By Christina Whiting
Mike Illg grew up in Lowell, Mass., a blue-collar, multicultural city that offered more negative lifestyle choices than positive ones, he said. When he was 5 years old, a high fever caused severe hearing loss, making his ability to hear and communicate very difficult. Sports and recreation have been his saving grace.
Mike grew up playing street games like kickball, wiffle ball and hide-and-seek. In junior high school, he fell in love with the competitive and physical nature of wrestling and football; sports that also provided an outlet for dealing with the discomfort and adversity of his surroundings, as well as his communication issues.
“I do not know who or what I would have become without the opportunity of wrestling and football,” Illg said.
Wrestling for four years under the guidance of legendary coach George Bossi, Mike was a member of the 1989 State Champion team. He also played football as a linebacker. While football was fun, he found that wrestling was more daunting — and more satisfying.
After high school, Illg worked part time as a mason, while attending a local community college. He was the student body president and student of the year at his college of 8,000 students. He received his associates degree in liberal arts and science.
In 2000, Illg received a scholarship to study speech pathology and audiology, but decided to put school off for a semester and travel to Homer to visit his sister Vicki.
Soon after arriving, he found coaching opportunities, including as the assistant, and then head wrestling coach at Homer High School. He also coached the Popeye Wrestling and Homer Middle School programs.
“For me, coaching is about passing on the message that there is no substitute for hard work and commitment: in sports, academics, work, relationships and life in general,” he said.
Illg also worked as a substitute teacher in a special education classroom, which led to a full-time job working with high school students with disabilities.
“It was often through sports during the physical education classes the students seemed to thrive the most,” he said. “During my time working with these students, I learned that by focusing and celebrating more on one’s capabilities than inabilities, success and progress is inevitable.”
In 2003, Illg took over the position of Homer Community Schools program coordinator. Started in 1975, the program was run by the Kenai Peninsula School District and funded by the City of Homer and the State of Alaska. Its purpose was to encourage community members to use local schools after hours for community-based educational and recreational opportunities.
In 2006, through a citywide vote, HCS became a part of the City of Homer’s operations and its name changed to Homer Community Recreation.
Forty-six local volunteers donate more than 2,500 hours of their time each year to teach, volunteer and supervise low-cost programs for community members.
“Recreation is a priority in our community,” Illg said. “It serves as a positive outlet, is a proven preventive against illicit behaviors and creates opportunities for many life-changing moments.”
In 2007, Illg married Cheryl Wambach and the following year, their daughter Madilyn was born. Mike has continued his education, earning his B.Sc. in parks and recreation management, and a M.Sc. in recreation, sports and tourism. He is also one of two certified parks and recreation professionals in Alaska.
Illg also coordinates the annual Telluride Film Festival that comes to Homer each January.
“I consider this to be the largest community recreation class in Homer,” he said. “It provides a source of inspiration for creativity, passion and life right here in our backyard and in places we’ve never heard of.”
Illg also sees sports and recreation as a way to make a difference. He is currently training to run the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon; a race he first ran in 1999. This time, he’s running to raise money for the Children’s Tumor Foundation, in honor of friend Leo Ogle. Ogle is a Homer High freshman who suffers from neurofibromatosis, a disease that attacks nerve cells, is painful and dangerous and for which there is no currently no cure.
Illg has three goals: finish the race, beat his 1999 race time of 3 hours, 47 minutes and raise $4,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.
Race day is Monday, April 21, and donations to the Children’s Tumor Foundation can be made on Mike’s fundraising page at www.leosheroes.org. Illg will be wearing a location chip and anyone can follow his progress by logging on to the Boston Marathon Race Page, www.baa.com.
Mike Illg has created a life grounded in sports and recreation and works hard to share this passion with others.
“Our most precious commodity is our health — physically and mentally,” he said. “An active body, an active mind and an active community are the best gifts we can give to ourselves and to others.”
Meet your Neighbor shares the story of residents of Homer and the surrounding area. If you’d like to suggest someone for a story, contact Christina Whiting at
Comments are closed