU or somewhere else, it should be like this.”
Unsurprisingly, Peak sees things the same way.
“We needed this,” asserted Peak. “We needed the publicity, we needed people to see what we’re doing so more athletes will join the Greco path and stop doing folkstyle, stop doing what everyone else is doing. No one really acknowledges Greco as a style almost. Freestyle and folkstyle have kind of taken over, but if you look at what Greco is doing, we’re on the rise right now. And the only way to stay on the rise is to keep getting new faces and more people in the program. This was an example of Greco trying to further that cause.”
Given the fact that Nutter and Peak have already been living in Marquette and were always supposed to streamline into the actual University at Northern Michigan eventually, one might not entertain the thought that the pair have a lot of adjustments to make. For the most part, that’s true. Living conditions will not deviate too much, practices will still be the nonstop challenge that head coach Rob Hermann demands, and the coursework will have its rightful place in their lives just like it does for every other college athlete in the country. But there is something to be said for knowing that this is it, that there are no more choices to make and the journey to Greco greatness is one step closer than it was before. Nutter, who excels in the classroom and plans to pursue a degree in biology (with a concentration in physiology) at NMU, felt an instant shift in his perspective as soon as he put pen to paper in front of family and friends.
“This is my future and what I’m working for in the end, so it is actually a lot different,” Nutter offered. “I feel more like an adult, as if I’m really working towards something now. This is a great opportunity. At Northern, you can get your degree and go full-time Greco. We have great mentors up there and everything else you need. If someone says, Oh, I want to do Greco, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t come here. It’s just a terrific program.”
They’re practically inseparable, the two Wisconsin boys. It’s a friendship forged through wrestling and the understanding that what they both dream about requires a willingness to not only see the big picture, but to depart from convention, as well. The United States is crammed with plenty of superbly-talented high school wrestlers capable of achieving success at the highest reaches of international competition. Few even attempt to, and even fewer choose Greco to do it. Fortunately, it’s a trend that is gradually starting to change. More and more athletes are crossing over and participation keeps increasing throughout the year. The two age-group World Champions (Kamal Bey and Cohlton Schultz) and high number of Senior medals overseas in 2017 don’t hurt perception, either.
Peak sees all of this and he wants it for himself. He wants it for Nutter, too. If anything, Peak is passionate enough to the point where he wants it for just about every other American wrestler who possesses the same fearlessness he and his counterpart demonstrated when they waved goodbye to high school in favor of a goal bigger than them. After all, that’s what led the duo to Marquette in the first place. But at the same time, he also believes it’s a path defined by sacrifices not many in his age bracket are willing to make.
“Obviously, there are a bunch of high schoolers who are dedicated to folkstyle,” observed Peak. “They love folkstyle, but they like Greco, too. That’s good for them if they want to try and do both. In my family, you have to dedicate yourself to something at some point and this past year was like that for me. I think that is just such a huge change for me from last year to now, knowing I’m doing everything I can to be the best and it’s a little bit different than how most 18-year-olds think. They want to go to parties and hang out with their friends. I gave all of that up for one goal, and that is to get medals. Alston and I approach all of this a little differently than everyone else. High school was a different lifestyle and at some point you have to grow up and make a change, and that’s one of the big things we have done.”