Shane Wiskus faces heartbreak as Olympic gymnastics alternate

MINNEAPOLIS — The members of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team lined up, sitting in chairs, sharing their joy with reporters. Fred Richard, the all-around winner in the Olympic qualifier, beamed like a rising star. Paul Judah couldn’t stop crying and Stephen Nedoroscik couldn’t stop smiling. But there, at the other end, sat a substitute, his dream trampled and his heart broken.

During the three minutes that Shane Wiskus faced the media, he responded briefly. He stared at the person speaking, his eyes red. He fidgeted in his seat, probably because he wanted to get away from the place that will symbolically mark the end of his career.

Wiskus, and his fans who packed the Target Center, thought Saturday night’s news would focus on this Minnesota kid and his triumphant return to the Olympics. The local hero being the protagonist of the day always makes for a good story. The fact that Wiskus was left out of the five-man selection – because what matters most here is not individual ranking but how much certain routines can improve the team’s score – was the cruelest twist.

“Um, I mean, numb,” Wiskus said when asked how he felt about being named one of the team’s two alternates.

We watch these events every four years because the stakes aren’t just high; they’re colossal. The casual observer and couch potato don’t need to know anything about the arcane scoring systems or the career outcomes of athletes who have spent the last three years largely anonymous. The reason we watch, the reason our blood pressure rises (as if we’re the ones trying to stick the landing), is simple: We’re here for the stories.

The general public who live comfortably outside the world of gymnastics, those viewers who don’t know the difference between the parallel bars and the pommel horse, had probably never heard of Wiskus before Saturday. But you don’t have to know him to care about what happened in that arena:

A 25 year old had dedicated his life to the pursuit of one thing. He had been tossing and turning since he was little, and now he was on the precipice of a major change in his life. One wrong move and his career would be over. And the decisive event would be played out in front of his family, his friends and his former teammates. He was at home. When the public announcer introduced him last among the artists, the screams of about 16,000 fans let it be known that it was her event.

Wiskus broke free to take in all the love of the moment, lingering on stage a little longer and waving his heart out to the audience. He wasn’t the best gymnast in the field – Richard wasted no time achieving that distinction – but Wiskus was Minnesota’s man. He had the home advantage as well as the motivation.

“I allowed myself to have fun thinking about what could potentially be the last competition of my career,” Wiskus said after Thursday’s first round of competition.

Wiskus, who was part of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics team, had previously considered retirement. These thoughts finally took root. Last week, as Wiskus returned to his home state, where he excelled at the University of Minnesota, he seemed to have made a resolution. If he didn’t make the Olympic team, the trials would likely be his last competition.

Wiskus wouldn’t go down without a fight — and several punches. After his floor routine, Wiskus, who seems to have never missed a day of chest and arms in the weight room, flexed his biceps and exulted. As he finished his routine on the rings, nailing the landing, he cheered so loudly that he created a chalk cloud.

In his final event, the parallel bars, Wiskus began his routine just as the other competitors had stopped. All eyes were on him. NBC cameras followed his every move, his dips and his handstands. When he finished, the crowd cheered their hero. He yelled, “Let’s go!” and then cupped his hands over his ears to hear his fans scream even louder.

“I had the best two days of competition, so…” Wiskus would later say, his sentence trailing off.

Preparing for the Games was difficult for several notable athletes. Athing Mu, who won gold in the 800 meters at the Tokyo Olympics, tripped and fell during the track and field trials. But she is only 22 years old; in 2028, she will have a ready-made narrative for revenge in Los Angeles. Elaine Thompson-Herah, formerly the world’s fastest woman, had to withdraw from the Jamaican trials due to injury, but her legacy is already paved with gold. Alex Morgan was cut from the US women’s soccer team, but her contributions to the sport – and the equal pay movement – ​​will never be forgotten. U.S. Open winner Bryson DeChambeau didn’t make the U.S. team because he was short enough ranking points. But he will be able to dry his tears very well with the sums of money he receives from the Saudis.

These athletes either saw their Olympic dreams come true or possess the kind of wealth that makes life comfortable. Wiskus’ pain is different. He dedicated his life to a sport that takes a back seat to the women’s version, and while he had a great career, his lights will soon go out — perhaps without an Olympic medal.

After the competition, all participants left the room while the selection committee deliberated and chose the team members who would join Richard in Paris. Wiskus finished third overall and he thought he did enough to be selected.

“Yeah, I think I deserved it, so…” he said, his words ending quickly again.

As the team was announced, one by one, the lucky few emerged from the wings and bathed in the spotlight. Like the five gymnasts named to the team, Wiskus was also presented with a bouquet of white flowers. He wore the same blue Nike warm-ups as them and stood next to them on the platform. However, when Wiskus appeared for the last time at Target Center, he was no longer pumping his fists and flexing. The support from the fans was more sympathetic. They were cheering for a replacement.

“You’re not human if you don’t have those kinds of emotions toward these incredible athletes,” said Brett McClure, the high performance director who helps select the men’s team. “All the athletes have put everything on the line, trained their whole lives for this, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. It’s horrible for those who don’t make it, and it’s great for those who do – it changes their lives. The roller coaster of emotions is absolutely real and it never gets easier to deal with in my position.

It’s a strange thing to mourn the end of a dream in front of strangers with notepads and microphones. But given USA Gymnastics’ media obligations, Wiskus did it. When a local reporter asked him a variation of the question about his feelings, Wiskus simply repeated the one-word answer: “Numb.” When the same man started asking him how hard it had been not to make the team despite all the “great things” he had done, Wiskus was the epitome of Minnesota niceness.

“I’m not answering your questions anymore, sir,” Wiskus said, calmly and in control.

Wiskus then changed eye contact and asked if anyone had any further questions. No one answered, so he turned to a volunteer and asked how he could get back to the other end of the row. Wiskus’s belongings were there.

As Richard spoke simple sentences (“…I love Minnesota! I’m going to do anything to get the men’s team back!”), Wiskus lay on the ground, picking up his garment bag and that bouquet of flowers. Then he left. End of story.

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