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Russian-born Elena Pirozhkov making rapid ascent as member of U.S. women's freestyle team
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Nobody can accuse Elena Pirozhkov of being a slow learner.
As a 6-year-old entering kindergarten in the United States, the only language she spoke was Russian. Two years later, she tested out of her English as a Second Language classes. As a fifth-grader, she was taking advanced English courses.
When Pirozhkov arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center two years ago, she admits she "couldn't beat anybody." This past June, a vastly-improved Pirozhkov reached the finals of the U.S. World Team Trials in women's freestyle wrestling before placing second.
The Russian-born Pirozhkov just celebrated her 21st birthday and has emerged as one of the top young women's wrestling prospects in this country. Pirozhkov (Colorado Springs, Colo./Gator WC) is ranked No. 2 nationally at 67 kg/147.5 lbs.
The rapid development and maturation of Pirozhkov, whose family moved from Russia to the United States when she was three years old, has continued on the mat. She was named Outstanding Wrestler this past weekend at the Hargobind International in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, after winning the title at 67 kilos.
"Elena is like a sponge - she absorbs whatever we teach her and she goes right out and applies it on the mat," said Vladislav "Izzy" Izboinikov, USA Wrestling Women's Resident Coach. "She is very, very, very coachable and she has a great work ethic. She's very bright and very intelligent, and she picks things up very quickly. It's pretty amazing how much she's improved. She is absolutely a pleasure to work with."
Pirozhkov came to the U.S. 18 years ago with her parents, Sergey and Tatyana, and three siblings. They left the former Soviet Union and Communism behind. They settled in Greenfield, Mass., a city of around 20,000 people with a large Russian community.
"My dad thought it was a good opportunity to leave and thought we could have a better life in the U.S.," Pirozhkov said. "My dad said it was real difficult at first to adjust to the culture and customs here. But we took a chance coming over here and it worked out for us."
The Pirozhkov family has now grown to 11 as Elena is one of nine children in the family. Elena has three brothers and five sisters. She is the third-oldest among the nine kids.
Even though she grew up mainly in the U.S., and has no memories of her time in Russia, Pirozhkov had plenty of Russian influences growing up. She spoke only Russian for the first six years of her life, she grew up eating mainly Russian dishes, and she learned Russian values and customs from her parents.
She loves going back home to Massachusetts to see her family. But when she's cutting weight, it's a little bit of a challenge.
"I love all kinds of Russian food," she said, flashing a smile. "My mom is a great cook."
Pirozhkov enjoyed playing sports growing up and went out for cross country as a seventh-grader. Looking for a winter sport to participate in, she ended up on the wrestling mat.
Her older brother, Viktor, talked her into trying out for the wrestling team. Viktor was a state placewinner in Massachusetts. Elena was one of only two girls on the team. The other was a senior.
"They were looking for a 112-pounder on the high school team and my brother weighed me and I was at 114. He looked at me and said, 'You're coming to practice tomorrow,'" Elena said. "I came to practice and I was horrible. I was struggling and my brother, who dragged me out there in the first place, was telling me to quit. The sport was very awkward for me, but what drove me to finish the season was I wanted to prove my brother wrong. I was kind of intrigued by the sport and started to improve. I realized I really liked wrestling and stuck with it.
"It was a very challenging season. My brother and I look back and just laugh about it now."
Pirozhkov survived that first season and eventually started to excel. She placed third in the 2003 and 2004 U.S. Girls' Wrestling Association Nationals before winning the event in 2005.
A month after graduating from high school in 2005, Pirozhkov competed at the Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D. She placed third in women's freestyle at the event. A turning point for Pirozhkov's career came during that event when she met Izboinikov, a Russian who came to the U.S. in 1993.
By virtue of a top-six finish in Fargo, Pirozhkov was invited to the Junior Developmental Camp at the Olympic Training Center. She took part in two camps in Colorado Springs before USA Wrestling National Women's Coach Terry Steiner and Izboinikov invited her to join the Resident Program at the OTC.
Pirozhkov jumped at the opportunity to come to Colorado Springs.
"Before that, I wasn't really sure what was going to happen after high school," she said. "I had planned to just go to the local community college and try to figure out what I was going to do. I wanted to keep wrestling, but I didn't see how until I talked to Terry and Izzy up in Fargo. I never even dreamed I would end up out at the Olympic Training Center."
Her early days on the Olympic Training Center mats were largely a struggle.
"I was getting beat by everybody from 48 kilos on up to 72," she said. "It definitely frustrated me because everybody was taking me down left and right. I just couldn't get anything right. I kind of wondered why they invited me to come out here. But then I thought back to seventh grade when my brother told me to quit and I didn't. I also thought the coaches must have seen something in me, so I'm still going to work hard and try my best."
That work ethic and drive started to eventually pay off.
"I finally started taking some of the girls down with the moves I was learning, and that started to boost my confidence," she said. "I just kept working hard and kept improving."
Strength was also an early issue for Pirozhkov.
"When I first moved here, I couldn't do a pull-up - that's pretty sad," she said. "Now I can do 8 pull-ups. I'm stronger, my conditioning's better, my technique has improved … everything is a lot better. I'm a totally different wrestler than I was when I came out here two years ago."
Walking into an Olympic Training Center wrestling room with established stars and proven competitors like two-time World champion Kristie Marano and two-time World bronze medalist Katie Downing took a little getting used to.
"It was in a little bit of shock at first - I was pretty awestruck by being in the same room with all these great wrestlers," Pirozhkov said. "But a lot of the girls, especially the ones who have been around a while, have been great. They've helped me fit in and adjust, and they've taught me a lot."
Pirozhkov spent a majority of her first year training in Colorado Springs while working on gaining her U.S. citizenship. She did place second at the 2006 Dave Schultz Memorial Open before becoming a U.S. citizen.
Pirozhkov gained her U.S. citizenship last year - allowing her to compete in qualifying events for the World Championships and Olympics - but not in time to try and qualify for the 2006 U.S. World Team Trials.
She jumped into competition full-time during the 2006-07 season, winning the Sunkist Kids International Open in October of last year. She followed with second-place finishes in 2007 at the U.S. Nationals, Pan American Championships and U.S. World Team Trials. She finished second to Downing at the U.S. Nationals and U.S. World Team Trials. Downing went on to win a bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships.
With just four Olympic weight classes in women's freestyle, Pirozhkov plans to drop down a weight class. She will move down from the non-Olympic class of 67 kilos to the Olympic division of 63 kg/138.75 lbs. for the 2008 Olympic Trials.
2004 Olympic silver medalist and three-time World medalist Sara McMann is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. at 63 kilos. Downing also is expected to move down to 63 kilograms this season. The 2008 Olympic Trials are set for June 13-15 in Las Vegas.
Pirozhkov plans to shuttle back and forth between 63 and 67 kilograms during various events in the 2007-08 season. She likely will be back up at 67 kilos when she tries to make the U.S. women's team for the World University Championships and World Championships in 2008.
In addition to the Olympics in August in Beijing, China, women's freestyle also will have a World Championships for all seven weight classes. That event, for women only, is scheduled for October 2008 in Tokyo, Japan.
With Downing possibly retiring after the Olympics, Pirozhkov would be the frontrunner to make the U.S. World Team at 67 kilos.
"Elena definitely has a very bright future in this sport," Izboinikov said. "She's beaten some World medalists already. I think she could definitely place in the top six if she gets a chance to wrestle at the World Championships next year."
Pirozhkov credits much of her development to working with Izboinikov.
"Izzy has made a huge difference for me as a wrestler and a person," Pirozhkov said. "He's been a great mentor for me. He stays on me about being disciplined on and off the mat, and doing the right things. Izzy is really passionate and knowledgeable about wrestling, and he loves what he does. I think that rubs off on the athletes."
Pirozhkov and Izboinikov communicate with each other in English and Russian.
"It's kind of like with a lot of the Russian-Americans in the U.S. where we will speak both languages to each other," Izboinikov said. "Sometimes I give Elena instructions in Russian to maybe give her a little edge. She grew up in a Russian culture with her parents' influence and they instilled a lot of strong values and discipline in her. We have a lot in common and that gives us a strong connection right there."
Pirozhkov will have an opportunity to return to Russia early next year. She is scheduled to compete in a tournament in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, in late January.
It will be her first trip back to Russia since she left as a 3-year-old.
"I'm really excited to be going back there," she said. "My dad told me not to expect too much. He said I'm going to see a lot of poor people and it's going to be really cold. I still think it's going to be a great cultural experience. I grew up in a very Russian home and we had a very big Russian community where we lived. So it will be interesting to see what the Russian culture is like and be able to experience it in the actual country."
Pirozhkov's ability to speak Russian came in handy during September's World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. She traveled to Baku as a training partner with the U.S. team. Azerbaijan was part of the former Soviet Union. She also served as an interpreter on the trip.
"A lot of the older people in Baku speak Russian, and a lot of the food there was real similar to what I grew up eating," she said. "It was like a little taste of Russia. All the food on the table at our team dinner in Baku, I've seen it all."
Pirozhkov also finds time to take classes at Pikes Peak Community College. She is studying physical therapy.
For now, Pirozhkov is focused on daily practices at the OTC and focused on continuing to improve.
"It's awesome to have the opportunity to train here with all the great wrestlers and coaches," she said. "When I was younger, I remember looking up all the girls on TheMat.com. I read stories about great wrestlers like Kristie Marano and Trish Saunders, and I was thinking it would be awesome to be like them someday."
Someday may not be too far down the road. Especially for a fast learner like Pirozhkov.