When Ben Provisor was a freshman on the wrestling team at Stevens Point High School in Wisconsin, goal cards were handed out to everyone during a practice.
Provisor kept his blank for a while as his teammates filled theirs out with aspirations for the season and state tournament. Finally, Provisor wrote down two words: 2012 Olympian.
It may seem crazy for a 22-year-old who never finished higher than third in the Wisconsin Wrestling High School State Championship or won a collegiate wrestling title to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
But after defeating No. 1 seed Aaron Sieracki in the final of the Greco-Roman wrestling Olympic qualifying at 74 kg (163 lbs) in April, Provisor left the mat with his hand raised, a tattoo of a cross with angel wings only half visible under his singlet.
“I know if I wrestle to my full potential, I can beat everybody in the U.S. [at 74 kg],” Provisor said. “I wrestle all the guys [in my weight class] all the time, so it was awesome to win it. I was expecting to win the whole time, but I don’t know if anyone else did.”
Making it to London took more than confidence. Years of training under a former great and a promise to a special mentor put Provisor on track for Olympic glory.
A helpful neighbor
With no other athletes in his immediate family, Provisor said his parents, Dennis and Tammy, signed him up for various sports to see what would catch. It turned out he was attracted to the more violent sports.
“I was a really physical kid when I was younger,” Provisor said. “I played a lot of football and was always a little rougher than normal. My mom went to a wrestling tournament one time, and she thought I would be good at it. I signed up for wrestling the next day.”
Provisor started entering city tournaments when he was six years old but said it was just for fun. When he turned nine, he decided to get more serious and joined the World Gold Wrestling Club.
That’s where he met Dennis Hall.
Hall was a bit of a local hero. He was originally from Plover, Wis., a few miles from Stevens Point, but had lived, trained and run the club in Stevens Point for years.
A Greco-Roman wrestler himself, Hall was a three-time Olympian (1992, 1996 silver medalist and 2004), 10-time U.S. National Champion and the 1995 World Champion.
Inducted into the 2011 National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Hall also turned out to be Provisor’s neighbor.
The two began working at the club, and it didn’t take long for Hall to recognize Olympic potential in his young pupil.
“First time I saw him, I knew he was somebody who could possibly get to that level [the Olympic Games]. It was what I saw inside him—his dedication, his heart and how he loved to compete. I think if you don’t have it in your heart, no matter how much training you do, it’s not going to get you there.”
With all the tools in place, Hall started making special arrangements for his young wrestler. When Provisor was in eighth grade, Hall brought over several training partners from Bulgaria. One of those training partners stayed with Provisor at his house, and they became close.
Shortly after, an opportunity to train back in Bulgaria came up for Provisor. At age 13, he lived in Bulgaria for a year, repeating eighth grade and training with top-tier Greco-Roman wrestlers.
It was during his time in Bulgaria when he first realized he could be an Olympian, Provisor said. His stay there was part of Hall’s plan to get him ready.
“I think the trip showed him that guys are doing the Greco-Roman part full-time,” Hall said. “If he wants to win at the world level, he’s got to train at that level more.”
When Provisor returned, he started showing significant strides as a wrestler. As a freshman in high school, Provisor remembers the first time he ever could go toe-to-toe with Hall on the mat.
“I was like 130 pounds the first time I scored on him,” Provisor said. “I was super happy, but then I got my ass whooped by him.”
Once Provisor got to be a junior in high school and weighed about 170 lbs, he said Hall could no longer beat him. Hall wrestled competitively at 121 lbs and 127 lbs, and Provisor said he was too big for him.
After high school, Provisor enrolled at Northern Michigan. He didn’t wrestle there, but the Olympic dream still burned inside him. He went to school for one year but then had to make a choice. It was going to be London or bust.
“The partners I wanted to train with and the people I wanted to be around left, so I came to Colorado with them,” Provisor said. “It was sort of a choice between school and wrestling, and I picked wrestling. That’s what I’ve been working for my whole life and that’s what really matters to me. Education is super important, but if I wanted to get better at wrestling, I had to come to Colorado Springs.”
As a mother, Tammy Provisor was hesitant to let her son walk away from higher education, but she saw the potential in Ben.
“I supported him, and he obviously knew where he was in terms of his body and his mind,” Tammy Provisor said. “He made the right decision because all his hard work has paid off.”
At 20, Provisor left the Midwest behind and moved to Colorado Springs. It was the wrestling environment he wanted. Provisor said he tried to go to school at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs for a while, but when he won the U.S. Open Wrestling Championships in 2011, he got too busy.
Provisor has been training in Colorado Springs for two years now, but no matter how busy he gets, Hall is never out of the loop. Hall said the two talk about three to five times a week about not only wrestling but also attitude and approach.
“I try and help Ben with the mental side of the game,” Hall said. “If you go watch the Olympics this summer, everyone is chiseled—there’s not one guy who doesn’t look an Olympic athlete. The difference between the guys who win and those who don’t is the mental focus they have.”
Back in Stevens Point, Hall was doing more than just long-distance coaching.
Hall hadn’t competed since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but something was drawing him back. It wasn’t the fact that Provisor was attempting to qualify—Hall had seen that coming for years. It was the desire to compete.
At age 41, Hall decided to try and qualify for the Olympic team at 132 lbs.
“I didn’t want any regrets,” Hall said. “Last year I was a training partner for the No. 1 guy in the country, and I was going with him toe-to-toe. I was there to help him out, but I felt I could still compete. For me it was about not looking back 10 years from now saying, 'Why didn’t I do it? Could I have made the team?' I know the answer now.”
Back in Iowa City in April, both Hall and Provisor wrestled for their Olympic fate on the same day. Competitors wrestle lowest weight to highest, so Hall would go first. His bid for a fourth Olympic team fell short, but that didn’t stop him from cheering or Provisor from winning.
“Of course I was disappointed, but at the same time I was happy for Ben,” Hall said. “It’s a step in the right direction to winning an Olympic medal. I told Ben four or five years ago, if you don’t have more Olympic and world medals than I have at the end of your career, I’ll be disappointed. You have more potential than what I had. I knew he’d get there, I just didn’t know when or how.”
A wrestling family tragedy
For Provisor, it was always a question of when, not how.
Beyond Hall’s lessons in the mental game of wrestling, Provisor always had the motivation in his heart to make an Olympic team. He said his inner belief has always been strong, and it is fueled by a promise he made back when he was a teenager.
Tammy worked with a man named Art Cone at Culver’s in Stevens Point. Provisor also knew Cone through wrestling.
“Our families got very close, and his son was also a wrestler so we got very close,” Provisor said. “He taught me a lot about being a good person and what really matters in life. Things like who I am, what I should be and how to treat people.”
Hall said the wrestling community is unlike those in other sports. The same people travel to tournaments together and interact from a young age. It involves parents and kids alike.
The connection between Provisor and Cone was one of those special relationships that went beyond the sport. Cone never got to see all who Provisor would turn out to be, though. He died when Provisor was a senior in high school.
“He was just a special guy to me,” Provisor said. “I wrote a letter to him to put in his casket. It was probably like three pages, but one of those things said, ‘I will be an Olympian and represent this country.’”
As the ref raised Provisor’s arm in victory back in April, two things were clear: Provisor never betrayed that promise, and he never forgot Cone.
The tattoo partially covered under Provisor’s London-bound singlet pays tribute to his lost friend. Two passages accompany the cross and angel wings. The words ‘Carpe Diem’ are displayed atop the cross with ‘Rest in peace, Big Papa’ along the bottom.
Although he won’t be there to watch the competition, Provisor made sure Cone would at least be part of the journey.
It’s been years since his promise to Cone and the Olympic declaration to his teammates, but Provisor said he doesn’t feel any different now that the dream is reality.
“I don’t think anything has changed yet [since qualifying],” Provisor said. “When I get to the Opening Ceremonies, I’m going to understand that it’s real. Right now, I’m just focused on training and making sure I’m 100 percent for my competition.”
For Provisor, that means doing anything and everything to make sure he doesn’t burn out in the opening rounds.
“My cardio is really good right now, and I’ve been going to yoga to keep my body flexible,” Provisor said. “I’ve been trying to work on wrestling on my feet to score, so I don’t have to go into the up-and-down position. I’ve just been trying to make every little thing a bit better. I know I’m not going to make everything perfect. I’m just trying to make everything I’m good at now as good as possible.”
He’s also been pouring over a booklet of notes on each wrestler in his 74 kg weight class. For over a month, Provisor has been studying the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of his opponents from all positions to prepare.
Provisor won’t know his opponent until the day of weigh-ins. Until then, he and his mentor have much to discuss.
Although Hall hasn’t been in Colorado Springs over the past two years, he is coming to support Provisor in London along with a group of 20-25 people.
Tammy said a strong supporting class from Stevens Point has been one of Ben’s driving forces since the beginning.
“I knew Ben was capable of winning. He just had to believe he could,” Tammy Provisor said. “We had 82 people from Stevens Point come [to qualifying], and I think that loyalty and love really inspired him. It just happened that day for him. He wrestled the best he’s ever wrestled—even his coach [Hall] said that. You have to have something going for you that day and he just did it.”
Since Provisor qualified in April, Hall has been giving advice about the competitive atmosphere in London.
“I said, ‘Ben, you’ve got to understand the Olympic stage is different than a tournament in January,” Hall said. “In a tournament in January, guys are just wrestling to wrestle. When you get to the Olympic Games, you’ve got to expect a guy is willing to do almost anything to win an Olympic gold medal.’”
Getting out-willed doesn’t happen often to Provisor, and he doesn’t expect that to change. But through all his goal cards and promises that got him to this point, Provisor said he will be OK with just himself on the mat in London.
“I want to wrestle as hard as I can every single day [that I compete],” he said. “If I’m prepared the way I am now, I will have no regrets. I’m going to be calm and wrestle to my full potential. Hopefully I bring home a medal for the U.S.A. That’s the goal. Then I can start a long career in the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling.”
Editor's Note: This article was written by BSU at the Games, a partner of HuffPost College and a program of 40 students lead by Ball State University who are reporting from the London 2012 Summer Games. More from these students is available on BSU at the Games' website.
Correction: An original version of this article stated that Plover, Wisconsin was "about two hours south of Stevens Point." The article has been changed to reflect that Plover is actually a few miles from Stevens Point.