AIC wrestling standouts Rafael Calixto ’99, MEd ’01, Mike Michell ’00, MBA ’03, and Joe Pistone ’00 share their experience elevating the program from its humble origins to the competitive force it is today.
Following its founding in the early 1990s, the AIC men’s wrestling team had to carve out its own identity in the Athletics Department. Mitchell, Calixto, and Pistone played a big part in that. All three were all-Americans and are now enshrined in the AIC Athletics Hall of Fame. Mitchell earned all-American honors twice as a three-time national qualifier, Calixto twice qualified for the national championship, and Pistone was a national qualifier and still holds the program record for dual meet wins.
And while those three athletes played a substantial role in putting AIC on the map nationally, Calixto remembers having to sneak into the gym and roll out a section of mat in order to get a workout in, even as one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the nation.
“We had no wrestling room, so we would have to wait for club teams and open gym to be over to use the mats,” he recalls. “It was crazy.”
Through the challenges, however, the AIC grapplers found more than mere success on the mat. They developed an uncommon bond—a brotherhood. “We were all from different walks of life, but we came together perfectly. I lived with five of the other guys in an off-campus apartment. We were a family,” says Mitchell.
The wrestling team was a microcosm of the campus community—a group from various backgrounds who found their place at AIC. Yellow Jackets wrestling coach and former two-time Olympian Anibal Nieves was the one who brought them together. While many faced personal challenges, Nieves saw promise in each of them.
~Rafael Calixto ’99, MEd ’01
Calixto admits he hadn’t considered wrestling in college before Nieves recruited him after the two met at a Connecticut all-state wrestling banquet. Growing up with a single mother and two brothers, a college education was an afterthought.
“At my house, we were more concerned with paying the bills and putting food on the table than talking about college or future plans,” Calixto explains. “I was fortunate enough to realize that I had an opportunity presented to me by Coach Nieves to make a better future. I took my college experience very seriously because it was my survival kit. It truly was my way out, and I used wrestling as my vehicle.
“I never felt lost in a class or at the College. I also appreciated their honesty and the fact that they took the time to know you. You were not just a student; you were a person to them.”
Mitchell and Pistone both knew Nieves from his time coaching their club team in New York. For Pistone, AIC offered an opportunity he never thought he’d have as a special education student in high school.
“I was basically told to forget about going to college. I wasn’t set up for success in high school,” Pistone said. “AIC has a really great learning support center to help students like me with learning disabilities. Professor Jill McCarthy Payne was my advisor and she was able to get me to focus and map out an academic plan. AIC set me up with professors who knew my learning style. They really wanted me to be successful. I’m forever indebted to AIC for that.”
For Mitchell, becoming a Yellow Jacket represented a second chance. Originally wrestling with the Division I program at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, Mitchell found himself in need of direction, which he discovered at AIC.
“I was in trouble all over the place and found myself not wrestling. No one wanted to work with a 142-pounder who was 200 pounds,” he admits. “But when I got to AIC, guys like Rafael mentored me and made sure I could be successful. That’s what was special. Everyone was looking out for each other.
“It was so different to be able to talk to a professor and not have your grades just posted on a wall sorted by social security number. You felt like they valued you. They were invested in your success.”
Like all families, the one forged on the mats in the Butova Gymnasium has branched out and made its way in the world. Mitchell met his wife while earning his MBA from AIC, and is now a senior home lending officer for Citi in New York. Calixto, now in his nineteenth year in education, is an assistant principal at H.H. Ellis Technical High School in Danielson, Connecticut. Pistone enjoyed a seventeen-year career as a wrestling coach, and is now the owner of Salt and Mist Sea Tours, offering charters out of Maine and Florida, depending on the season.
While life has pulled them all in different directions, they remain closely connected to each other and the College. They all make a point to visit campus for Homecoming and whenever they are in the area. Prior to the hiring of coach Rich Hasenfus, Pistone briefly returned to AIC as the interim coach and assisted in the coaching search. Calixto, who has coached wrestling for twenty years, was instrumental in sophomore Baltazar “JoJo” Gonzalez’s decision to compete at AIC. Gonzalez became the first AIC wrestler to qualify for the NCAA national championship in seven years.
To the former Yellow Jackets grapplers, Hasenfus and Gonzalez are signs of a strong future for the program—a future they helped build years ago. “Rich has a reputation of building programs, bringing in quality recruits, and helping them achieve success,” Pistone said. “Being alumni, we know the potential that this program has. We know we’ve got the right guy and we’re very excited.”
By Chris Maza