The Olympic Underdog: Wrestler Khetag Pliev
On his struggle to the top, the Russian wrestler found God, a girlfriend and a new home in Canada.
Allan Gardens, in downtown Toronto, is a patch of green space near a burger joint known locally as "Hooker Harvey's" and the kind of hotel that rents by the hour. The police presence is high. At night, the park becomes the domain of drug dealers and vagrants. Khetag Pliev, who is representing Canada in wrestling at the Olympics, knows these things well. For two months during the spring of 2008, Allan Gardens was his home.
When darkness fell, Pliev would find a familiar green bench on the park's western edge. He'd place his hat behind his head, cross his arms and settle in for the night. He had ambition and friends. He kept his clothes at a buddy's house and showered at his wrestling club. But he had nowhere to live.
This was not always the case. Pliev was born in 1984 in Ossetia, a mountainous region of southwestern Russia, the only son of a construction worker and a high-school French teacher. When he was six, his father took him to the wrestling club; a year later, he won his first tournament. The Soviet Union had just opened up, and products from North America were starting to trickle into the country. Pliev remembers clutching a Snickers bar - the prize for first place - all the way home, then chopping it into five pieces to share with his cousins. Wrestling victories began to pile up. People told him he might one day go to the Olympics, and he started to believe it. Somewhere along the way, winning gold became Pliev's goal.
When he was 14, Pliev followed his parents to Cincinnati, Ohio, in search of new opportunities. In high school, he won two state championships and a U.S. junior national championship (despite breaking his wrist in the semis). In 2001, Wrestling USA ranked him the number-one wrestler in his 96-kilogram weight class. He won a full athletic scholarship to a small college in Burbank, California. Sports IIustrated came calling.
In 2002, Pliev returned to Ossetia for a visit. When he tried to get back into the U.S., he was denied - his visa had long since expired. For the next three years, he stayed in the place of his birth, separated from his family and coaches. He had always abstained from alcohol, but he started drinking and smoking cigarettes. Self-doubt began to surface.
After Pliev was granted a temporary visa to compete in a tournament in Vancouver for the Russian national team, he came to a decision - he would stay in Canada. He made his way to Toronto. It was still 650 kilometres away from his parents, but at least they were no longer separated by an ocean. He started wrestling with a local club called Team Impact and won the national championship. He applied for Canadian citizenship, and two days before his Olympic qualifying match, his papers came through. Pliev was now eligible to represent Canada at the 2008 Beijing Games. All he had to do was win.
The qualifier was the closest match of his career, a three-bout battle against David Zilberman, a mountain of a man who was ranked fifth in the world. Pliev lost by a single point. He was devastated. His self-doubt turned to self-hate. Soon he was drinking constantly - he could empty a 26-ounce bottle of vodka in one sitting. He stayed with an Ossetian family in the west end of town and crashed from time to time on a friend's floor, but in both cases considered himself a burden.
During the day, he'd walk, covering large swaths of the city. He'd go from Etobicoke to downtown, some 20 kilometres. One evening, he stumbled upon Allan Gardens. He liked that it was full of people; it didn't bother him that most of them were prostitutes and addicts.
Some nights, he would cry uncontrollably. He wasn't especially religious, but he would yell at God, blaming him for his situation. Other times, he'd share cigarettes and stories with strangers. No one in wrestling circles knew his secret. Neither did his parents.
Q & A: Khetag Pliev
"I am a proud Ossetian. I am strong. My father was strong, my grandfather was strong," says Pliev. "My father is my biggest support, biggest mentor. But sometimes you don't know how to explain certain things."
His father sensed something was wrong. Over the phone, he encouraged his son to turn to the Bible for guidance and to open up to others. So Pliev told his coach at Team Impact, Kim Kimin, that he was homeless. For the next two years, Pliev lived with Kimin, his wife and two kids. He looked after the pets, helped with the dishes and took out the garbage. Every evening at 6 p.m., they'd sit down, say grace and eat together.
Pliev starting piecing his life together. He began to cut out drinking and smoking. He refocused his training. Then, as now, he would kick off his days at 6:30 a.m. with a 30-minute run followed by light exercises. Around 10, he'd head to the gym. In the evenings, between 7 and 9, he'd work on his wrestling. When Pliev would visit his parents, he'd train with UFC fighter Rich Franklin, running kettlebells up hills and dragging a sled laden with weights through the streets of Cincinnati. He returned to form, winning three straight national championships. Last December, he qualified for the Olympics.
When we meet in Allan Gardens, Pliev is a contented man. He walks slowly, letting passersby pet his dog, a chow chow named Muku that he leads on a bright pink leash. It's the same type of dog he had as a kid in Ossetia, and so far, it has brought him only good energy, he says. He takes comfort in the Bible and the love of his girlfriend, Hediyeh Karimian, a former wrestling recruiter for the University of Guelph whom he met in 2010. He's excited about the Olympics, but he has learned to separate his performance from the rest of his life. If he doesn't do well at the Games, he knows he won't return to that dark emotional place - or to his bench in Allan Gardens. Coaching is an option, or perhaps something else. What matters, he says, is that his heart is full.
"I was angry at God, at the U.S. Embassy, at the way my life was coming around. I was upset all the time, disappointed," he says. "But now, nothing. There's no point. I am happy."
Quick fact: The only Canadian male wrestler to win gold is the exuberant Nigerian-born freestyler Daniel Igali, who claimed top spot in 2000-and charmed the country with his victory dance around the Canadian flag.
When to watch: Sunday, August 12 at 3:30 am EST
Favourite meal: Lamb shish kebab or lobster
Favourite pre-match song: I don't have that ritual. I like to read my Bible-it gives me inner strength.
Hulk Hogan or The Rock: Hulk Hogan
Best takedown move: The fireman's carry (pictured at left.) That's my bread and butter.
Most memorable win: My first Ohio State championship, when I was 15.
Favourite movies: Braveheart, Gladiator
Hobbies: Sketching, fishing
(Photos: Myles McCutcheon)