Given Andy Bisek’s weighty credentials — including two bronze medals from the world championships and a No. 5 world ranking — it seems reasonable to wonder whether he feels any pressure going into the Rio Olympics. Ask him about it, and you’ll see a knowing smile form under his famously bushy mustache.
Bisek, a Greco-Roman wrestler from Chaska, knows the burden of genuine stress. In 2012, a defeat at the Olympic trials cost him his place on the U.S. national team, along with his monthly stipend and health insurance. His wife, Ashley, was expecting their first child. Then a serious neck injury kept him out of competition for several months, leaving him unable to earn any prize money.
With a family to support and few options, Bisek began working at a liquor store in Colorado Springs, squeezing five shifts a week between twice-daily wrestling workouts. It left him exhausted, but not defeated. “I’d get to that afternoon practice, and I’d be so wiped out,” Bisek recalled. “My feet would be on fire from standing and running all day on a tile floor. And I thought, ‘If I can handle this, I’m going to be just fine when it comes to tournament time.’ ”
Since then, nothing has been able to slow him down. Bisek, 29, won the 75-kilogram (165-pound) weight class at the Olympic trials in April to secure an invitation to the Rio Games, becoming a first-time Olympian after 12 years of toil.
A product of the U.S. Greco-Roman development program at Northern Michigan University, Bisek has lived and trained in Colorado Springs since 2010. During their first six months there, he and Ashley lived on $275 a month; he ate his meals at the U.S. Olympic training center and brought extra food home for her.
His dogged nature kept him plugging away through injuries, disappointment and debt. Those hardships made the payoff feel that much sweeter. In 2014, Bisek ended a five-year medal drought for the U.S. Greco-Roman team at the world championships, bringing home a bronze, and he won a second bronze at the 2015 worlds.
“Andy has always wanted to be challenged,” said Bisek’s father, Tom, of Chaska. “And he’s had to work for everything. It hasn’t been easy for him, but he just figures out what to do to make things work.”
He does the same thing in miniature on the mat, which has pushed him into the upper ranks of his sport. A superb technician, Bisek never gives up on a match, and his superior conditioning gives him an edge when time is winding down.
Experience and maturity have only made him stronger. Three-time Olympian Dan Chandler, coach of the Minnesota Storm club, said he considers Bisek one of the three or four best Greco-Roman wrestlers the U.S. ever has produced.
“Andy isn’t a million-dollar athlete,” said Chandler, who has watched Bisek since 2004 and coached him in many tournaments. “He’s more of a lunch-pail guy. But if anyone in the world works harder than he does, I’d be surprised.”
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The past four years have been the most fruitful of Bisek’s life and career. He and Ashley, his wife of six years, are parents to Jim, 3, and Molly, 18 months. Since 2013, he has wrestled in three world championships, won two U.S. Open titles, earned the gold medal at the Pan American Games and was named USA Wrestling’s Greco-Roman wrestler of the year in 2014 and 2015.
According to his parents, Andy wasn’t much older than little Jim when he was kicked out of his first day care. “He was asked to leave two or three of them before he was 5 years old,” Tom Bisek said, laughing at the memory. “One of them, he started on a Monday, and they called Friday and said, ‘You need to come pick him up. Right now.’
“He was a sweet boy. But he was so full of energy, and so determined.”
Tom Bisek grew up in a wrestling family in New Prague, one of seven boys who all participated in the sport. His own three sons inherited that gene. Spontaneous grappling sessions popped up in every room of the Biseks’ home, as well as in the gym at Chaska High School.
Andy never won a state high school championship. His best finish was third as a senior in 2004, but he saw a future in the Greco-Roman discipline after placing seventh at the junior nationals that year. He joined the program at Northern Michigan, where he won a 2007 university national title, and began competing at tournaments around the world.
During his college years, he met Ashley — a weightlifter who competed at the 2008 Olympic trials — and became friends with Chas Betts of St. Michael, another Greco-Roman wrestler with grand ambitions. Bisek and Betts continued to train together in Colorado Springs after graduating from Northern Michigan, with a goal of making the 2012 Olympic team.
Betts won his weight at the Olympic trials to earn a berth at the London Games. Bisek, the No. 2 seed at 74 kilograms, was upset in his opening match. That also bumped him off the national team, dealing a significant financial hit to him and Ashley.
“There had been so many times when Andy was close to being on top, and he got injured,” Ashley Bisek said. “In 2008, he had neck issues that were so bad he couldn’t hold a 1-pound ball, and it took him four years to rehab. He came into 2012 thinking it was going to be his year. One bad tournament, and it turned out it wasn’t.
“But Andy’s always been able to use the abilities he’s learned through sport, things like perseverance and dedication, to get through challenges. After the Olympic trials, he just said, ‘This is not happening again.’ And he just kept pushing.”
After Bisek’s neck injury flared up in January 2013, he began working 40 hours a week at the liquor store in between rehabilitation and workout sessions. Ashley had been working two jobs, but she had to quit when she was put on bed rest during her pregnancy.
Bisek returned to competition in June, winning the selection trials for the world championships team. That restored his place on the national team, his stipend and his health insurance — less than two months before their son was born.
“My wife was pregnant, I didn’t have a job and I had zero money,” he recalled. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I’d wanted this for so long, and I’d put in so much, I wanted to keep trying as long as I thought I had a shot.
“We still believed things would work out. And we were able to keep the dream alive.”
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It wasn’t just his dream, either. Ashley Bisek, who had to quit weightlifting because of knee injuries, felt like Andy was carrying her Olympic hopes as well when he stepped onto the mat at the Olympic trials in April. In addition to working to support the family, she has helped Andy become more efficient in the weight room, gaining extra strength that has paid dividends.
The Minnesota Storm club, which sponsors Bisek, also is overjoyed at his success. Bisek remains a Minnesotan through and through, and he is particularly proud of maintaining the state’s streak of placing a Greco-Roman wrestler on every U.S. Olympic team since 1968.
Chandler, the Storm coach, predicted Bisek has an excellent shot to medal in Brazil. Since 2012, he said, Bisek has become more consistent, and he can control a match with his conservative style and impeccable technique.
“His basic, fundamental positioning is so strong and so tough,” Chandler said. “People can’t get any position to score on him. And he’s in such good shape, he gets everybody tired. He’ll be very difficult to beat.”
Now that he has reached the Olympics, Bisek isn’t certain how much longer he will wrestle. He has avoided thinking about what comes next, choosing to funnel all his attention toward winning a medal in Rio.
Not that he’s feeling any pressure.
“I’m preparing the same way as I have the last two years,” Bisek said. “I’m ready to compete.
“I don’t think all this is really going to hit me until I’m [in Rio]. The things we’ve been through, times like that have made this so much more incredible.”