Anyone who wants to know how dedicated Pete Dickinson is to wrestling needs only drive into Soldotna from Kenai on the Kenai Spur Highway.
There, just outside the city limits, sits the All American Training Center, a 15,000-foot facility that has been open since early April.
The training center has space for the Soldotna Whalers Wrestling Club, a gym and the new office of Alaska Aquatic Therapy.
Dickinson, a co-head coach for the Whalers along with Kurt Strausbaugh, said the training center is a result of the dedication he and his wife, Tanya, have to wrestling.
“We decided to create a facility for the Soldotna Whalers Wrestling Club,” Dickinson said. “We always had a hard time finding space for practice and tournaments.
“My wife and I decided to build a gym for the community and a place for wrestlers to train.”
Two profit centers and a nonprofit
The facility, which already has five employees, has room for three collegiate wrestling mats, which are slightly bigger than high school mats. That amounts to 7,000 square feet. The mats can also be stored, making the facility available to rent out for events like weddings and banquets.
Throw in the lobby, offices for the coaches, restrooms and locker rooms complete with infrared saunas and the space devoted to the Whalers grows to 10,000 square feet.
The community gym, which Whalers wrestlers also can use, is 3,500 square feet and includes weights and cardio equipment, plus an exercise room. In the exercise room, clients have access to any of the virtual FitnessOnDemand classes on an 85-inch television screen.
Dickinson said any member of the community can get a membership and gain 24/7 access. He said there are already 45 members just through word of mouth. There has been no official opening and there may not be one.
“Members understand there may be kids there, and they love it,” Dickinson said of the weight and cardio area.
The final 1,500 square feet is for the new office of Alaska Aquatic Therapy, co-owned by Brittany Gardner and her mother, Kathy Gardner.
Brittany said Alaska Aquatic Therapy’s current office is a place for phone, fax and storage, but all patient treatment happens at the Nikiski Pool or, when it’s not closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Skyview Middle School pool.
Kathy, an occupational therapist, and Brittany, an occupational and physical therapist, will be able to treat patients at their new office in the All American Training Center starting in early July. Brittany said this has long been a dream of hers. She also would like to expand her work at the facility to include nutrition, wellness and injury prevention.
“Pete approached me and said the All American Training Center would have tenant space and it worked out,” Brittany said. “It’s the perfect location.”
Brittany is the daughter, and Kathy is the wife, of longtime area wrestling coach Neldon Gardner, currently the head coach at Soldotna High School.
Which makes sense, because most things in Dickinson’s life tie back to wrestling.
‘Everything I own’
Dickinson was born and raised in Anchorage. He went to Minnesota State University Moorhead and became Alaska’s first NCAA two-time All-American, notching that feat at the Division II level.
“I want to give back to the sport that gave me everything I own — my college education, dedication, desire and drive,” Dickinson said. “It’s the best sport in the world.”
Dickinson, who moved to the central peninsula in 2006 and has been a part of the Whalers for seven years, said a sport where two kids enter and one leaves with his or her hand raised has taught him a lot about himself.
Tanya and Pete built All American Oilfield, an oil field services company, and eventually sold it to Chugach Alaska Corporation.
Pete wouldn’t say how much the All American Training Center cost.
“The kids deserve it,” Dickinson said of the Whalers, which at 150 members is the largest club in the state and has been one of the 50 largest in USA Wrestling for the past two years. “They’ve been having a hard time finding the space.
“My wife and I decided to build something that’s nice and big enough to accommodate all of them.”
Dickinson said the goal of having the physical therapy center and gym in the facility is to keep the lights and heat on for the Whalers. The Whalers are nonprofit, but the training center is for profit, Dickinson said.
He said the community has been supportive of the training center and local businesses cut some breaks during construction. Those businesses will be recognized in the mat room with banners.
“We’ll make it work,” Dickinson said. “That’s what wrestlers do.”
First big event
The first big event at the training center is the Future of Champions camp, which started Monday and will run through June 18. There will then be a tournament June 19 and 20 at the training center.
Ray Moliter, a Whalers assistant, said the camp has 170 wrestlers from across the state. Moliter said he’s happy 50 are girls. The Whalers girls are the two-time defending state champs.
The camp is for Team Alaska, which is normally a squad that travels to national tournaments in the summer. None of that is happening this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dickinson said the Team Alaska camp would not have happened if not for the training center, because public facilities are shut down and no other private mat rooms are big enough.
“We’re doing cleaning, screening and taking tons of precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID,” Dickinson said.
Wearing a cloth face mask and social distancing is not possible when wrestling, but Dickinson listed off all the other precautions taken.
Those entering the facility get a temperature check. They also fill out a questionnaire and waiver. If somebody has experienced COVID-19 symptoms in the last 14 days, has traveled or been in contact with anyone who has traveled outside of Alaska in the last 14 days, or has been in close contact with someone sick or suspected sick of COVID-19, that person can’t enter the facility.
Between sessions, all wrestlers shower and mats, locker rooms and showers are being sanitized. This means wrestlers are showering and sanitation is being done two to three times a day.
The names, emails and phone numbers of everyone entering the facility are being collected for contact tracing in the event that anyone gets COVID-19.
Dickinson said there is one person at the facility from the Lower 48 interviewing as a facility manager and coach for the training center, and that person got a negative COVID-19 test in the 72 hours before he came to Alaska.
Facility draws raves
The state of Alaska wrestling community is getting a chance to check out the new facility at the Future of Champions camp and is impressed.
Nathan Hoffer is a coach with the Anchorage Youth Wrestling Academy and an assistant coach at East High School in Anchorage.
At Anchorage Youth Wrestling Academy, Hoffer also said there is a facility that gives wrestlers access to mats year-round. He then casts a glance and smiles at Dickinson and Moliter before saying, “But it’s not as big.”
Hoffer wrestled at Arizona State University, graduating in 2014, so his impression of the All American Training Center is noteworthy.
“I thought it was nicer than my college facility,” he said.
Hoffer said his college facility had three mats and locker rooms, but weight training had to be done elsewhere.
The coach said the Soldotna facility is exciting because it will encourage kids in this area to wrestle year-round.
“If one program is getting better, it only makes the rest of the state better,” Hoffer said. “Most kids in Alaska wrestle the same kids from Alaska multiple times each year.”
Trinity Donovan will be a sophomore at SoHi and has been with the Whalers since eighth grade. She won the 145-pound girls state title as a freshman for the Stars.
She said the facility is a big improvement over previous practices at Soldotna Prep.
“I was so excited,” Donovan said. “I was ready to get out of the prep school. It was so hot in there.”
The All American Training Center has a garage door that can open when it gets too hot.
Dickinson said the Whalers have 150 kids but the facility could support a program with 400. Donovan said growth is possible. She said more mat time will help her pursue her goal of a college scholarship.
“People are talking about this all over, on Facebook and everything,” Donovan said.
Sean Babitt will be a senior at SoHi. He lost the 171-pound state final at state last year for the Stars. He also won gold at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation World Championships in June 2019. Babitt is in his third season with the Whalers.
“When I walked in, I was pretty shocked,” said Babitt, also pursuing a college scholarship in wrestling. “It felt like the Lower 48.”
Promoting year-round wrestling
Dickinson said Whalers membership will get wrestlers access to the facility during the season, which is from mid-January to the first week of May. After that, wrestlers can buy memberships and use the facility to get ready for any wrestling they want, whether it be tournaments in the Lower 48 or the middle and high school seasons.
Day or week passes also are available for wrestlers. Dickinson said wrestlers from across the peninsula have already taken advantage of that to train.
Nobody will be turned away due to money.
“If a kid is having a hard time finding funding, he’ll still be able to train,” Dickinson said.
Both Tanya and Pete said more and more wrestlers from in and out of state are wrestling year-round. Now area wrestlers can do the same.
“When kids want to do things in the offseason, we’re open and the kids know we’ll be open,” Tanya said. “This is all about supporting kids and giving them a place to wrestle.”