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From Escanaba to Beijing, via RF

You could say Alaina Berube is a citizen of the world, but she's based in River Falls. Berube, a 23-year-old from Escanaba, Mich., is one of the top female wrestlers in the world. She has competed all over Europe, South America, Russia and the United States and recently won a gold medal competing in Minsk, Belarus, March 9.

So what is she doing serving coffee at the South Fork Café in River Falls?

"I was getting ready for the world team trials and needed a place to work out," she explained. "Kevin (Black) invited me here. I liked the place and I liked Kevin's coaching style and I moved here in July."

Berube met Black when he was coaching the U.S. women at the Pan American Championships in El Salvador last May. Black, a four-time state champion at River Falls High School from 1995-98 and All-American at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, owns and operates Victory School of Wrestling on Main Street in River Falls. He is also the women's director for the Wisconsin Wrestling Federation.

Black was coaching the U.S. University women's team in El Salvador when Berube, who was preparing to graduate from the University of Cumberland in Williamsburg, Ky., caught his attention.

"She was struggling to find a place to train so I extended the invitation," he said.

So Berube moved to River Falls, found a job at the South Fork Café and an apartment, and joined the staff at the Victory School. Since then she's also become involved with The River Church and the Wildcat wrestling program.

"I really like the community," she said. "Being from a small town, I like the small town atmosphere."

Berube has also enjoyed success on the mat. Since working with Black, she has won a gold medal at the Dave Schultz Memorial International Tournament at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., in February and gold at an international tournament in Minsk, Belarus, last month.

She competes for the New York Athletic Club, which Black also coaches, at 63 kg./138 pounds. The pair are currently preparing for the U.S. Nationals April 22-24 in Las Vegas and the Olympic Team Trials June 14-15, also in Las Vegas. She will also wrestle at the University National Championships in Chicago this month for a berth on the U.S. World Team that will compete in Greece later this summer.

She said traveling the globe has been just one of the spillover benefits of wrestling.

"It's been a pretty neat experience," she said. "I've gotten to go to a lot of countries through wrestling. I grew up in a small town and had never been out of the United States. It's been an adventure."

Berube has been wrestling since the fourth grade.

"My dad was a wrestler and my little brother wrestled. He went to a tournament and I told my dad I wanted to try wrestling," she said. "That's how I started."

After wrestling on the boys' team in high school in Escanaba, Berube moved on to the University of Cumberland, then known as Cumberland College, to wrestle on the women's team in 2002.

"There were 12 girls on the team my first year. Now there's like 50 girls," she said. "More and more colleges are adding women's wrestling."

At Cumberland, she became the only four-time collegiate women's national champion in history. She finished second in the 2004 Olympic Team Trials and was a 2006 U.S. National Champion.

Despite her pedigree, Black said there were challenges to overcome when he began working with her last summer.

"To be honest, when I worked with her in El Salvador I heard some different things about her from the people at USA Wrestling," he said. "She was from a program that was successful developing college athletes. But USA Wrestling and Cumberland College are not always on the same page. That's not a negative or a bad thing, but I told Alaina we'd be doing things differently. We're going to make some changes to your style.

"It was a little bit of a battle," he added. "I use the analogy that it's like pruning a tree. Sometimes you have to cut some branches and at first it looks worse, but it's better in the long term."

Black said things didn't go smoothly when he first started training Berube.

"She lost to a girl from Canada who she had beaten before, but she just had to trust the system," he said. "We just kept working at it more and she started to see results. Since the Schultz Tournament, she's shown exponential growth. It didn't look very promising back in November and December but now there are real possibilities. It could have been very easy for her to get discouraged, but she stuck with it and it's paying off."

Despite some early setbacks, Berube said she remained faithful to Black's plans.

"When Kevin said, 'Do this,' he also said, 'And this is the reason why,' and it made sense," she said. "It made the transition pretty easy."

Both have their eyes on the ultimate goal of representing the U.S. at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in August. Women's wrestling made its debut as an Olympic sport at the 2004 games in Greece.