Many Olympic athletes toil for years for a chance at 15 minutes of worldwide fame. But the slog endured by Greco-Roman wrestlers is enough to make badminton players seem as recognizable as LeBron James.
Traditional freestyle powers like Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Arizona State won’t be represented in Rio, but thanks to a U.S. Olympic training site established in 1999 on its Milwaukee, Michigan, campus, the University of Northern Michigan will compete in three different weight classes in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Greco-Roman wrestling forbids holds below the waist, as well as the use of one’s legs to trip opponents or otherwise execute takedowns. As opposed to freestyle, the prettier and more popular of the wrestling styles, Greco-Roman’s practitioners in the U.S. don’t have opposing teams, tournaments or championships. They have wrestling.
"Unlike other college programs, which operate under the umbrella of the NCAA and compete in the more mainstream freestyle wrestling, the Greco-Roman specialists here train in virtual anonymity. There are no dual meets against top programs like Iowa or Penn State. There are no NCAA titles to be won. The Northern Michigan wrestlers are preparing, quite simply, to become Olympians," New York Times sports reporter Scott Cacciola wrote in 2013.
Northern Michigan alumni Robby Smith (130 kg), Ben Provisor (85 kg) and Andy Bisek (75 kg) will all compete in Greco-Roman wrestling in Brazil. Because of their sport’s unique place in American athletics, the long winters training in remote Marquette bring the fellow Wildcats together.
"It’s definitely a different breed of wrestler. Everybody wrestling on the senior level of Greco is a little bit different. We make it work," Bisek told the Cedar Rapids Gazette in April. "We believe in everybody on the team."
The teammates' lone rivalry may be in the facial hair department.
Bisek, nicknamed "The Cowboy," sports a magnificent mustache that has taken on such a life of its own, it's become part of his Twitter handle, @biseks_stache. Smith, meanwhile, enjoys a full and lustrous face of hair, which has inspired a "Fear the Beard" rallying cry.
Bisek, Smith and Provisor aren't the only athletes whose road to Rio passed through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Freestyle wrestlers Helen Maroulis (53 kg) and Adeline Gray (75 kg) both graduated from nearby Marquette High School and train at the University of Northern Michigan Olympic Training Site.
Additionally, a trio of Northern Michigan alumna who train at the school's facility will represent the U.S. in sports other than wrestling. Mikaela Mayer will participate in her first Olympics, fighting as a lightweight boxer; Sarah Robles will compete in her second Olympics as a weightlifter in the 75+ kg field; and first-time Olympian Kelly Allen of nearby Iron Mountain, Michigan, will represent the red, white and blue in the paracanoe.