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Wrestling a birthright for the Churella family

File Photo/Daily
Former Michigan wrestler Josh Churella finished third at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, narrowly missing an Olympic berth on a controversial call. Buy this photo

By Liz Nagle, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 3, 2012

The Churella name has grown into a legacy that is stenciled across the banners of Cliff Keen Arena and along the walls of the Bahna Wrestling Center.

Former Michigan wrestler Mark Churella Sr. began the makings of that birthright from 1976-79, claiming a trio of national titles at the 150 and 167 lb. weight classes.

Regarded as one of the most decorated wrestlers in program history, the four-time All-American boasts a 22-1 record at the NCAA Championships and led the Wolverines to four-straight top-10 finishes.

Churella captured a pair of Big Ten Championship crowns en route to finishing his career with a 132-13 record. The Farmington Hills, Mich. native accomplished numerous feats on the mat and was inducted to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1999. But his efforts continued beyond the blown whistle.

With a multitude of recognitions and achievements behind him, Churella began to build the base of something not yet defined that would one day be passed on to the next generation.

The Letterwinners M Club announced on Sept. 24 that Churella as this year’s Ufer Award winner. Since 1981, the accolade has been given to individuals that have exhibited “outstanding service” to the Michigan Athletic Department. Past recipients include Bo Shembechler (1994), Red Berenson (1998) and Ron Kramer (2004).

“I feel very privileged — it’s quite an esteemed group,” Churella said. “I think after looking at that list of people that they’ve honored in the past that maybe there was a mistake.”

Churella coached the Wolverines in a couple of short stints, until family matters became a time-consuming priority. After his father suffered a heart attack, Churella was left with “double duty” responsibilities between his coaching position and the family-founded FDI Group insurance agency.

Though he ultimately chose to invest his energy into the growth of the company, the elder Churella paved the way for his three sons — Mark Jr., Ryan and Josh. The legacy continued to unfold on Michigan mats from one generation to the next.

Mark Jr. earned his varsity letter in 2001, but it was Ryan and Josh that wrote the family name deeper into the record books. The duo combined for six All-American honors, four conference titles and a 241-29 record while at Michigan.

After wrapping up his college career with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, Josh continued to train in Ann Arbor with the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club. Competing in freestyle at 66kg, Josh notched multiple wins on the international stage, including a pair of third-place citations at the World Team Trials in 2010 and 2011.

More recently, Josh finished third at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, headlining the former-Wolverine brigade — Joe Warren, Kellen Russell and Tyrel Todd — that competed at the event.

After winning his first two bouts, Josh dropped the semifinal match to former Iowa national champion Brent Metcalf, 1-0, 0-3, 1-0.

Metcalf claimed the first-period on a single-leg takedown, and Josh rebounded in the second, dropping the former Hawkeye to his back. A somewhat controversial call in the third, however, stifled Josh’s Olympic berth when the mat judge awarded him a point that was ultimately overturned by both tables.

“It was the heartbreaking loss,” Josh told the wrestling website Flowrestling after his final match of the Trials. “I trained four years for this moment, this opportunity and I thought I was winning with 30 seconds left.”

Nevertheless, Josh bounced back and tallied two more wins in the wrestlebacks over Adam Hall and Chase Pami.

“The whole goal is to be on the Olympic team, Josh said. “But once that falls short, you stop feeling bad for yourself and pick it up real quick and come back and take third.”

Though Josh put a hiatus on his career, it seems there’s something he’s not ready to part with. On July 10, the Athletic Department announced that Josh would join the Wolverines’ coaching staff, a transition that Mark Churella said his son made rather quickly.

“As of now, I’m taking some time off of competition, but we’ll see what happens in the near future,” Josh said. “I’m definitely focusing more energy on the guys now.”

Mark Churella may have laid the foundation for his sons to follow, but Josh has only strengthened the family name that hangs on the banners on Cliff Keen.

“My sons have demonstrated something I’ve been very proud of,” Churella said. “It’s a legacy of a combination of lessons learned.”


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