Sarah Bacon laid out her plans four years ago, before she had taken her first college course. To give herself the best chance of making the 2020 U.S. Olympic team, the Gophers diver would put her college career on hold during the 2019-20 season, allowing her to devote all her time and energy to training.
Bacon didn’t think she could keep up with classwork while spending four to five hours in the pool every day. Which is why she views her friend, Gophers gymnast Shane Wiskus, with such awe. Wiskus is preparing for a critical meet on his own road to the Olympics — this week’s Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas — while competing for the Gophers and taking 15 hours of classes.
“Having school on top of everything else?” Bacon said, shaking her head. “When you’re putting in this much training, I can’t even imagine thinking about an exam. I don’t know how Shane does it. It’s insane.”
Like Bacon, fellow Gophers diver Kristen Hayden also is taking a year off from school while pursuing a place on the U.S. team for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Like Wiskus, Gophers wrestler Gable Steveson is taking the opposite approach. He is aiming for an NCAA heavyweight title in March, only two weeks before he will wrestle at the Olympic trials.
According to the NCAA, the U.S. team for the 2016 Rio Olympics included 50 athletes who were on college rosters at the time of the Games. In some sports, such as diving, it’s typical to put college on hold for a year while training toward the Olympics. In others, including men’s gymnastics and wrestling, college competition is considered an ideal pathway into the Games.
The Winter Cup Challenge, which begins Thursday, is the first big step this year in the Olympic selection process for men’s gymnastics. Wiskus must perform well to keep his spot on the U.S. senior national team, then anchor the Gophers during three Big Ten meets, the conference championships and the NCAA championships in a seven-week span.
He has seven weeks after that to catch his breath before the U.S. championships, where invitations to the Olympic trials will be at stake.
“A lot of guys in our sport go through the college system,” said Wiskus, a junior from Spring Park. “You have to think about how to make it work and how to plan your schedule to set yourself up.
“Once you get into the Olympic cycle, it’s go, go, go. And every meet has to be great. It’s busy, but it’s exciting and fun.”
Classroom and the gym
During Wiskus’ freshman year, he already was considering whether to take a break from college in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics. He concluded it wouldn’t offer any benefit. His training schedule wouldn’t be much different, and continuing with the Gophers would allow him to test new skills in competition.
Wiskus stuck with that plan, even when a series of breakthrough performances boosted his chances of getting to Tokyo. A two-time NCAA silver medalist in the all-around, he finished fourth in the all-around at the 2019 U.S. championships, then made the team for last fall’s world championships in Germany. He was taking a full academic load of 16 credits and missed three weeks of classes while helping the American team finish fourth at worlds. But Wiskus received a sign that he was on the right path.
“I ended up having the best academic semester I’ve ever had,” he said. “A 3.6, dean’s list. It really worked out.”
A business and marketing education major, Wiskus designed his 15-credit schedule this semester to accommodate training, travel and rest. Three days a week, he has only one class to attend, with none on Fridays. He is taking three classes online. While he still has plenty of coursework to do, he said he is enjoying it more, because all of his classes are related to his major.
Wiskus recently sought advice from two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, who made the U.S. team for the 2012 London Olympics after his sophomore year at Michigan. Mikulak suggested Wiskus pace himself carefully, a strategy supported by Gophers coach Mike Burns. He has held Wiskus out of some meets, and Wiskus has used others to test upgrades to selected routines.
Going to class gives some valuable structure to his days, Wiskus said, while Burns noted that college meets have helped Wiskus build his endurance and refine his skills in front of judges.
“I think the competition you get during the NCAA season is critical preparation for the next stage,” Burns said. “In the last few Olympic cycles, I don’t remember anyone taking an Olympic year off. You’ve got to be smart about it, and I think we have a good plan for Shane.”
In Bacon’s case, the college season would have been overkill. A two-time NCAA champion on the 1-meter board, she still trains at the U, practicing with the Gophers for 15 hours each week in addition to eight hours of solo work.
Coach Wenbo Chen said he always planned for Bacon to take this year off. As she works toward an Olympic berth, she needs to dive in international meets so judges can become familiar with her. It would have been impossible, Chen said, for Bacon to do a full schedule of college meets, too.
Bacon would have been subject to NCAA limits on training hours if she had not taken the year off. A kinesiology major, she also faced a daunting class schedule this academic year.
“This is the normal thing to do in diving if you have a shot at making the Olympic team,” said Bacon, who has one season of eligibility remaining. “If I’m going to make it, I need more training and more rest. Not having to go to class all day, and not being tired from school, helps me put all my thought and focus into diving. That’s huge.”
NCAA titles and the Olympics
This month, Bacon is in Europe for two Grand Prix meets with Kassidy Cook, her partner in the 3-meter synchronized event. Bacon and Cook, gold medalists at the 2019 winter nationals, will then compete in April at the Tokyo World Cup, the final qualifying event for countries to earn Olympic berths. If Cook and Bacon can earn one for the U.S. in women’s synchronized 3-meter, the winners of that event at June’s Olympic trials will compete at the Summer Games.
Wiskus and Steveson remain on the U campus, pursuing their twin goals. Like Wiskus, Steveson is targeting an NCAA title before he turns his full attention to the Olympics.
Gophers wrestling coach Brandon Eggum said that when he was recruiting Steveson they discussed the possibility of taking the Olympic year off. But Steveson didn’t want to interrupt his college career, and the fact that this year’s NCAA championships are at U.S. Bank Stadium cemented his resolve to compete for the Gophers this season.
“I didn’t see the point in taking [a year off],” said Steveson, a heavyweight ranked No. 1 in the NCAA and No. 2 among U.S. senior freestylers. “Right now, the NCAA tournament comes first. The Olympics come second. And wrestling is wrestling, so it’s pretty easy to make the transition.”
Wiskus must temporarily switch to Olympic mode for this week’s Winter Cup. The top six men in the all-around standings after Thursday’s opening session will be named to the senior national team, with six more added after Saturday’s final session. That group will be considered top contenders for the Olympic team, which will be determined at the trials in June.
If Wiskus makes the national team this weekend, he won’t have much time to celebrate. He will be back in class at 9:45 a.m. Monday to begin a jam-packed week that ends with a critical Big Ten dual meet against Michigan.
“After Winter Cup, it’s going to go really fast,” he said. “But I’m living the dream right now.”