By Brian Jerzak
Former Augsburg wrestler and Auggies’ assistant coach Donny Wichmann touched countless lives – in and out of the sport of wrestling. Legacy Training Center founder Nick Slack is one of those he profoundly influenced, first as a coach and then as a co-worker. When Wichmann passed away in 2019 after a long battle with cancer, Slack wanted to do something to keep his friend’s legacy alive. Slack’s vision is becoming a reality. He is honoring the legacy of Wichmann by helping kids write their own legacy.
Wichmann’s wrestling career would end with him winning three conference titles and becoming a Division III All-American for Augsburg. Shortly after his competitive wrestling career ended, he joined Augsburg head coach Jeff Swenson’s staff and was an assistant coach for 19 years. One of the wrestlers he would coach and then coach with – was Slack.
“Donny was a sporting goods sales guy,” Slack said. “He would go to a town a night, do an open house and bring all his shoes. When he came down to Belle Plaine in 1995, I bought my first pair of wrestling shoes from Donny. That was the first time I met him. He had a glowing personality, a big smile, and was super nice. He was the guy I would buy my shoes from every year. He would be at some tournaments, so I would see him two or three times a year.”
Slack and Wichmann’s relationship would grow along with Slack’s wrestling career.
“I had some success at the youth level. I won some youth state championships. I got involved in freestyle and Greco programs in Belle Plaine and Jordan. I won four or five freestyle youth championships and two Greco championships. I started wrestling on varsity as an 8th grader, and freshman year, I made it to the state tournament. I was a round away from placing. As a sophomore, I won a state title. I took second my junior year and was state champion as a senior.”
“When he next came to sell shoes,” Slack continued. “Donny knew I had just won a state title, and we started building a relationship. In 1998, they only had one high school national tournament (in Pittsburg). Donny flew out to Pittsburg because Augsburg was recruiting Darin Bertram – who also won a national championship – and me. I ended up taking 3rd at that tournament, and Minnesota won the tournament.”
Slack was drawn to the dynamic assistant coach.
“He was so laid back that I just wanted to keep talking to the guy. He was chiseled. He would wear these shirts where you could see his muscles popping out of his shirt. I remember he looked like a Greek god. I didn’t know much about him, but I figured he was a good wrestler. I knew Donny about four years before I met Coach Swenson. During that time, Augsburg was winning national titles about every other year. I remember going to an Augsburg meet, and it was sold out. I got on campus, and that was it. I was going to be an Auggie.”
Wichmann’s trip to Pennsylvania paid off for Slack and the Auggies. Slack’s recruiting class would put together possibly the best four-year run in program history. They won three straight national championships, and the one year they didn’t win, they took second place. Slack was a major contributor in all four national tournaments.
“I was aggressive. I had good mat awareness – that was something my dad stressed – I was a good top wrestler,” Slack – whose father wrestled for Mankato State and then was an assistant coach in Belle Plaine where Nick grew up – said. “I was a round away from placing at the national tournament as a freshman, and I went undefeated and won the national championship as a sophomore. As a junior and senior, I took second both years.”
Wichmann was one of Slack’s primary coaches at Augsburg.
“Donny was the lead technique guy,” Slack recalled. “All the coaches showed technique, but Donny was the main technique guy. That is when personal coaches started being a thing. I ended up being one of Donny’s guys. We were around the same weight back then.”
Weight wasn’t the only thing the two future friends had in common on the mat – they both loved to wrestle on the mat.
“Donny was meticulous with technique and was flawless with technique,” Slack said. “We wouldn’t work on a ton of techniques, but we would drill those techniques over and over. He liked to ride – he was more of a leg rider – but the pressures he showed on top worked well with the cradles and bars that I did. One of his biggest strengths was watching and breaking down film. You didn’t want to let him down; you wanted to run through the wall for the guy.”
Wichmann’s personality inspired that type of dedication from his wrestlers.
“He was always around the weight room – especially in the offseason,” Slack told The Guillotine. “The guys just wanted to be around him – that chiseled guy. We would meet in the weight room after work. He would push you and have this way of keeping things loose but intense at the same time. You were in there to work, but life was always bigger than wrestling to Donny. He motivated by his actions – always working out, and when you have a coach that is working out that hard, it is hard to make excuses.”
One of Wichmann’s strengths was connecting with the young men he coached.
“He made every kid feel special,” Slack said. “He knew the studs were going to do good – everyone likes to coach those guys, but Donny loved to take a guy who never even made the state finals and turn him into a national finalist. These kinds of guys were drawn to Donny and wanted to be around him and soak everything up.”
Slack wrestled at Augsburg from 1998 to 2002 and then joined Wichmann on the staff.
“Donny was in my corner when I won a national title. Our relationship took off when I was coaching with him at Augsburg.”
The coach-wrestler dynamic became a coach-coach dynamic became a friends-off-the-mat dynamic.
“Over MEA break, every year we (Donny, Nick, and other former Auggie wrestlers) would go to Las Vegas together,” Slack said. “It was right before the wrestling season, so it was our last let it loose kind of thing. We knew the next three or four months we were going to be bleeding Augsburg maroon.”
Wichmann and Slack’s relationship was growing on a personal level and a professional level.
“I got into sporting goods sales in 2002. We shared contacts, and I would work tables selling for Donny at different events. We just spent a lot of time together. I loved hanging around with him.”
The two Augsburg alumni’s friendship grew, and then Slack got a phone call that would change his life.
“I got a call from Jeff Swenson,” Slack said. “I could tell something wasn’t right. He let me know that Donny had cancer. I said, ‘what do you mean?’ He is the most in-shape guy; what do you mean he’s got cancer?”
While doing something he loved – working out – the first signs of Wichmann’s health issues showed up. In true Wichmann style, he pushed through it.
“Donny was on a bike ride, and the whole left side of his body went limp,” Slack explained. “He couldn’t balance himself, so he tipped over. He blacked out but ended up getting back on his bike and biked another ten miles to get home. He was telling his wife about it, and she told him they had better get it checked out. The doctors started doing tests and said Donny had a lump on the side of his head that was cancerous. Typical Donny, he asked if we could deal with this next week? The doctors said, ‘you aren’t going anywhere.'”
Wichmann was diagnosed with glioblastoma – a type of brain cancer. Patients with it usually survive for 18 months. Wichmann lived for four years.
“I always felt he was going to beat it,” Slack said. “He had gone through rounds of chemo. Donny never felt sorry for himself. He was always so positive and was still trying to sell at tournaments.”
Wichmann’s health seemed to be improving, but the cancer would not go away.
“Two years down the road, the cancer started to come back again,” Slack continued. “Then I knew – even with as tough as he was – he wasn’t going to beat it. When it came back in June of 2019, I remember talking to his wife, and the doctor said he had six weeks to live. That is when it really hit. At that point, he knew he was going to die.”
Even getting the worst news he could, Wichmann was not going to feel sorry for himself.
“He kept living life,” Slack said. “During that year – in June – we went to the Augsburg wrestling camp, and we were out every night to all hours with the coaches. For the first four weeks since June 1st, he kind of had his goodbye tour.”
Two weeks before he passed, he was still living life to the fullest. With the inevitable coming, the former All-American would continue to live life on his terms. That is when Slack stepped in to help his friend in his greatest time of need.
“He knew he was going to die, but he didn’t want to go into the hospital,” Slack said. “He wanted to be at home. His wife Mindy couldn’t care for him alone at that point. I moved in. I made my schedule work and lived there for about three weeks – the last three weeks of his life. It is hard to talk about, but it was kind of a magical time. All we talked about were the good old days. All the old teammates stopped by the house. He ate like a king. It was fun to re-live the glory days.”
Slack used his connections in the wrestling world to give his friend one last wrestling memory.
“I found out Donny’s favorite wrestler of all time was Dan Gable. I got ahold of Dan Gable through my connections and told him what was happening. He knew who Donny was through coaching, and I asked if he would call and talk to him. Gable ended up calling and leaving a message. Donny must have replayed that thing a hundred times. He called him back, and they talked for about thirty minutes. It was a special moment.”
Slack was with his friend on July 16, 2019, when he took his last breath. Wichmann was 53 years old. Soon after Wichmann’s death, Slack figured out a way to honor his friend.
“Donny and I talked about doing something like (a wrestling training center), but the timing was never right. It was in the back of my head. Donny talked about how places focus on the feet, and he wanted to focus on top wrestling. He loved turning people and beating the crap out of people on top. I still preach that when I teach today. Bigger than that, we talked about doing it for all wrestlers – not just the elite wrestlers.”
Just like Donny when he was coaching.
“I had run camps at Scott West for about twenty years,” Slack said about getting his project off the ground, “so I had experience there. I changed the Scott West Wrestling Camp name to the Donny Wichmann Wrestling Camp. Right after Donny died, we did a fundraiser camp and raised money for (his wife) Mindy. Then COVID-19 hit, so we didn’t do the camp, but that is when I started thinking about finding a facility. I go to Donny’s grave about once every three weeks. I do a lot of praying and soul searching. I wanted to do something the way Donny would want it and coach kids the way Donny would want.”
The facility would soon fall into place.
“I share the space with a woman that does cheerleading training. We split the space. It started coming together in the summer of 2020, but because of COVID, my first practice was on January 9th. We had the Augsburg coaches come down, and we did a free clinic. We had about fifty kids show up.”
The final touch was finding a permanent name.
“I ended up naming it Legacy Training Center. It is the legacy of Donny Wichmann, but we want every kid the comes through there to create their own legacy.”
The center quickly established itself in the area.
“We had a core group of twenty kids that would come weekly,” Slack said. “The biggest success story – thinking like Donny would think – we would have what we would call Match Night. We would have kids come in, and I would pair them up by weight and skill level, and each kid would get three to six matches. We had over 750 matches wrestled in our facility. We wouldn’t even keep score. We wouldn’t raise hands. It was all about getting matches in. We ran a couple of team tournaments as well.”
On a typical day, Slack – who still sells athletic gear and recently got certified as a wrestling referee – and his coaches don’t focus on the same areas as many organizations like his.
“You will learn a lot of mat wrestling,” Slack explained. “A lot of other places will show a lot of stuff on the feet – we are not going to show as much stuff on the feet. We also want you to take away some life lessons that you will carry with you.”
Legacy Training Center’s regular staff includes Ryan Epps, a two-time Division III national champion, Tony Valek and Jim Moulsoff, the co-head coaches at Augsburg, and Jared Evans, who was a three-time All-American for Augsburg. Still, they also bring in a lot of guest clinicians. They have brought in everyone from Gable Steveson to newly crowned state champions.
“The day after the state tournament,” Slack said, “we had four state champions come in and be clinicians. (State champions) Koy Buesgens, Nick Novak and his brother Joey (who took third) from New Prague, Drayden Morton and Derek Steele from Sibley East.”
The plan is to have clinics and practices year-round, but that is not the goal.
“My main goal is to get a kid to love the sport. I know most of the kids are not going to wrestle in college, but maybe they will pick up a whistle someday and become a coach or a referee and give back to wrestling and the world.”
Get the kids to love the sport and love coming to practice.
“We are going to work hard on the mat, but I could care less if they go jump on the tumble track that the cheerleaders use for ten minutes before or ten minutes after practice.”
With five full-size mats opposite the tumble track, Slack has added a K-12 girls wrestling program in which Augsburg women wrestlers do much of the coaching and is looking to add jujitsu classes. Regardless of how many skills are learned in wrestling or jujitsu, the main lessons learned will always be rooted in Slack’s lessons from Wichmann.
“Wrestling is part of your life, but there is so much more than wrestling,” Slack concluded. “Wrestling gives you the tools in the toolbox to be successful in life. Life is how you respond. Things aren’t always going to go right, but it is how you respond. There is so much pressure on kids to win tournaments and go Division I; we should try to make each kid feel special. I understand as a coach that every kid is not going to be a state champ. I wouldn’t be honest with myself if I thought I could turn every kid into a state champ. But, I think I can motivate the kids, and I think they see a smile on my face like they would have seen on Donny’s face.”
He is passing on his passion for wrestling – possibly the best way for Slack to honor Donny’s legacy.
Find out more about The Legacy Training Center at thelegacytrainingcenter.com.