Northern Michigan University thus far has five Greco-Roman athletes who are qualified for the 2024 US Olympic Team Trials: Max Black (60 kg), David Stepanyan (67 kg), Payton Jacobson (77 kg), Benji Peak (77 kg), and George Sikes (97 kg). The possibility exists for more to join the aforementioned five, but the number in place is already impressive; and additional opportunities for NMU wrestlers to earn World-caliber honors remain on the table coming up throughout the spring in the form of the United States’ age-group selection processes.
Such is the current state in which we find NMU/National Training Site head coach Andy Bisek for this new edition of Marquette Matters. Bisek, who has now entered his fifth year at the helm of America’s most important program, has witnessed before his eyes the tremendous development of all the names mentioned above, but that allotment of wrestlers represents only part of the story. The other part is, of course, those competitors under the NMU banner who are still coming into their own and are hard at work trying to raise their collective levels in order to establish themselves on the Senior circuit. The dynamics inside the wrestling room at the Superior Dome compel improvement, and it is up to Bisek and assistant coach Parker Betts to help everyone under their charge get on the same page.
What that has entailed this season is a lot of activity. NMU competitors have had a presence in virtually every tournament made available to them, both at home and abroad. Between several highlight performances from the Bill Farrell Memorial and the Nationals, to recent (and upcoming) endeavors overseas, the 2023-24 campaign for NMU has been, and will continue to be, one of the institution’s busiest since Bisek joined the staff. Just prior to leaving for the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, where this week he is among the instructors at the National Pan-Am prep camp, the highly-respected coach answered a series of questions that will keep engaged fans up to speed.
5PM: Is the training plan any different, or focused on specific things, being that the Olympic Trials are in April instead of May or June, which is when the US normally holds its World Team Trials?
Coach Andy Bisek: From a timeline perspective, things have to happen sooner rather than later, or more inside of the college semester. What spills over after the semester are the U20 and U23 Trials. Our training will focus on the guys who qualified for the Olympic Trials and trying to get them as best-prepared as we can.
5PM: Since 2012, the Olympic Trials have been in April. Prior to that, the tournament was held, by comparison, significantly later than that. Do you think that having the Olympic Trials in April is more or less advantageous than having the tournament in either May or June?
AB: I think that it would be less advantageous. There is usually so much effort and focus trying to get the weights qualified. That turnaround is sometimes going to be longer than others, and sometimes the window is a bit shorter. Only one person is putting the work in to qualify the weight. I don’t really feel like that was the situation I was in during the ’12 process. I felt fine, but looking back at it, it is a whole lot of stress and weight set upon — not just one person — but the entire program with trying to get that taken care of.
I guess it makes sense with the last (World) Olympic qualifier being when it is. If you have weights that you need to qualify, you want to have that person in place. Maybe it should be even earlier, like now, so that person gets two opportunities, the Pan-Ams and/or the last Olympic qualifier.
5PM: The athletes who are not yet qualified, are they preparing for the Last Chance Qualifier as if it is the most important tournament of the season? How is it discussed given that the stakes are high at Last Chance and you have to win it in order to qualify?
AB: For those who may choose to go the Last Chance Qualifier, they could still be age group-eligible. I don’t know how many of them there are, but I also don’t know if pumping them full of pressure is the best way, either. There is a tournament and a task to do. If we do it, two weeks later you have to wrestle again.
5PM: You had a split of guys overseas in January. You had Stepanyan and Jacobson go to Armenia, and Benji was in Croatia. There may be other opportunities to travel coming up prior to Trials, as well. How is this overseas training reconciled when preparing to wrestle domestically considering the differences between Greco in America and elsewhere?
AB: I think that big benefit is that different things are exposed. If you are just staying with the same people in practice, they might not be able to expose those weak areas. Going overseas, it can be either eye-opening or humbling at times; but our guys can start to build that confidence back, especially after a few weeks of training. And by doing that they realize that they can compete with the best in the world.
5PM: You had George Sikes wrestle his guts out in New York and qualify for the Trials. Jacobson won that tournament and then made the challenge-round final at the Nationals. So did Max Black, Benji came back, and Stepanyan had his run in Fort Worth, as well. How does momentum from these performances carry over into the room? If such a thing happens?
AB: You had mentioned different guys spending time overseas, but it is something that I can feel and anticipate to grow more. David and Max qualifying in Fort Worth and the uncertainty of that. They were confident that they were going to qualify, but now that it is definite and taken care of, they know that they can prepare for the Olympic Trials. And however small the margins were when they came up short of winning the Nationals, they are focused on improving those.
5PM: How do you build and maintain confidence for your athletes?
AB: To improve their confidence, you have to put them through challenges. You set things up differently, make them a little bit harder. If there is something with which they are struggling, you really walk them through that and let them spend time in those positions when it’s not super-intense and they can get really comfortable and understand it a little more. Just encourage them, really.
5PM: You are leaving for Colorado Springs to help out at the National Team Pan-Am camp. You have done this many times before since becoming a coach, helping out at various camps. How do you coach your own wrestlers in an environment that also includes many others? You are someone who athletes from other training centers often seek out and want your input. How do you split your focus between NMU guys and wrestlers from other teams in situations like that?
Coach Andy Bisek: My main priority for why I am going is the current NMU guys, but there will also be former NMU guys and some who were competing when I was. There are definitely a lot of relationships. I don’t view it as ‘Oh, I can’t help so-and-so because they are from somewhere else’. I’ll help whoever I can but I am going to try to give more time to the NMU guys. I’m available to anyone, at least for moments. And at a camp like this, too, there is often more time off the mat with our guys because they are not going to class. But for anyone else, if you have a question, I’m going to help you. I will help anyone in USA Greco.
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