Training

Two of America’s Best Discuss the Reality of High-Level Competition

two-time world medalist andy bisek talks with joe rau about pressure, sacrifice, and regret

In wrestling, there has always been the belief that in many cases, matches are won before you ever step on the mat. It’s trite, but there is logic behind the adage. Certainly, intense yet appropriate preparation combined with an iron-will make a difference when the going gets predictably tough. Of course, there is a flipside to consider. Winning, especially at the highest reaches of the sport, comes with a price paid in full. Which is why the despair and confusion that comes with losing often seems so overwhelming, processing the ramifications can take an athlete to previously unknown depths they have never encountered. But sometimes, this bleakness is necessary. You need darkness to reveal the light.

Two of the United States’ best Greco Roman wrestlers, Andy Bisek (Minnesota Storm) and Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) recently sat down to have a conversation centered around the imagined consequences of losing, the inevitable regret that follows, and the acceptance required to bring about tangible improvement. The purpose of this dialogue is to hopefully illustrate the various mental obstacles wrestlers face by providing real examples of situations which could be useful for athletes of all levels.

Disappointment, Regret, Acceptance, and Improvement

Andy Bisek (Minnesota Storm) – 2016 Olympian, two-time World bronze medalist, four-time World Team member, two-time US Open champion
Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) – 2016 Olympic Trials champion, 2015 US Senior National champion, 2014 World Team member

Behavior in the aftermath of a crushing loss

Wrestlers are famous for taking losses hard. As two-time Olympian Jim Gruenwald noted, “…it felt like a part of you died.” Losses are typically challenging to endure at any level and that fact doesn’t change when we’re talking about World-caliber athletes. If anything, losses on the world stage are magnified for everyone to see.

But it is how defeat is accepted that becomes the hurdle. What is a productive approach to dealing with a loss? When cooler heads prevail, even the stubbornest of competitors acknowledge there is an educational aspect to losing. However, just arriving to that point distinguishes itself as the x-factor.

The talk begins with Bisek and Rau discussing a well-known US wrestler who became despondent following a loss at last year’s World Championships.

Andy Bisek: There was a wrestler who won his first two matches at the World Championships in Las Vegas and then loses. It sucks to lose, but then he just disappears for days. And the guy who Kyle Snyder beats in the World finals (Abdusalam Gadisov) is there the next day to warm up with somebody, warm up with (Abdulrashid) Sadulaev, the guy at 86 (kilograms). It’s like, Okay? In our culture, the American culture, everybody is quick to say, Well, so-and-so wanted it more. It meant more to so-and-so than it did to this Russian guy. Yeah, right.

Everybody knows that weight, but how can you…it’s not that you forget about it, it’s not that it hurts less. It’s more about, How can you move forward? How can you be improving upon that sooner? Yes, there are many moments in time that need to pass, but how can you just sit and feel sorry for yourself? One, it’s just not healthy. And two, it’s NOT GOING TO GET YOU ANYWHERE FEELING SORRY FOR YOURSELF! Get out there and be positive and figure out what you can do better.

Joe Rau: I instantly related this back to myself.

Bisek: Yeah!

Rau: I won the Olympic Trials, I didn’t qualify for Rio, and I could have easily been like the wrestler we’re talking about. Believe me, I heard the stories. After the qualifiers I wanted to disappear for years and I still do. But I went to Rio and helped you guys train…

Bisek: You understand that it’s bigger than yourself.

Rau: It was bigger than myself and everyone was telling me stuff like, Oh, you’re so lucky, it must be so much fun. It must be an unreal experience. 

Bisek: The whole time it’s like torture.

Rau: It was torture for me. I’m over here watching guys who I beat in medal matches at the Olympics. You know, the guy who I lost to trying to qualify at the Pan Ams (Yasmany Lugo Cabrera, Cuba) wound up taking a silver medal. It was so hard for me to stay composed there. And I agree, I think it takes a lot more character to show up the next day and show up again, and show up again, and show up again, and show up again.  Maybe I’m a little bit used to that, maybe this other wrestler has more of a history of success.

Bisek: Well I think what this is, is that he feels what people have put on him year after year after year.

Rau: I feel that, too.

Bisek: Oh, so-and-so is on the team, he’s gonna do this and this…

Rau: And I was crazy like that but I feel it, too. It was as if the most pressure I ever felt in my whole life has led up to this moment and I’m trying not to screw it up. And I kind of did. If we’re being honest, I kind of did. And this is something I wanted to ask you tomorrow, but do you have regrets? I hear people always say, Oh, no regrets, all the mistakes I have made led me to this point and if it wasn’t for my mistakes I wouldn’t be here. But you know what? I disagree with that statement and I think it is very cliché because when I think about it, I have so many regrets.

I regret so many little things. I know that at the World Championships in 2014 that if I didn’t run into that Swiss guy (Jonas Bossert) with an underhook, I probably would have won that match and possibly…

Bisek: If you didn’t feel like you had to crush him, tech him. It’s like, Hold on. This is the World Championships. Every match matters. Myself, I’m looking at the bracket the day before you wrestled and saying, This is a match Joe needs, NEEDS, to win. Because if he wins this, he’s going to wrestle (Evgeny) Saleev, who I’ve wrestled and know is a very strong opponent.

Rau: He took a silver medal that year.

Bisek: It’s not to say you wouldn’t have beaten him, but if you lose to the Swiss guy, I know this Swiss guy and he’s good as well, but he will lose to Saleev.

Rau: He’s such a headcase.

Bisek: Exactly. I’ve seen him lose his composure just completely in matches.

Rau: He broke my teeth. The match the next year, he broke my teeth, he punched me in the face (laughs). And I beat him and almost made the finals of that tournament. But I know he’s a headcase and I’ve talked to Swiss guys about this.

But I felt that, I felt like I needed to win and then I was thrown off by how ahead I was in the match to the point where I got too jazzed up. It was my first World Championships and I went from living on a couch and barely eating to being on a World Team with some of my idols. So my approach was, I’ve got to go out there and win this match.

Bisek: Yeah. I got to go the first day and you might have seen what I did and been saying, I’m hungry for myself, this is going to happen! Let’s get after it! Which is a great mentality, but  you need to stay in that kind of spot engaged, stay prepared. It’s the World Championships, you know? Anything can happen.

Joe Rau, 2016 Olympic Trials

Joe Rau (Minnesota Storm) attempts to turn Caylor Williams (Army/WCAP) at the 2016 US Olympic Trials. (Photo: John Sachs)

It’s not “no regrets”; it’s “there are many regrets”

It is an age-old quandary. You are encouraged to go through life on a forward track, stumbling, getting back up, stumbling, getting back up once more. This is talked about often in sports, as well. All of the stumbles, all of those times where you have been forced to find your feet again are schooling, so how could you wish it didn’t happen? Easy — devastation.

So there is a choice. Athletes can either move on while suppressing the pain as best they can, or they can find a way to harness the feeling of loss and turn it into another source of motivation. It’s okay to question things and fantasize how various circumstances might have unfolded with a different outcome. What isn’t okay is letting either course of action interrupt your passion for the struggle.

Rau: People say “no regrets, blah, blah, blah”, and I don’t like that saying because I do have regrets.  And you know what makes me good at my wrestling is my regret. I live in the regret, I make it motivate me. You’re never going to learn if you don’t have any regret. You think Momir Petković, this Olympic champion, doesn’t have regrets? I know he does because I saw him after the Olympics and how much he was hung up on whether it was good or bad that we didn’t go to the Opening Ceremonies and even he’s thinking about things.

Bisek: Yeah, and that’s from a coaching aspect, not even an athlete’s aspect.

Rau: Regret drives you, it drives you, it’s the only reason why I’ve ever done anything.

Bisek: That is what puts any kind of question in your mind. You could never question anything if regrets didn’t exist.

Rau: I’ve heard Michael Jordan speak a lot and he says it’s almost the same thing except he says it differently. Michael Jordan says he doesn’t have any regrets because it led him to be the best basketball player of all time. I agree with that in a way. If I wasn’t tormented by how much I messed up year after year after year, I was the Chicago Cubs of wrestling growing up. I’ve wrestled since I was six. I didn’t win anything until I won Fargo when I was 18 years old and I was about to quit wrestling altogether.

But I feel like if I didn’t have the failures drilled into my heart, I wouldn’t be so hungry during these years, you know what I mean? Maybe it’s the regret that drove me. With Michael Jordan you hear the things like, Hey, he got cut from his freshman basketball team, and so on. He believes in a no regrets philosophy, but I take it another way. I’m okay with my regrets and I like that they are pushing me to be a better wrestler. I have so many regrets. We were talking the other day about how differently your life can go from the smallest things and every tournament I leave win or lose I go, I could have done this better, I could have done that better. And you know me as a wrestler, I am “brain off.” I am “brain off, let’s wrestle.”

Bisek: That’s how wrestling should be.

Rau: But after, I am over-analytical and I think that’s good as a wrestler.

Bisek: There’s a point where you’re trying to analyze things to physically instill them within you. So that when you are wrestling, you don’t think about it but you do what you’ve already thought about.

Rau: I guess what I was asking is, do you have regrets? You have two bronze medals, you’re an Olympian. I mean, you wanted to be an Olympic champion.

Bisek: Any of those matches that I lost in the Worlds or Olympics I think about. From my first World Championships when I just got put on the team in 2011…

Rau: Because Jake Fisher broke his foot.

Bisek: Yes. I came out the first match and for one, that World Championships was a bad sign for the US, I feel. We only had a few wrestlers, I don’t know if Justin (Ruiz) won a match even. I think he lost and lost again. I think it was just Harry (Lester) who actually physically won matches at the World Championships. And myself, I was put on the team the week before. Nobody was looking at me to do anything and I beat a very talented wrestler in the first match. But in the second round I’m feeling, I can’t believe I did that. How do you respond after a big win like that and what kind of regrets do you have going into that? Because maybe you feel like you did something and you need to protect it, so you wrestle differently. And it was similar in 2014 when I won over (Roman) Vlasov. It’s like to rebound and to win again after a big win like that?

Rau: Yeah, a two-time Olympic champion.

Bisek: I beat Vlasov in the round of 16 and then I go to the quarters and lose 1-0. It’s such a letdown, but it was such a big moment to come back after.

Andy Bisek (Minnesota Storm) pictured here at the 2016 Olympics, is a two-time World bronze medalist and the assistant coach at Northern Michigan-Olympic Training Site. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

Andy Bisek (Minnesota Storm) pictured here at the 2016 Olympics, is a two-time World bronze medalist and the assistant coach at Northern Michigan-Olympic Training Site. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

Pressure in new situations

Wrestlers, especially World-level wrestlers, live for opportunity. In every sense of the word. Opportunities to score, opportunities to improve, and of course, opportunities to compete in the biggest events on the planet. But with these opportunities comes a pressure to succeed that can be all-encompassing. It follows wrestlers on the mat like a shadow lurking from within.

The options to deal with this are limited in scope. The desire to elevate one’s competitive acumen takes precedence, for sure. But the realization that yes, things are different this time, can take some getting used to. Therefore, you can either rise to the occasion or use the experience to hopefully take advantage of the next opportunity when it arrives. IF it arrives.

Rau: If I’m up, I almost don’t like it. You’re in your head going, Don’t screw up, don’t screw up, don’t screw up. Hold onto this, hold onto this, hold onto this. In folkstyle, I had this understanding of, Don’t worry about this, just go, go, go, go, go, we’re gonna tech. But when it comes to the stakes being higher and it’s “Greco” and it’s “anything can happen, you can get thrown any second”, I’m freaking out. A total panic. I’m like, Just hold onto this, don’t do anything dumb.

My first World Team experience was a lot like Andy’s because I didn’t feel like I belonged on the team in a way. Andy was on the team because Jake Fisher, the World Team member, broke his foot and that’s a whole other story that maybe we’ll talk to Jake about one day. But he makes the team and he’s one of the only guys who wins a match. The whole World Team is there, Andy gets in because of an injury, and he’s the next guy in line.

Bisek: No, I wasn’t even the next guy in line.

Rau: That’s right, you weren’t even the next guy. Who was it? Ben (Provisor)?

Bisek: It was Jake, Ben, and then me.

Rau: Right, so Andy was just present and that is why he got on the team. I felt the same way even though I made the team fair and square. I show up to the World Team Trials in 2014 at 85 kilos, I lose to CJ Meyers, I get thrown and pinned (laughs), I wrestle back and then I lose to Ben to get back into National Team contention for third. I lost to him to get to third and Ben made the National Team there.

And then I beat Ben at the University Nationals/World Team Trials to make the University World Team which is for college athletes and military guys who are wrestling Greco. I made that team by losing to Ben in the first match and then I beat him in the next two. I thought it was over. I lost to Ben in the finals and I didn’t know it was a best of three, so I was doing sprints. Kevin LaValle and Pat Smith came up to me and said, “You’ve got another match, buddy.”

Bisek: (Laughs) Yeah, I heard that.

Rau: And Ben was broke in a way. I mean, I like Ben and he is very outspoken so he might disagree with me on this, but Ben was broke by me running sprints. I’m fresh out of college, you know what I mean?

Bisek: It’s a different type of mindset.

Rau: It’s a different type of mindset than Greco Roman wrestling. I had a gas tank like no other. So going into those next two matches, I won, I wrestled smart, I broke him. Then I go to University Worlds, I lose my first match to a Polish guy who is pretty good. And then I come home and I’ve got ten days because they just announces non-Olympic weights, 80 kilos. I’m cutting for 85 kilos, which is 187. I walk around at 220 easy. Then I hear about this 80 kilos non-Olympic weight Trials. I get back from the University Worlds and I am literally in tears at the bar, you could ask Toby Erickson or Sammy Jones or anybody who was on that team. I couldn’t even go out and celebrate after. We had one of my best friends, Pat Smith, get a silver medal and Sammy Jones get a bronze medal. I went out with them because like we were saying, as much as it hurts, you’re still going to be there for your team.

So I went out with them and I literally cried like a baby in the bar. I was like, I can’t invest this much in wrestling and not be successful.

Bisek: Yes.

Rau: I couldn’t do it anymore, you know? I wasted all my time, money, and everything. But when we get back we hear about this non-Olympic weight and I tell (three-time Olympian and Minnesota Storm coach Dan) Chandler from Dan Olsen’s wedding, I had to call him up and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about going 80 kilos for the World Team Trials.” He said, “You’re crazy, but I get it, man.” But I end up cutting 30 pounds in ten days, at least. It was funny because they came out with an article that said I cut ten pounds in ten days. I’m like, Ten pounds?

Bisek: Ten pounds would be cake!

Rau: (Laughs) Yeah, and they say that because they don’t want to show how crazy wrestling really is. They want to make it seem healthy and it’s not healthy. It’s not healthy to be number one in anything, especially wrestling. I cut 30 plus pounds in ten days and I make the team and I didn’t feel like I belonged there because it was second phase, non-Olympic weights, I’m a young guy and I look up to all you guys. And I’m there and I’m winning this match against a really good Swiss wrestler and I’m up by like six points when I get thrown. I saw you get a bronze medal to end the Greco medal drought and I was all amped up. I was so amped up I couldn’t control myself. I really think if Dan Chandler was there I would have went on to get a medal. And that’s why I went 80 the next year, because I saw the potential in that. I mean, I pinned that Belarusian and he ended up taking a silver medal at the Worlds the next year.

But I felt like I didn’t belong there and I don’t know if you want to talk about that, because you got on the team due to an injury and then you won. You did better than expected.

Bisek: I didn’t feel like I belonged, but what are you going to do?

Rau: That’s what I’m saying. I’m not saying it’s something I’m proud of. I’m just kind of explaining, like, Wow, I’m actually on this team and I still feel like a training partner in a way. And that’s not a good mentality.

Bisek: First of all, you had the year before, too, so I think that maybe carried over and everybody looked at you like this indispensable guy who can do whatever you need from him. When I got put on the team in ’11, it wasn’t like that at all. Jake broke his foot, I got his spot, and he’s asking if there are things he can do for me.

Rau: Well Jake’s a different guy.

Bisek: Immediately I wasn’t seen as a training partner anymore or some indispensable body.

Rau: I do feel like I was treated that way.

Andy Bisek 2014 US Open

Bisek battling Jon Anderson (Army/WCAP) at the 2014 US Open. (Photo: Anne Sachs)

 

The curious case of ready-made excuses

Wrestlers, like most athletes, feel the need to explain how or why something went wrong to those around them in the event of a loss. It’s the classic burden of the ego. Because there are expectations weighing heavily on the mind along with a desire to please family, friends, and coaches, a sure-fire way to escape judgement is to offer up reasoning that will hopefully satisfy the masses. Really, it is akin to a cry for help. What a wrestler is essentially saying here is, “Please don’t think less of me — I’m better than this and I need you to know that.”

The problem with making excuses is not only the further reinforcement of the ego but also, it obscures the perennial goal of improvement. This is especially true if an athlete actually believes in the excuses they are using. The result is a cycle of failed accountability. It is only once this cycle is broken when true growth can be allowed to emerge.

Bisek: Tell me, have you ever went into a match with a loaded excuse? Where you’re going into this match thinking, Well if I don’t win, this is wrong. I already know that my wrist hurt, whatever else hurts. It’s a real thing! I’ve totally done that and I’m sitting here as the guy who has won two bronze medals, and it is real. Honestly, if I asked you that and you said, No, I’ve never done that, then I’d call you a liar right now to your face.

Rau: Going in to qualify for the Olympics I saw that article where you said, “Knowing Joe, he’s going to get it done.”

Bisek: Absolutely.

Rau: And literally, this knee problem kept locking up on me and when I still talk to people today, it sounds like an excuse. I had it in my mind, I’m injured, I’m worried, and there’s a lot of pressure, and as soon as I lose, I know why I lost. And it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit.

Bisek: Because it’s how you’re going to appear to everyone else. How you’re going to come out of this.

Rau: And with it being an Olympic year, all eyes are on you, too.

Bisek: It’s saying, Man, I did this, but I didn’t do that because of this. Had I been 100%, had I been the full “me…”

Rau: It’s something that Momir talks about and that is nobody is 100% ever. You don’t know what is going on.

Bisek: Absolutely.

Rau: You don’t know what is going on. The guy you’re wrestling might have more going on than you. That’s one of my biggest regrets this year that haunts me is I lost to two guys at the last chance qualifiers, both guys who I’ve beat by six points. I beat that Swedish guy (Frederik Schoen) 6-0 in Madrid and he’s a good wrestler. And I beat that Honduras guy (Kevin Mejia Castillo) a couple of months before at the Pan Ams 6-0. It’s like, You’ve got to be kidding me. These are the people in front of me to get to the Olympics.

Bisek: Freddy? Yeah, I know!

A white elephant and a unicorn

Across all sports, the Olympics are the pinnacle. Toss in all of the superlatives you can manage. The event comes by every four years and can be life-changing, particularly for wrestlers. It is the grandest stage and the entire year prior is devoted to taking part. Technically, it goes back even further to the beginning of each new quad. There aren’t mega-money contracts in wrestling but even if there were, it’s a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of Greco Roman wrestlers might trade in the financial windfall for an Olympic medal. Of any color. It means that much.

But like anything else in life, when you nurture a mental concept for too long, the effect is counterproductive. Just making it into the Olympics requires a series of taunting steps which may appear steeper than they actually are. The athlete who walks gingerly on the line between confidence and anxiety may find him or herself teetering to the bad side. A respite only comes after the spotlight has been dimmed.

The rules are the same. And at this level, generally so are the competitors. The heightened expectations, the increase in awareness, and the window to realize a dream are enough to throw the entire course off balance. Even though in a way, it’s simply one more chance to compete.

Rau: This is also another thing that has bugged me, the Olympics. It’s this thing that is so high-honored that the pressure just killed me.

Bisek: It’s a white elephant, dude.

Rau: It made me under-perform.

Bisek: And now that you have been in this position you understand even more truly, truly what it takes to be an Olympic champion. To totally block all of that out and just push it to the side. It’s just another tournament. The Olympic weight carries so much on so many people. I’m not trying to speak for anybody, but you see so many guys and you see a few US wrestlers where it was like, boom, Olympic champion.

Rau: Look at Jordan Burroughs this year, how much pressure.

Bisek: Or even myself.

Rau: Right and you, This is the guy in Greco to get a medal. There were articles specifically saying this.

Bisek: Yeah, and that Olympic weight, that Olympic kind of “pull”, that elusive… It’s like a unicorn, it’s chasing this thing that doesn’t exist. Because that whole time when you’re training for it, the Olympics are a year away. It’s three years away, it’s four years away. And when you are in there day-to-day-to-day, you’re talking about four years being 1400 days or 1500 days. That’s an incredible amount of time to think about it as the present. But maybe you should be thinking about it as the present because one day, it will be there staring you in the face and what are you going to do?

Rau: That is what I was not ready for. This year was the toughest year I’ve had as a person. Not as a wrestler, as a person. People were super-excited for the year I had but you know what, it was such a struggle. And it is, it seems like something that isn’t real. It’s not real.

Bisek: No.

Rau: It’s not real and it’s the Olympics, and all of the sudden people care, everyone is watching, everyone wants you to get there. You’ve got support where there never was support.

Bisek: Yeah, everybody tunes in.

Rau: Everybody tunes in for one moment and yeah, it’s hard to deal with that. It’s really hard to deal with that and I felt like maybe I was selling myself short and I hated it, like, Am I really here? I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a kid. Did you see that movie about the British ski jumper?

Bisek: Eddie the Eagle? Dude, I like that movie, it was awesome.

Rau: It literally made me cry because that was me as a kid.

Bisek: I don’t know if it’s me personally or because I have kids and I’m more emotional, or if I’ve just gotten to that point in my life, but movies like that can totally move me in such a bad spot (laughs). I’m like losing it.

Rau: I was on a plane watching it for the first time, we might have been coming back from the qualifiers, actually. Like too soon, right? And I was literally in tears looking around like, I don’t care who sees me or what they think. They have no idea what my story is, you know?

Bisek: You’re the one who told me and maybe it was somebody else, but your career, your life, is a movie that only you are seeing.

Rau: Me and Zack Nielsen. Zack Nielsen is one of the best Greco Roman wrestlers in the US and mentally, he could not handle putting in all the work and not getting out what he deserved. I mean, we don’t deserve anything in the sport. It’s a sport that is very unforgiving.

Bisek: As an athlete in the sport, you can’t put a number on it.

Rau: The juice is not worth the squeeze. Newsflash — the juice is never worth the squeeze.

Bisek: Even if you said you put in a million times the work to what you get paid, it still wouldn’t fit. It would still be underestimated (laughs). It’s just not true.

Rau: So me and Zack have had these long talks and I explained it to him in that way. I said, “Zack, I know how you feel and how you look at it, which is during your life and career, people will have chunks of it. Great coaches along the way, teammates, but no one will have seen your life through the lens you have. The only person who has been tuned into the whole movie has been you.” So then anybody stepping in trying to give you advice or think they can judge you or know who you are is just somebody walking in a movie halfway through having no idea what is going on. And it is. It is a movie no one is seeing other than you.

Bisek: I really like that way to put it because I completely agree. Big moments in my life, I switched coaches so you wouldn’t necessarily see how things changed from one coach to another. But there were big life events, there were big coaching changes, there was everything. So I totally get that and I really like that way of thinking about it. And when you are the athlete, I think you should think about it like that. Because listen, the people who you’re going to wrestle against, the people who are working with you — they don’t know you. You need to stay true to how you know yourself and what you know your potential is.

It goes back to the no regrets thing, if there is something more you could have done. You hold that to yourself for future reference. People see things differently and they say things maybe about it, but you know how it really was in those moments.

There is a football game on in the background between the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions and the conversation turns to what is happening on the field. Bisek, a native of Chaska, Minnesota, is a Vikings fan. Although Rau is from Chicago, he seems to have an affinity for his Bears’ division rivals. There is a reason for that.

Rau: We have the Vikings game on and Vikings football has a lot to relate to our careers, actually.

Bisek: Yeah…

Rau: They’re almost like the Chicago Cubs, which the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series has been one of the most inspirational moments of my recovery.

Bisek: Yeah dude, I believe it (laughs).

Rau: I’ve gone to games since I was a kid and they just suck and they suck, and then it’s, Hey, we’re good this year but we’re going to ruin it somehow.

Bisek: And the Vikings are proof of that, they’ve done that every year.

Rau: I mean, I was at that Vikings playoff game last year where Blair Walsh missed the field goal to win it. But these underdogs, these teams year after year that can’t do it, that’s me in a nutshell. I’ve been wrestling since I was six years old and that loss over and over and over again was burned in my soul. It did irreparable damage. It did damage to me in a way that I now have this fire that can’t be burned out. The only time it will burn out is when I die and then hopefully it might be burning through others. If I can impact people in a certain way, this fire will never die.

Rau hugs Minnesota Storm coach Dan Chandler following his win at the 2016 US Olympic Trials. (Photo: John Sachs)

Rau hugs Minnesota Storm coach Dan Chandler following his win at the 2016 US Olympic Trials. (Photo: John Sachs)

The mountain of success is made of failure

Adversity is also vitality. It is something to be embraced. For without it, achievement is almost a mirage. A delusion. What has been accomplished will be as fleeting as a cool breeze during an Indian summer. You want it to hang around longer but the air settles, clutching your disappointment in its shallow arms as beads of sweat skydive from your brow.

Wrestlers enter into an agreement of suffering. The physical toll is of course always at the nexus of such discourse. The issue with that is for these athletes, the physical suffering is actually the easy part. The real challenge lies in reconciling defeat and disappointment. Defeat represents failure, at least for a while. Until eventually, the failure is applied as a mechanism for sustainable improvement. Its birth as a molehill, gradually the incline builds and builds along with lessons learned until finally, the athlete is standing on a mountain, triumphantly recognizing his climb was not in vain.

Rau: My regrets and lack of success, the whole, Next year, next year, next year… I’ve done things recently. I won Trials, I made a World Team, but I still failed there. I failed, and I failed, and I failed. And it’s cheesy, but it’s real, and that is winners lose more than losers lose.

Bisek: Yup, yup, I agree. The winners are better at handling the losses than the losers. That’s why they’re winners.

Rau: If you’re on a mountain of success, like you, you have two bronze medals, that mountain of success is made of failure. It’s not made of something beautiful. It’s not built from one success after another. It’s built up by failure, failure, failure.

Bisek: That’s what you’re standing on.

Rau: The success is just at the top. If you know anything about climbing a mountain, it’s a struggle. I’m obsessed with the Everest Snapchat story, I’ve read some books, and everything about reaching the peak sucks, basically. It’s the same thing with wrestling, life, or anything. My failures made me who I am and coaching kids, it’s surreal. I’m in USA Wrestler magazine. That is kind of surreal to because I was this crappy wrestler who read that stuff and hung on every word of that magazine. I’ve idolized people at this level and to see myself in that magazine, I try to play it cool a bit, but I’ve had a wrestler say to me, “I wish I had your life” and it’s like, You don’t want this (laughs).

But you also have to be grateful. I made the cover of the Chicago Tribune and it never hit me for what it really was. Chicago is such a big city, everybody sees this paper and it was such a bittersweet thing. I mean, I’m on the cover of the Chicago Tribune after I won the Trials and people are saying I have chance to make the Olympic Team. I’m a hometown kid. I’m basically Chicago “AF.” I’m super Chicago, I’m very proud of it, I wear Chicago flag socks, and all that.

And everybody is watching and I don’t do it. It’s unprofessional of me, but the Chicago Tribune followed up with me saying, “We want to do an interview with you about not making it to the Olympics.” You know, after them hyping me all up. And I couldn’t do it. I never hit them back up. Maybe that goes back to the beginning about the wrestler who lost and disappeared, and I do regret that. I should have hit that guy up.  I’m like, If you interview me right now, it’s going to be nothing but terrible, bad things I’ll say. But you know, maybe people need to hear that. They don’t need to hear that I’m super-positive all the time, which I do try to be. But I’m not going to fluff anybody, either. When someone asks me how I’m feeling, I’m not going to just say, Good. I’m going to say, Well, I’m doing terrible, you know? And that’s the honest truth.

I don’t know what you think about that, Andy, but I don’t let it hit me. Ever. But being in the Chicago Tribune and USA Wrestler… My friend from back home said, “My cousin wrestles and he is just ecstatic that I know you.” I’m like, “Of course you know me, Matt. You’re practically the reason why I am where I am.” That is so surreal for me I cannot even handle it, I have to play it cool to myself, but it’s an act. Yeah, I’m in the magazine, so what?

Bisek: We wonder why our interviews may not be that great, but that is something that doesn’t come out because you’re not doing it for the camera. You just know the true struggle that it takes to get there, and that is what maybe creates that humility. But if you have other people thinking you’re this and that it’s like, Hold on. You could look back quickly to when you were in their position. Something I wrote down in a journal after Tashkent was about winning a World med and it relates to climbing a mountain like Joe just talked about. When you are climbing a mountain and you’ve never been there before, you don’t know high you’re climbing. You’re just climbing to climb. Well I’ve got to go up, I’ve got to go up. And you get there eventually.

For me personally, I can look back at guys in my weight class and when you’re at the top, you can see how close those guys are behind you. But when you’re climbing, you don’t know where the top is. You don’t know how far it is. So you are just aimlessly climbing. I swear, if there was a way to get that message through to those guys. You are seriously close. Don’t give up. Stick in it.

Rau: So many guys have given up.

Bisek: Yeah.

Rau: Because there is never a light at the end of the tunnel.

Bisek: Well, that’s what I’m saying. You weren’t here, but when I took third in 2014, it felt like I could start to see that light. I didn’t win the Worlds, no. But I was third.

Rau: You beat a two-time Olympic champ.

Bisek: When you are on the way up and you’ve never done that, you don’t know how high you need to climb. You are just aimlessly climbing. You are trying to climb. Crawling and scratching for any inch and for me to get there, I see the light right here and I see you, and you’re in the dark. But you’re only two feet behind me. You are six inches behind me. You don’t see how close you are, but I see how close you are because I’m there, you know what I’m saying?

Rau: In college, I was essentially a coach and I had that battle with everybody, like, You don’t know how close you are. People can’t see that for themselves.

Bisek: When you’re in it, it’s very hard.

Rau: Pat Smith always shares that with me because he always helps me when it comes to things like that. You’ve heard this analogy there’s a guy digging and digging, and looking for gold, diamonds, or whatever. And a lot of guys give up when they are an inch away from the jackpot. That’s why you have to keep digging, you never know how close you are.

There is no “deserve”

Just because you have put the time in. Just because you have sweat, sacrificed, and bled. Just because you put everything else in your life on hold to take forth on a journey that you knew going in was going to be a mighty test of your will, does not mean you deserve a prize. The killing fields are forever fresh with the bodies of valiant warriors and second chances gone awry. You can hope to remain among the living or expect to accompany the vanquished, it makes no difference, so long as you are comfortable being defined by the battle and not the result.

Rau: And this is something you said that upset me in a way, but it also made me admire you because of how humble you really are. When you took a bronze medal, it might have been your second one, you said, “There are so many other guys who deserve this.” Maybe we’re thinking of other guys, like Spenser Mango…

Bisek: Guys on the team, dude.

Rau: I know. I was kind of upset at first because it’s like, Andy, the way you work, no one deserves it more than you. But then I thought about it and I know exactly what you are talking about. I feel the same way, that it’s so ridiculous that I accomplished this but at the same time, you knowing you have the ability to accomplish something is so powerful that there are guys who…

Bisek: That should have, but they just don’t have that belief, that mental capacity.

Rau: This sport is so hard, there is no “deserving” anything.

Bisek: Absolutely. And there are a number of people who say you get what you deserve, you get what you earn. I kind of call bullshit.

Rau: You really don’t.

Bisek: But one thing I could say is that it’s very hard, almost impossible, to get what you’re worth. Because basically, you are guaranteed to say that your results do not show you’re worth.

Rau: I’ve been told that. Erin Golston told me that once because I put some emotional Facebook post up after the University Worlds going 0-1. It was the first World Team I made, I was fresh from college and everybody was like, Hey, we didn’t believe you could do this, but now you can. And then I went 0-1, and it was emotional for me. It was a crossroads in a way, wondering if maybe I should go home. I was living on a couch in Minnesota with no money. So it was a crossroads in a way and Erin Golston told me, “One tournament doesn’t define you.” That being said, I’ve been to millions of tournaments and she’s right, but it is hard to realize that.

Bisek: It’s not until after you have been to tournament after tournament can you finally see that. There’s a team tournament in Belarus, it’s probably going on right now, I’ve been in it twice. It’s a dual tournament, that’s why I say it’s a “team” tournament.

Rau: I know which one you’re talking about.

Bisek: The first year I was there, I wrestled four matches and I lost every single match. I went there again a year or two later, I wrestled five matches and I lost every one of them. I am 0-9 at this tournament. It’s unreal. I started to hate that place because I could not believe it went that badly (laughs).

Rau: I was supposed to go to this tournament in ’15 after I made the World Team and we all know how how that went.

Bisek: In this tournament, I wrestled guys who I had beaten before. Guys who if you look at it on paper, I should have beaten them before. And here I sit, 0 for 9, so there are the expectations to the results.

Rau: That’s cool to say because you’re a two-time bronze medalist.

Bisek: I took third in the World twice and there is a tournament I am 0 for 9 at (laughs).

Rau: You know what I love, is that there are foreigners around the world who don’t think you deserve those two bronze medals.

Bisek: Oh, yeah, definitely. Joe, believe me, I know people look at me and it’s even crazy in the US. TheMat.com has its own forums and you may have seen this…

Rau: I don’t look at them at all. I don’t look at the forums at all. I stopped looking at forums after high school because I was obsessed with them and they ruined me. They ruined me.

Bisek: I only did because (Joe) Betterman was saying this. I’m beyond that. I don’t obsess about them, but I am not going to ignore them. And I think that is faith in myself, I hold true to who I am.

There was this thread that said something to the effect that “Greco sucks” and a user asked, “Can somebody tell me the last time we had a Greco medalist?” (Laughs) I’m reading this like, What? Excuse me?  I busted my ass! And then somebody said my name for ’14 and ’15 and the response was, “Oh, the guy who couldn’t score one offensive point?” Seriously? I don’t know, no one else did anything and at least I did what I did. Did I take third or not? Because you’re trying to say basically that I didn’t.

Rau: I’ve been pulled in recently once and I usually avoid at all costs these kinds of situations. Jesse Thielke just got into a similar conversation over Facebook comments.

Bisek: Mistake.

Rau: It’s hard but I know it’s a mistake. This guy was completely ill-informed, he had no idea what he was talking about, and that is the majority of the people on the internet. People are willing to make comments that are offensive.

Bisek: I bet if they wrestled anybody on the National Team, they would revoke their opinion.

Rau: They would change their minds.

Bisek: (Laughs) They’d be like, “No, okay.”

Rau: Freestyle and Greco have had problems in the past as far as being one, but I feel like more than ever that every guy on the freestyle team is a class act and has respect for us.

Bisek: I totally agree.

Rau: They are really, really nice and understand our struggle. They are not offensive or mean, even though the rest of the US acts that way. But the majority of the people who make those comments don’t know what they are talking about. I mean, I remember when I made the World Team, how we were talking about me feeling like I didn’t belong there. I had some guy who beat me in college, he and his buddies were commenting on this FLO Wrestling video, it had thousands of views and all this stuff, and I was just happy to be on FLO. Then I see these comments and there is this kid who beat me who never should have, though I’ll never take that away from him. He beat me in the DIII Nationals and he shouldn’t have. And all of his friends were like, Look at this, if you would have stuck with it you would have been on the US World Team. 

Bisek: If you compare who I am now to who I was years ago, well, now I’m here doing this. And you think you can roll with me? No.

Rau: Right, no (laughs).

Bisek: That’s a comparison you can’t make.

Rau: It’s like, Do you know what has been done in the last two years? What I’ve gone through? You contributed to making me better by beating me. And I like the kid, but his friends were jokingly saying that if he stays on it, he’ll be on the World Team.  I wanted to comment and tell them they were idiots but I knew nothing would be accomplished.

But this year, after not making the Olympics but winning Trials was hard for me. Jason Bryant posted a “post-Olympic qualifier” podcast with me to see how I was doing. I was at the Olympic Training Center helping Robby (Smith) train. I was basically a throwing dummy, back to my “training partner” status after coming so close to becoming an Olympian.

2016 Olympics, Greco Roman, USA Andy Bisek

Bisek defeated Yurisandy Hernandez Rios (CUB) first round at the 2016 Olympics. (Photo: John Sachs)

Orange juice

What is it that you have inside of you? Have you seen it? Have you tested the expanse of your own will often enough to know exactly what it is capable of? More importantly, are you eager to, even if you know that the yield may be potentially underwhelming? If the answer is “yes”, then you can rest assured you are in it for the right reasons. Because those “right reasons” may wind up being your sole comfort during times of despair.

The unrelenting desire of an athlete to push his or her limits is what separates them from normal, civilized society. Why else would someone continuously punish themselves if the reward is meager compared to the effort? Because conflict acts as fuel in the moment and it is only when those moments have come and gone when the wreckage can be assessed. But it is beautiful wreckage. It stands for something. The scarred tissue cascading around each valve of a wounded heart means survival. And if there is survival there can be victory, now and in the future.

Rau: We were talking about this earlier today, but a girl crashed my car and totaled it before Nationals my senior year. I was a senior going into the NCAA’s and I was a favorite, but I probably should have had a national title before that. I should have won it the year before and I didn’t, so the pressure is on. Everybody was talking about how I should be a national champion. And then a girl crashes my car the day before and we were talking about guys coming up with excuses.

Bisek: You had the perfect opportunity to give the excuse.

Rau: It was the perfect opportunity and it would have been totally reasonable. But being great at something is unreasonable. It takes an unreasonable amount of work, an unreasonable amount of mental strength, and everything you’ve got. The juice is never worth the squeeze. It’s not. You squeeze a couple of oranges and you’re like, Really? This is how much juice I get out of them?

Bisek: You don’t even have half a glass. You’re sitting there looking at a sixth of a glass, a fifth of a glass.

Rau: You have that understanding and you plug away, maybe squeezing 20 oranges for one drink and it’s amazing. That’s what it takes.

Bisek: And at that point, you don’t care that you squeezed 20 oranges. I got what I wanted (laughs). I’ve got my drink. 

Rau: You are numb to it. People will say, “Wow, that’s a lot. That is a lot of stuff to do just to get this.” And I’ll say, Well you know why I’m here. Do you know why I have this? Because I was willing to squeeze 20 oranges to get my class of orange juice, that’s why.

Bisek: They’re looking at you and your glass of orange juice going, “Hey, how’d you do that? How can I get that?” Well, you can’t, because you’re not willing to commit to everything I have.

Rau: Right, once you’ve got the glass, everyone is all about it. Everybody wants some then. But if they would have been through the whole movie with you, they wouldn’t have helped you 24/7, do you know what I mean? There are some people who would help, but they aren’t willing to squeeze all of those oranges just to get that little bit out the way you are.

I feel like for me, it has always been about that little bit of juice. We’re looking at this as a big task because I’ve done everything I could. I made a World Team and I got just a little bit of juice because I lost my first match. Then I win the Olympic Trials and I get a little more juice into the glass.

Bisek: You’re trying to find those oranges again that you can squeeze because it’s few and far between that the oranges are worth something. Few and far between.

Rau: There are certain people who aren’t willing to squeeze those oranges even though they have them loaded up in a bucket.

Bisek: It’s like, what are they doing with these oranges? Just looking around saying, Not today, maybe tomorrow? Oh my gosh.

Rau: Then there are the guys, I’m one of them, who are looking everywhere for an orange and once we get one, we’re going to squeeze it to get a little juice out and then we’re going to get another one and do it again. There are two kinds of people and both of them can be successful. My college coach Steve Marianetti, NCAA champion, freestyle World Team member, talks to me about this. We like to say that hard work beats talent, but that is when talent doesn’t work hard. It’s false.  Wrestling at this level, or any high level, shows you that talent can beat hard work and it’s cruel. It’s wrong. There are guys who aren’t willing to squeeze the juice who can still beat you any given day and it doesn’t matter.

Bisek: Because talent at that high of a level can do those things, like you just said.

Rau: It can break the working man. But the working man has something much more valuable than talent.

Bisek: They have drive.

Rau: It’s something people don’t see and I’m guilty of it. My work ethic has been questionable this year, I’m just being honest. You talk about excuses, I’ve been injured all year and I didn’t like the way I was feeling at 98 kilos. So people have questioned my work ethic, but you’d never believe who I was in college. I told Momir that, he asked me one day if I could do it all again, would I do folkstyle? He said, “Be honest with me, man.” I said, “Yes, I would. Doing folkstyle was one of the most amazing times of my life and the lessons I learned in folkstyle were harsh but they made me who I am in Greco.” And now I’m thinking about it after the Olympics and I’m like, Dang, man, I would NOT have done folkstyle. (Laughs)

I wish I committed to this Olympic dream ever since I had it, which was way long ago, but I didn’t see myself as that person. And also, when you think about it, if I didn’t go to college I never would have been here. Everybody has their own road.

Bisek: Just like their own movie.

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