Fight For My Life

April 14, 2022

Tony Riske

How I picked myself up off the canvas and continued a journey I started almost 15 years ago.

Before I get started, if this is our first encounter: Hello! My name is Tony Riske, and I have both the pleasure and privilege of being one of the newest personal trainers here at Western. I currently reside in Appleton, where I was raised, although I consider the U.P. to be my true home.

My path to personal training here at Western has been anything but orthodox, but to properly encompass how I ended up here, we have to travel back to the summer of 2008. Back then, I was entering 8th grade, and the only thing on my mind was the upcoming middle school football season. As one of the captains-to-be, in order to help reach the goals we had set as a team and the goals I had set for myself, I knew it was time to get in a weight room. And so on the first Monday in June at 8am that summer, I made it to the Appleton North weight room, accompanied by my best friend’s now brother-in-law, who was going into his senior year. To say I was nervous would be a massive understatement; here I was, a middle-schooler, going into my future high school’s weight room for the first time, surrounded by my future coaches and older future teammates. But this anxiety was dwarfed by my self-confidence and desire to reach incredibly lofty goals I had dreamed about for many years prior, and I began training three times a week during the summer. The impact seemed almost immediate; I was challenged in ways I physically and mentally never had been challenged before, and with each obstacle came the desire to overcome whatever was being put in front of me. By the end of that 12-week summer, my confidence had never been higher; the time I had spent in the gym that summer coupled with my body’s transition to adolescence had given me athleticism I always dreamed of. I was dunking a tennis ball on a 10-foot basketball hoop, my endurance had skyrocketed, and I was even beginning to lift more weight than a good portion of my older peers.

For the next two years, this trajectory continued; when I arrived to high school in fall of 2009, I made what I still consider the best decision of my life and joined the wrestling team. The dedication, attention to detail, and extreme mental resiliency required by the sport of wrestling are all attributes of successful individuals in any environment, whether it’s a gym-goer, an entrepreneur, or a new parent trying to get their fussy baby to stop crying. By the time I reached my sophomore year, I felt like a superstar in-waiting; I had made both the varsity football and wrestling rosters and was receiving athletic letters of interest from a few local colleges here in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, my early triumphs mixed with the politics and drama of high school began to cloud the visions of success I had for myself just a year or two earlier; I was becoming distracted by unhealthy platonic and romantic relationships, but the worst relationship I developed during this time was my relationship with alcohol. I began to only care about when the next party was and what kind of bottle I could get my hands on, and it had a direct impact on my performance during my training sessions and competitions. The extra work I used to put in and attention to detail was gone, my peers were catching up to me, and my mental well-being was rapidly declining. By my senior year, I lost my starting spots in both football and wrestling, and ultimately put an end to any aspirations I had of competing at the collegiate level.

After high school, I went off to UW-Whitewater to study finance and economics. I had hoped that a new environment and a new experience of living on my own would help me rediscover my old passions and maybe even create some new ones. But by my first month in Whitewater, I found myself turning to alcohol more than ever to cope with the stress of school and using it to run away from my responsibilities. Rather than acknowledging I was struggling, I would lie to my family and friends about how I was doing in school. After four years in college, I returned home in spring of 2017 emotionally broken with barely enough energy and motivation to get out of bed some days.

After bouncing around from job to job, I landed a position with a home improvement company in 2018 doing marketing for them up until March 2020, when I was furloughed from the position due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The time I spent during those initial months of quarantine gave me a lot of time to think about who I was as a person then, and the person I wanted to become going forward. By this point, I was in the worst physical condition of my life; 55 pounds heavier than when I graduated high school, and not even half as strong. I had always loved fitness, and I enjoy meeting new people and learning their story, so when an opportunity for a kickboxing fitness instructor came to my attention in March 2021, I decided to give it a shot despite my present physical condition. My first day there included me going through the kickboxing circuit workout created by the organization. Not even 10 minutes into the workout, I became physically ill because of how out-of-shape I was. Even though I still got the job, I had felt completely humiliated; how was I going to be a trainer when I can’t even complete the workout myself? For me, as a former high-level athlete, this incident was the final straw. Over the next year, I rediscovered the discipline and fire inside of me that I needed to change my physical and emotional well-being for the better, which has resulted in me losing 45 pounds over the last year and gaining back the love for my own life I remember having as a teenager. But I didn’t do it alone; along the way I had unwavering encouragement and help from former coworkers, family, and friends.

Present day, April 2022. I could not be more honored and humbled to be writing this piece as a member of the personal training team here at Western. A special thanks goes out to Alex Awve and Mary Thomas for giving me this opportunity; their openness to me and what I believe I will bring to the table as a personal trainer is a debt I will owe them for eternity.

My story doesn’t end here though, in fact, I know this is just the start. I cannot wait to learn more about every one of you and hear your stories. And if you’ll allow me just a couple hours of your time each week, I know together we can create an impactful and sustainable routine for whatever kind of lifestyle you live and want to live going forward.

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