From the ocean beaches, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to the snowy mountains, California is home to many unique sights. The 31st state is also home to four athletes who wear NMU’s green and gold.
West of Lake Tahoe is the small town of Brownsville, home to the only NCAA skier to stop University of Alaska-Fairbanks’ then-undefeated Marius Korthauer in 2008 – Phil Violett. Violett, a junior, has helped the ‘Cats claim four of the top 10 individual spots in the Central Collegiate Ski Association (CCSA).
The blonde-haired Californian, who would look more comfortable on a surfboard than two skinny nordic skis, talks the way you’d expect him to, with the gnarly accent of a California native.
Although he doesn’t appear to be the most traditional skier, Violett finished third in final CCSA points, behind NMU’s Martin Banerud and the top-ranked Korthauer.
Violett said growing up in Brownsville, a town near the mountains with a population of a little over 1,000, was perfect for his thrill-seeking mentality. He would ski or snowboard nearly every weekend. In the summer, his time was spent wakeboarding on Lake Tahoe.
He also enjoys surfing and rock climbing, but the snow has always been the setting for his passions.
Violett got started skiing with his brother, Zach, who raced for the University of Alaska-Anchorage from 2001-2004.
After racing throughout his prep career, Violett met with NMU head coach Sten Fjeldeim in 2004 at the NCAA Nationals in California during his senior year of high school.
“A lot of people you talk to don’t think of California as a skiing community, but it definitely is,” he said. “They think of the beaches – and it’s not like that where I am from. We get a lot more snow there than [Marquette].”
After the meeting, Fjeldheim turned to his assistant coach, Jenny Ryan, and said he really wanted Violett on his team.
Fjeldheim said he brought the most positive attitude of any athlete he has ever coached.
It was Fjeldheim who made Violett decide to come, but the atmosphere on the NMU ski team is what has made him stay.
“The chemistry is great and it’s just like one big family,” Violett said.
Now Violett has taken pride in being a Wildcat, as he and Fjeldheim, and the rest of the NMU ski team, are riding the wave into the CCSA national race in Bozeman, Mont. this coming week. But the blonde California boy with a big smile will always call the snowy mountains his home.
Just a few hours south of Brownsville, in the heart of wine country, is a small town called St. Helena. This town, with a population of more than 6,000 is home to USOEC Greco-Roman wrestler Nate Engel.
Engel’s father runs a life insurance firm for his day job and he recently started his own winery on the side. But, before the father-son duo were crushing grapes they were grappling on the mat. His father, still actively participates in wrestling competitions.
Engel’s dad got his son started at the age of four. Wrestling stayed with Engel, and it was his favorite sport in high school, later becoming a passion.
After graduating from high school, Engel went to wrestle at Missouri Valley College, but was unable to finish his senior year due to injury.
Once healed, Engel began wrestling again, and after being invited to the 2006 Sunkist International Tournament by USOEC wrestler Spenser Mango, Engel placed third and was introduced to USOEC wrestling coach Ivan Ivanov.
Ivanov told Engel he would put him on a conditional trial, to see if he could make the USOEC.
In January 2007, when the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American stepped off the plane, he had only seen snow once before. When he saw the snow on the ground at the airport, he knew this atmosphere would be different.
“There was so much snow and I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ and I wanted to turn the plane around and come back,” he said.
On Monday, Feb. 25, the wandering warrior, and the rest of the USOEC wrestling team traveled to Hungary to compete in the Hungary Grand Prix, on the hopeful road to the Olympics. For this grappling grape crusher, he hopes to wrestle in either the 2008 or 2012 Summer Olympics.
Another Olympic trainee who prides the bear flag and has traveled to the U.P. oasis of NMU, is weightlifter Collin Ito.
Ito is from Vista, a suburb of San Diego, and he started his sporting career in eighth grade. He said he played other sports, but didn’t feel they fit him. Then, his gym teacher, whose husband had been a power lifter, started him in the sport. From there on out, he has been lifting ever since.
When it came time for Ito to graduate high school, he felt his future was uncertain. He applied to the USOEC and said it was either that, or stay home and go to community college.
He decided to make NMU his home away from home.
“It’s nice here. I like all the nature and stuff and the cold doesn’t really bother me,” Ito said. “I love the cold. When I go home, I usually have my window open and the fan always on.”
Despite loving the weather, he said he will always call San Diego his home because of his family.
For now, Ito calls a dorm room on the third floor of Meyland home, and is training to make the Olympics in 2012. The next competition for the weightlifting team on their Olympic gold rush is in the National Championship, which is hosted by another Californian resident – the Govenator, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The final of the four Californian ‘Cats is the hockey team’s tallest defenseman, T.J. Miller.
Miller, one of the captains on the team, is originally from Placentia, in northern Orange county, within driving distance to Anaheim and Los Angeles.
The sophomore got his start playing roller hockey at age eight and moved to ice hockey when he was 11. He played all through high school, then went to play juniors in British Columbia, where he met Walt Kyle in 2005 and signed to play for Northern.
Ever since the L.A. Kings signed the great one, Wayne Gretzky, in 1988, hockey has been big in the Miller family.
Even with the Ducks bringing home lord Stanley this past season, Miller is still a diehard Kings fan, he said.
Miller added that some of his teammates joke about his blonde hair and surfer boy image, but he is not ashamed of his roots.
“A lot of guys on the team give me some crap about playing hockey and being from California, but I like it,” he said. “I’ve got a pretty laid back attitude and everybody kind of says it’s the surfer boy type of attitude.”
Staying true to his spirit, Miller has created his own surfing safari in his bedroom. He said when he was home, he and a friend went to a surfing competition and bought a lot of posters. Miller hung the posters on the walls of his apartment to remind him of home.
“It creates a different atmosphere so when I go back [to my apartment] I can just think about home,” Miller said.
Whether you live near a sandy beach or a snowy mountain, home is certainly wherever you decide to make it.
For these four athletes, it’s the Golden State and the green and gold University of NMU.