Wrestling in Russia – Part 1


Many years ago I went to college on a wrestling scholarship. While not only helping pay for my education, this also helped to open up the world for me to explore. I was able to compete in tournaments and matches around the U.S., as well as being able to join a national team and go to compete in Russia.

The wrestling side of the trip was the least interesting part…possibly because I was pummeled in almost every match I had. But the overall experience of spending two weeks in Russia, most of it in Siberia, seeing a side of the country very few outsiders would ever see, was truly life-altering and helped lead to the international lifestyle I have today.

The team was made up of wrestlers from universities in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Washington and Oregon. It was really more like two different teams combined into one, as the Midwestern group was led by one coach (the former coach of my university) and another coach led the West Coast group.

To be honest, the trip was more of a money making venture for the former coach of my university than anything else. He had led similar national teams both to Russia and South Korea in past years, using the wrestlers as mules to carry wrestling equipment that he would then sell to the local coaches and wrestlers wherever he went. But we didn’t care, because we got to go places we would never otherwise go, and experience things very few people ever get to experience.

by Smiley.toerist via wikimedia cmmons

The two teams met in the Moscow airport as we waited for our flight to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. You see, they keep most of the serious wrestlers in Russia in Siberia because there really isn’t anything else to do but wrestle. That is why the Russians are so good!

Seriously though, the Russians I wrestled were the strongest people I’d ever competed against. Looking at them you wouldn’t know it though, as we were much more “ripped” than they were. In the U.S. we spend hours in the gym lifting weights to strengthen specific muscles. After wrestling them during a quick one-day tournament and feeling their strength (and being confused by their lack of bulk or definition, yet iron grip and Incredible Hulkian power) we asked them what they did to train.

We had seen a very sad looking pile of free weights that wouldn’t pass muster in most middle schools in the U.S. and we asked if that is what they used. They said they used them sometimes, but the main things they did were climb a rope from floor to ceiling over and over again, then went and ran in the nearby mountains, then when they were finished with that, they wrestled the rest of the day. Wrestling in Russia – this was their life, six days a week.

Think of Rocky IV, where Rocky trains by running up mountains in the snow, chopping wood, throwing rocks, etc. versus the “Russian” who was training with very scientific, modern strength equipment. Yeah, now switch their roles and this is what reality was, based upon what we saw first hand.

by Yanavida via wikimedia commons

You have to remember that this was not long after the fall of the Soviet Union (the trip took place in 1998, just seven years after) and Russia was still following the Communist model of “sports schools” where children were chosen at a young age to have the possibility of representing the country in international competitions, and hopefully the Olympics.

These “schools” only really taught the sport they focused on, and for the “students” who did not make it to the upper echelons of the sport, they were left with very little in the way of skills with which to gain future employment. But as we saw later in the trip, the skills wrestlers learn could be quite valuable in one type of occupation.

For athletes that did make it to the top though, they were taken care of for the rest of their lives. We met several of these former-wrestling greats who lived lives of a much higher status than most of their countrymen at the time. All of this seemed to be funded by the government, as a way of thanking them for their contribution to the country.

Again, a very old school Communist way of doing things it seemed to those of us brought up in Cold War America. The differences went all the way down to the younger wrestlers that we competed against. In wrestling tournaments in the U.S., the first, second, and third place competitors in each weight class would receive a medal for their efforts. While these were supposedly gold, silver, and bronze, respectively, they were most definitely not worth much more than the positive feeling doing well gave the competitor.

In the tournament we competed in after arriving in Krasnoyarsk on the other hand, the third place winner received a warm up suit (which I can’t remember the brand, but was probably Asics or some other major sports clothing company), the second place winner received a color television set, and the first place winner received $500 U.S. Dollars. So here you actually won stuff you could really use! Wow, that was definitely a surprise for us, but many more surprises were yet to come.

Outside of our time wrestling in Krasnoyarsk, we were kept in a medium sized guesthouse located about 30-45 minutes from town. It was out in the middle of nowhere, and we shared it with many of the other wrestlers who had come to compete in the tournament. The lodgings were typical dorm room style, with a communal bathroom and shower at the end of the hallway.

We were served at least two meals a day there, and it was…horrible. I’ve said it before. I am a fairly picky eater, but none of the U.S. contingent (other than the West Coast coach, who had lived in Russia for a while) could eat the stuff. Instead, each night we would go out to the road in front of the guesthouse where there was a shish kabob stand. You can never go wrong with meat on a stick, and after practically starving all day we ate as much as possible each evening.

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One evening several of us were wolfing down the meat when we started talking to a group of men who were there. It seemed that it was the birthday of one of them, and they were having a party. They were a group of Azerbaijanis (a former Soviet state) and all of the women were standing outside the restaurant around the cars, while the men were inside eating and drinking.

This was my first experience drinking the turpentine-like vodka that it seems most people in Siberia consume. It started out friendly, as we tried speaking to them, while mixing our vodka with the orange soda they served. One or two of them spoke broken English, which made the conversation go a bit better since we only knew a handful of Russian words. One of the men told us how he had fought against the Americans during the Vietnam War, which was quite interesting.

As the drinking and talking continued we, or rather I, hit a bump in the road. It seemed something I had said offended the birthday boy (man actually, as they were all 15-20 years older than us at least). Suddenly a hush went across the room and the man looked at me, eyes burning with anger.

I had no idea what I had done or said, but the next thing I knew he put two paper cups on the table and filled them to the top with vodka. He gave one to me and took the other and told me to drink. I knew that there was absolutely no way my downing a full cup of this horrible vodka was going to be a good thing for me, but when I tried to politely decline and apologize, he took his thumb and slashed it across his throat, making the sound of a knife slicing through flesh.

I looked at my teammates for help, and they looked back at me like I was crazy, as we were outnumbered in the middle of a forest in Siberia, and there was no way we were getting out of this mess without my drinking. So, I took the cup, toasted the man, downed it in a couple of gulps, and then spent the rest of the night (and much of the next day) wishing I had never been born. Welcome to Russia!

by Rocco DeFilppis via wikimedia commons

The rest of our time in Krasnoyarsk, and the other stops on our Siberian wrestling tour, were equally interesting. In between getting our brains bashed in on the wrestling mat (some of my teammates did fairly well, but overall we definitely lost more than we won), we were taken by the wrestlers and their coaches to visit what sights there were to see.

We went to a dam, which instead of a lock system to allow ships to go from one side of it to the other, had a sort of escalator system which the ships would drive into on one side and then be taken up and over to the other side where they would then drive off again. They told us it was the only one of its kind, and while I do not have any proof one way or the other to support this statement, I have not ever heard of anything like it anywhere else.

One thing that surprised us (other than the ship escalator) was a huge mural of Lenin painted on the side of the dam. Remember, this was 7 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and we assumed that everyone had moved on and they would have taken down all of the former Communist propaganda. But every town we visited had either large statues of Lenin or paintings like the one on the side of the dam. Maybe the news of the collapse hadn’t made it to Siberia yet…

by Evmenov via wikimedia commons

Another side trip took us to a fish factory. I don’t remember much about the factory, other than it had lots of fish, but I definitely remember the bus ride afterwards. It seems they had given us several boxes of fish to take with us. I think it was either smoked or salted (I can’t remember), but it made the bus absolutely reek of the smell of fish. If that wasn’t bad enough, we were stuck on the bus for hours and hours as we drove to our next destination somewhere in Siberia.

And being Russia, there was plenty of vodka being passed around on the bus for everyone who wanted to drink (including the driver!). This led to two things that I will never forget. The first being one of the Russian wrestlers with us having a combination of too much vodka and too much fish that had been left on a bus in the sun for hours at a time, and he threw up all over the place. This did not help with the smell. Wrestling in Russia continued to be an educational experience…

The second was literally somewhere in the middle of nowhere that our drunken bus driver decided to stop in the middle of the night (it was probably around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning) at a house on the side of a deserted road to wake up the inhabitants and then get into a fight with the man of the house. We sat inside the bus just watching our driver beat this guy senseless while his wife screamed at him to stop.

Then, as if nothing happened, our driver got back on the bus and continued to drive us to our next destination…Welcome to Siberia!

Next: European Vacation: Part 2

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