You may have seen him under the Friday night lights at Campus Field on the “chain gang,” but Tom Wozniak of Lake Mills was under a much brighter light recently in a faraway country.
WorldSkills, the world championships of vocational skills was held in Kazan, Russia in August, with 56 skill areas across a wide range of industries and trades ranging from carpentry to floristry and aircraft maintenance, the competition was fierce and Wozniak was there.
Wozniak acted as a mentor to Ryan Meppelink, of Zeeland, Michigan, who earned a bronze medal at the skills competition in Heavy Vehicle Technology. He also won the Best of Nation award as the 20-member U.S. team’s only competition medalist.
Wozniak is a diesel technology instructor at Madison College, his alma mater, he got his start in the trucking industry, first as a technician and then as a training specialist. Wozniak is also the postsecondary state director of SkillsUSA. He’s been involved with the organization for over 20 years.
“When I was in industry, I was asked by a friend to come in and help organize and run the state conference,” Wozniak said. “Being a part of SkillsUSA, I knew about WorldSkills.”
The WorldSkills competition started several years ago in Brazil, with the competition running every other year. This year in Russia is only the second time the United States has participated in WorldSkills.
Three of the four WorldSkills experts in Wisconsin were Madison College employees.
“This was the biggest delegation we’ve ever sent to WorldSkills with the 22 contestants competing in 20 different competitions. It was a big deal and it was exciting.”
This being Wozniak’s first time involved in the WorldSkills competition he didn’t really know exactly what to expect. He put Meppelink, who was the bronze medalist at the national SkillsUSA competition in 2016 and is working toward completing his degree in Heavy Equipment Maintenance at Farris State University, through a series of stations several times over the last year to help prepare him for the event. Wozniak also set him up with an internship with a local Caterpillar dealer for him to learn the ins and outs of construction equipment.
“Ryan was a truck guy, he liked working on trucks and when you start thinking about a diesel technician, a truck mechanic verses a construction equipment mechanic have two totally different mindsets.”
At WorldSkills, Wozniak said, all they do is work on construction equipment.
“A lot of this was guess work,” he said of the preparation for WorldSills for Meppelink.
The WorldSkills competition is four days with the participants running through two stations a day, with each station being three to three-and-a-half hours long.
“They really had to go through and test,” he said of the issues participants had to diagnose in the stations. “When we got there Ryan said, ‘I can’t believe how prepared I was for that.’”
The easiest way to explain what WorldSkills is by comparing it to the Olympic Games.
“It’s the Olympics of skills competitions,” Wozniak said. “Ryan and all the other candidates are the athletes and in reality, they are. They are skilled athletes, in their skill. Ryan is an athlete and is putting in just as much training as an athlete to win this international skills competition. I’m the coach behind the athlete.”
Wozniak has all the experience necessary to coach a student. He’s been working with kids for years. Wozniak, who is from Central Wisconsin, has been a flag football coach and then tackle football coach, following his son through the years.
“I coached his group and he graduated in 2017, along with other dads. After that, the best seats in the house are right there on the field,” he commented on his time doing the chains for home football games.
He also taught catechism at the Catholic Church in Lake Mills.
The contest areas in Russia was bigger than Wozniak ever expected, but it was the size of the World Cup also held in Kazan last year.
“We got there and they had a CAT D5 dozer. It was a steel, high track dozer and we had two of them sitting there. I didn’t expect that.”
He was also impressed with the other experts in his industry. The experts in each category judge the other contestants.
Meppelink went up against 15 other countries.
“Just working with the different people in our industry. I just thought it was absolutely exciting to meet these people.”
The opening and closing ceremonies were a big deal, as large as the Olympics, Wozniak said, and the contestants were treated like
“Everywhere they went kids wanted their autographs.”
The prime minister spoke at the opening ceremony and Vladimir Putin spoke at the closing ceremony.
“When the United States flag came up we just shot out of our seats,” Wozniak said of finding out Meppelink had won. “He went down there running, he had his flag, which had flown over the United States capital, it felt really good, probably one of the better moments of my life. I just sat there, and I couldn’t believe it. Ryan is an awesome kid, he deserved it, he worked really hard for it.”
In Meppelink’s competition Paulo Fratta, of Brazil, was the gold medalist with 745 points; Jack Dupuis, of Canada, took silver with 736; and Meppelink earned his bronze with 728 points, six better than Christof Rollin, of Switzerland. The nine competitors who scored at least 700 points in the Heavy Vehicle Technology competition received medals symbolic of their excellence.