Former Olympic wrestler leads camp at SOU

Ken Chertow is yelling. Well, he's not really yelling, he's raising his voice. Well, that's not completely accurate either, because in order for a voice to raise, technically, it has to start at a lower decibel level then steadily increase. Chertow, in contrast, starts each sentence WAY UP HERE, and ends there too, often after somersaulting out of a wrestling move.

"Who knows how to do a no-hand cartwheel?" he shouts while speed-walking between wrestlers in a packed Bob Riehm Arena. A brave boy, no older than 7, raises his hand, then promptly demonstrates the maneuver. Chertow approves. "Sweet," he says. "Try some."

Some 70 wrestlers from ages 6 to late teens then do as they're told as Chertow, a former three-time All-American at Penn State and a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, weaves his way through the maze, shouting encouragement.

Chertow is heading up his Gold Medal Training Camp, which is being held at Southern Oregon University for the second year in a row. Previously, Chertow's camp was held at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, but Chertow decided Ashland was a better location and called SOU head coach Mike Ritchey. Confirming Chertow's hunch, the camp — which has stops across the country — saw its attendance roughly double in its second year in Ashland.

"I'm pleased with the commitment of the Oregon wrestlers and it's a good group of kids," said Chertow, lathered in sweat an hour into Thursday's session. "There's a good, high level of skill, too."

"I think as the word gets out it'll continue to grown," Ritchey said. "People know who he is. He's one of those people that gets people into his camp system and kids just keep coming back because he's so much fun to be around."

Wrestlers flocked to SOU from across the Rogue Valley for the four-day camp, which wraps up Sunday. Wrestling mats cover most of the gym floor and the campers on Thursday wasted no time putting them to good use. Only 30 minutes into the opening day's workout most of the young grapplers are already sweating through their shirts in an attempt to keep up with Chertow, which isn't easy. He may have hung up his headgear a long time ago, but the 47-year-old West Virginia native seems to be in constant motion, firing off questions, dropping to the mat for solo demonstrations and grabbing unsuspecting wrestlers mid-sentence for a little one-on-one instruction.

And constant encouragement.

"Man, you guys are like in slow motion," he moans.

The pace picks back up. Later, after one of the older campers, a teen with bulging biceps, executes a perfect hip toss Chertow belts out a "Yeeeeah," and the whole place erupts in applause.

"I'm in good shape, I take care of myself and this is what I've done year round since I was 12," says Chertow, when asked where his energy comes from. "And, I like helping kids. I took what I'm good at and became a teacher of it. I've worked hard to be an educational coach and an entertaining coach and I try to combine the two things."

Ritchey says Chertow does that well.

"And it's great for kids to be around an Olympian," Ritchey said. "That's the ultimate in the sport. So for our guys who are here to be around him and see how he coaches, I think that's going to be a great learning experience for them. That was the other reason I wanted to bring (Chertow) on campus, just so they could see a different teaching style."

Five SOU grapplers are volunteering their time as instructors at the camp, helping to teach while also learning themselves.

While Chertow has spent countless hours passing on the fundamentals to the next generation of wrestlers, he's also contributed to the sport in another way. In February, Chertow was leading a clinic at North Medford High School when news broke that wrestling could be dropped from the Olympics starting in 2020. It was a body blow to the sport's fans and competitors, who consider the Olympics to be the ultimate goal.

When Chertow heard the news, he got in touch with USA Wrestling and asked what he could do to help. The answer was simple: educate the masses. Chertow has since used his status to "get the word out to the public — let the public know what's going on so we can let the people know that wrestling's a very popular sport in America."

To Chertow, it's an easy sell — at least in the U.S. But Chertow says politics have come into play.

"It's very popular across America and in most Eastern European and Asian countries," he said. "It's just in western Europe, where the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has a lot of power. They'd rather play squash."

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