Shane Wiskus first tried gymnastics because his parents wanted him to. No, Mike and Tammy Wiskus didn’t put their 5-year-old in the sport with early dreams of a college scholarship or something as far-fetched as the Olympics.
The Spring Park, Minn., family put Shane in tumbling classes at North Shore Gymnastics in Maple Plain about 17 years ago to burn off his abundant energy. It was because he was a handful at home, literally jumping on the furniture and figuratively still bouncing off walls come bedtime.
“He was crazy,” Mike Wiskus said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “It was hard to keep up with him.”
About two months in, Mike recalled a gymnastics coach saying, “We need to talk.” Mike laughed at the thought earlier this week. That very first coach recognized Shane was, well, different than the other tykes.
That’s when Wiskus started on a much higher trajectory, one that included a standout career in the Gophers men’s gymnastics program and, now, reaching the pinnacle in these Olympic Games in Tokyo. He will compete on the four-man U.S. team starting Saturday.
As a kid, Shane also played soccer, hockey and baseball, but one by one, he gave those up to focus on gymnastics. As a little league pitcher, a batter hit a line drive straight into his face. It loosened teeth and bloodied his mouth.
“He walked in and said, ‘I’m done with this, let’s stick to gymnastics,’ ” Mike recalled. But given the aerial nature of the sport, it comes with its own health risks. Shane, who wasn’t afraid of heights as a kid, wanted to push all limits, and one of those was to do the Iron Cross move on the rings. It’s where a gymnasts grips the rings with arms parallel with the ground below.
Coaches at Mini Hops had told Shane no, his young shoulders and wrists could have been shredded if he tried to perform the move too early. His body first needed to mature more. Once he got the clearance, he was “so pumped and ready,” Mike said.
Shane’s desire to push the limits is something Mike understands well. For the past 22 years, Mike Wiskus has been a stunt pilot with Lucas Oil, touring the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s not so much risk as it is practice,” Mike explained. “There is always the risk of falling in gymnastics. There is always the risk of crashing when it comes to airshows. … I fly hard. My son sees that.”
Mike’s TikTok account has 121,400 followers and it post videos of him doing an assortment of stunts, such as cutting a ribbon 15 feet off the ground while the plane is inverted as it zips past.
Gophers gymnastics coach Mike Burns sees a correlation between airshows and gymnastics meets.
“(Mike) has a very daredevil-y approach to life, and I think that lends itself to what gymnastics is all about,” Burns said. “We have to be willing and able to put ourselves out on the edge of physical demands. Like Mike, who is a very calm guy, when I see him doing videos of this loop-de-loops and flying upside down, I say, ‘OK, now I see where Shane gets it.’ ”
While Shane risks limb, Mike risks life.
“I’ve managed to stay alive in this sport, whereas I’ve lost 50 friends in this business, just since I started airshows,” Mike Wiskus said. “This is an extremely risky business that I’m in, just as risky when it comes to Shane and his injuries. You’ve got to look at it, you’ve got to plan it. I guess that is part of the fun. Planning things and making sure of how you are going to do it. You’ve got to prepare and be ready for it.”
Shane, who couldn’t be reached for this story, has had the Olympics in his mind since before he joined the Gophers program. The year-long delay of the Summer Games because of COVID-19 wasn’t the only roadblock he has had to overcome.
The shuttering of the Gophers men’s gymnastics program hit Shane hard. “He loves his team,” Mike said. “He told several of the new men coming in, bragged about (the program) and now he felt obligated — ‘Oh my gosh, I got these guys to come to school here and be a part of the team and the school is pulling the rug out from underneath it.’ The guys he convinced to come here; he felt he was part of letting them down.”
Burns, Wiskus and others put together fundraising plans to keep the 118-year-old program alive but to no avail. To Mike Wiskus, it felt like Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle went back on his word.
Before Shane committed to the U, the Wiskuses met with Coyle, and Mike asked Coyle directly if he planned to cut the program in the future. Would he invest in the program’s facilities? And would the U do what it could to support Shane’s goal of making the Olympics?
The Wiskuses heard Coyle say no to cuts, and weeks later Shane, one of the top high school recruits in the nation, committed to Minnesota.
“Keep this in mind, too, we like the University of Minnesota,” Mike Wiskus said. “I appreciate what they have done in terms of his college experience and his classes, getting his diploma. Thank you, I appreciate that. I don’t appreciate what happened with his athletic career.”
Coyle has cited a $40 million budget shortfall hit the program without sports from March 2020 until October 2020, plus needs to become Title IX compliant, as the reason gymnastics was one of three men’s programs cut.
Wiskus was still able to go out with a strong senior year at the U. He was an NCAA champion on still rings and parallel bars, and was second on the all-around competition.
At the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in June, Wiskus fell three times during his high bar routine. It was hard for Burns to watch; Wiskus represents the only Olympian he has coached across 41 years.
On the first fall, Shane’s head hits the mat, and while the mat is soft, Burns first thought was to a possible concussion. The second fall didn’t have much impact. But the third was the most jarring and left Wiskus wincing.
“He missed the first one, so we are not going to repeat that,” Burns recalled. “He misses the next one, and I’m like, ‘Uh oh.’ Then (on the third) I’m going, ‘Oh boy,’ and you start thinking about how far down the leader board he’s dropping. It’s like ‘Tin Cup’ when (actor Kevin Costner) is trying to make the shot and it keeps going in the lake. It’s ‘Lets just lay up!’ ”
During the routine, the NBC Sports commentators nearly said Wiskus he should hang it up. “That should do it right there, I would definitely advise him,” one said on the broadcast.
“It was pretty devastating,” Burns said. “At first you want to be in the top six (in the) all-around because that is the automatic qualification for the Olympic trials and the national team. After that, if you are not in the top six, you have to be selected based on points and the laundry list of how they select the national team. In each successive fall, is he going to stay in the top six? Uh oh. Is he going to have enough points? Uh oh. Is he going to be selected? You can almost see the dream crumbling in front of your eyes.”
But Wiskus got back up each time and finished his routine, sticking the dismount. He received a warm applause from the limited crowd in Fort Worth, Texas. “The crowd acknowledging the determination,” a commentator said. “Good for him.”
Mike Wiskus was a little more declarative.
“What a perfect thing to happen,” he said. “You have to learn how to be a good loser to be a great winner. In that situation, you didn’t see him pull his grips off and throw them, you didn’t see a temper tantrum, all you saw was a young man that when the coach says, ‘You are done,’ Shane said, ‘No I’m not, I’m going to finish.’ He finished, did the best he could. He hit his landing, and what did he do? He smiled, looked and waived to crowd and walked off. You tell me. That is what you want. I was extremely proud of what I saw my son do.”
That pride will swell yet again this weekend.
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