How did you get into the sport of wrestling?
I did not start wrestling until I was 11. My school had a program. But I didn’t really know anything about it. My parents were doctors so they always wanted me to focus on my studies.
One day in class, some of my classmates dared me to climb outside the window and climb across the building to the next classroom. We were on the 4th floor. I said Okay. I climbed outside and went back and forth a few times.
The principal saw me. She called my parents. They were very upset. That night I tried to sneak home very late to avoid getting in trouble. They got very angry with me. But the wrestling coach found out about it. He told my parents that anyone who is so fearless should wrestle. So they let me try out for the team.
How is the Uzbek wrestling system different than here in America?
Before the Soviet Union broke up, all wrestling clubs were free. They were all funded by the government.
There were 3 big clubs you could wrestle for in Uzbekistan: the Workers Reserve Club, the military club called CSKA, and the police club called DINAMO
Before college I wrestled for the Workers Reserve Club.
After college, I had to do my military service, everyone had to. I wanted to join the police for my service. But politicians made me join the army because the clubs compete with each other and they wanted me to win for CSKA not DINAMO. If I didn’t they said I would have to join the airforce and they would send me to the Afghanistan border.
So after college I joined CSKA Tashkent which is the army
After the Soviet Union broke up, the Workers Club did not have any money. So I got a job in the army as a trainer for soldiers. They gave me this job so that I could continue to be on the CSKA Tashkent Club team.
This is how I supported myself and my family while I trained for the Olympics.
I’ve heard that you had to train a lot without a coach, why is that?
There were two periods in my career when I had to train on my own.
First, when I was 14 years old. I had just won the Uzbekistan cadet championships. My parents tried to get me to quit wrestling so I would focus on my studies. So I had to lie to them. For 2 years I would tell them that I was studying but I was going to practice. When my coach found out that I lied to my parents, he kicked me off the team. So for the next 6 months I would watch practice through the gym window and train on my own. When I stopped showing up to tournaments other coaches learned that I had been kicked off the team. So they asked my parents to let me join their club. I had to tell my parents what I was doing. My parents were mad at first but respected my dedication. So they let me rejoin my club as long as I kept studying.
My coach at the Workers Reserve Club was named Alexander Pitagorski. He was unbelievable. To make room for my studies he would stay for 3-4 hours after club practice ended to train me. He had family too. But he wanted to help me. Within a year of training like this, I won the Soviet Union Cadet Championships.
The second time was in college. In college, you don’t get a coach like you do in the USA. You keep your club coach because they get paid by the government. But my coach left the country, he moved to Israel for his family. So I was again left to train on my own. So all through college I trained by myself. I would go to different clubs to find workout partners. Until I was 19 when I made the senior national Uzbekistan team. At the time I was the #3 in Uzbekistan. So now I had workout partners again. But I did not have a coach until I joined CSKA Tashkent. My coach there was Vladmir Orlov. I trained with Vladimir for the rest of my competition career.
Can you share a memorable or funny story from the Olympics?
At the 2000 Olympic games, I lost a pool match on a bad call. So I asked my coaches to challenge the bad call. But it would cost them $500 to do it. The coaches did not want to pay because they didn’t believe that I could win my pool and get into the semi finals because the #1 in the world at the time, Harun Dogan, was in my pool. This made me mad. So I made a bet with them: if I beat #1 in the world Harun Dogan, you will pay the $500. They agreed. So I went out and beat him. I won my pool. But I lost my confidence after that. I lost my semi finals match then to Terry Brands. So I took fourth.
In the 2004 Olympics in Greece, my coach made me very nervous about what pool I would get put into because some pools wrestle less than others. I was cutting a lot of weight so I wanted to be in a pool that wrestled less. The pools were decided by drawing numbered ping pong balls at weigh in.
There were 20 of us competing and my coach got it into my head that I should draw the #20 ping pong ball. My teammate told me I just had to concentrate really hard on the number 20 and I would get it. I thought he was being silly. But, I could not stop thinking about it.
At weigh in time, I had 3 kilos to lose. I got on the bus at the Olympic Village to go to the wrestling arena. But I was very tired and not thinking straight. So I got on the wrong bus. It took me to the boxing arena instead which was an hour away from the wrestling arena. My teammate was with me. We had no money. But we decided to get a cab. It took us 30 minutes to find one. At the time this seemed like bad circumstances to be late to weigh-in.
My first weigh in try, I was still over. So I went running to lose the weight. I could hardly keep my head up. But I kept thinking “number 20 number 20 number 20.”
I watched everyone else weigh in until I was the last one. I could see the bowl of ping pong balls. There was only 1 more in the bowl. I kept thinking, that better be #20.
Right as weigh-in was about to close, I stepped on the scale one more time and made weight. I was exhausted. But they handed me the ping pong ball and it was …number 20!
I do not believe in the mystics. But it was amazing that I got number 20. It did not matter in the end because I did not make it out of the pool round that year. Maybe I lost my luck on number 20.
Why did you move to the United States?
When I came to the Olympics in Atlanta, I saw opportunity here. A chance to live in a nice house, have a good job. When I got married and my daughter Ettel was born, we wanted to give her an opportunity for a good life that we thought we could not give her in Uzbekistan.
Also, wrestling is very popular in the United States compared to Europe. So I saw a chance to have a coaching career in wrestling here.
Thankfully, Ron Gaddy Head Coach at Alabama State and Alabama Wrestling Club gave me the opportunity to come coach and move my family to the United States.
But, everybody from Soviet Union countries, they move to Brooklyn. I had a lot of friends who lived in Brooklyn at the time. I didn’t know a lot of people in Alabama or in Ohio where I coached after Alabama State. I made many friends in both Alabama and Ohio. A lot of good people.
But, we started to miss our culture, our foods, our language. So we moved to Brooklyn
What hardships did you face moving to the US?
The first thing is the language. I did not speak english when I got here.
Also, people in the soviet union think differently than here in the US. It’s a very different culture. It took awhile to understand life in the US.
It was difficult to find work as a coach. I have a degree in physical education. But in the US your degree does not get you a job as a teacher. My wife has the same problem. She was a nurse in Uzbekistan. But here she had to go back to school.
Why did you start Willpower?
When I came to Brooklyn I tried to find a place to workout but there were not a lot of places. Mostly, there were only places to workout for high school kids. I did not see many programs for elementary school kids or middle school kids or elite wrestlers beyond high school. But in south Brooklyn, everyone from Soviet states wants to wrestle because back in Soviet states everyone wrestles when they are kids.
So I wanted to start a kids program. When I told Vougar the 2x world champion who runs his own club in Long Island, he said I was crazy to start a club in Brooklyn because all of the wrestling programs are in Long Island. Long Island has a lot of kids programs that are supported by the local high schools.
But, we wanted to live in Brooklyn. There are no school supported programs in Brooklyn for kids. So we always have to find local gyms to train in. These gyms charge kids $200-300 / month to train. It is very expensive for families. But the community loves wrestling. So we do everything we can to make wrestling affordable for them.
We have grown since then to help many young adult wrestlers train for international competition.
How has COVID affected the Brooklyn wrestling community?
It is a hard time for us. We lost our gym. Many parents are out of work. But the parents asked us to keep training. So we started to run our practices outside in Marine Park. We made a social distance program for the kids that includes a lot of workouts they can do on their own at home.
We saw that all around the city and in the country, other programs had the same problem. So we created an online workout program with daily workout plans and workout videos. It’s all free. We did it so that we could help wrestlers keep training even when they could not get to a gym or find a workout partner.
When I was training by myself, I learned a lot of techniques that would keep me working on wrestling and staying in good shape. A lot of these workouts were with resistance bands. Resistance bands are great because they help build lean explosive muscle without putting on weight. You can also drill a lot of takedowns and throws with them.
So Coach Andrew and I put together a resistance bands workout program and designed resistance bands just for wrestlers.
These workouts are on our website for free. If you are smart we can also get you a set of bands. As long as you use them in a tough-smart way. We sell them to people who can afford to pay, so that we can give them away to kids who cannot pay. We also want to help other coaches learn how to use resistance bands. So we are doing coaches classes to teach other programs how to train with them.
How have you adjusted your style to American wrestling?
Everyone in the USA focuses on folk style. No one else in the world learns American Folkstyle. I learned freestyle. But, most kids dream of wrestling in the Olympics which is not folk style. So we have learned to bring freestyle greco and folkstyle techniques together in our training.
This is why at Willpower, we have a folkstyle coach, freestyle coach and greco coach. It helps our wrestlers be ready for wrestling now and in their future dreams.
How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
My coach used to tell me that you have will and you have power. But it does not mean that you have willpower.
Our athletes work hard and have fun. We expect them to be respectful. But we always try to teach them to have willpower because it is the most important thing in wrestling and in life.
Ask a UFC fighter where they learned willpower. Most of them will say wrestling.
What is the Bigger Goal of Willpower Wrestling?
We want to train Olympic Champions here from kids to adults.
We want to help bring elite wrestlers in from all over the world to share their experience with young athletes and help them find their place in the US wrestling community.
We want to do all this in a sustainable way that can be both affordable for athletes to train while financially supporting elite wrestlers.
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Willpower Wrestling Club, Inc. is a New York State charitable corporation operating through a fiscal sponsorship with Players Philanthropy Fund, a Maryland charitable trust recognized by IRS as a tax-exempt public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (Federal Tax ID: 27-6601178). Contributions to Willpower Wrestling Club are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.