Wrestler cooks up a silver in Russian homecoming
Growing up in Elena Pirozhkova’s home in Massachusetts, wrestling wasn’t just a sport. It wasn’t just a hobby.
It was a method of survival.
“It was definitely physical and it was definitely violent,” said Pirozhkova, the third of eight children, as she laughed about it in retrospect. “We fought a lot. But that’s the great thing: You could fight with one sibling and you could be mad at them for a week, but you could go be friends with another one at the same time.”
Only about half of the Pirozhkova children actually took up wrestling. But they all were forced to learn the sport, in some sense, if for no other reason than to establish dominance within the family ranks.
“My mom called my dad down one time and she said, ‘Look what they’re doing!” Pirozhkova described. “And he said, ‘Well, they have to establish a hierarchy.’ ”
Pirozhkova has taken that mindset to heart over the last decade, as she has emerged as one of the top female wrestlers in the world. The No. 1-ranked American woman in the 63 kg weight class, Pirozhkova is coming off a second-place finish in the world championships, which were held in Moscow earlier this month. Her medal marked the first for the United States at the world championships. Teammate Tatiana Padilla came home with a bronze.
“When I was on the podium, it was bittersweet,” admitted Pirozhkova, her words still drenched in disappointment. “But after the tournament, I was thinking, ‘You know what, this is my first world championships (medal) and I got second. I really didn’t do that bad.’ ”
Actually, Pirozhkova did quite well. In the semis, she defeated two-time world silver medalist Lubov Volosova of Russia, 1-0, 1-0.
That victory was extra special not only because the match took place in Russia (where Pirozhkova was born before moving to the United States when she was 3), but also because she had lost to Volosova in their previous three meetings.
Pirozhkova’s ties to her homeland are strong, even though she was a toddler when she left Russia. She speaks fluent Russian and said her family maintained a close group of Russian friends. And she was excited to visit Moscow because she had heard so much about it from her parents but wanted to view the country through her own eyes. Pirozhkova, who will turn 24 next month, became a U.S. citizen in 2006.
The gold-medal match was a different story, though, as Pirozhkova was defeated by Japanese legend Kaori Icho, 1-1, 3-0. That marked the sixth world championship for Icho, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who had made a comeback this year after taking off last season, but that wasn’t much of a consolation for Pirozhkova.
“I didn’t stick to my strategy,’’ Pirozhkova said. “I didn’t stick to my plan throughout the match,” she said. “She’s definitely beatable … but I’m glad I got a medal for the U.S. It definitely made me feel good.”
The world championships were the latest feat in a strong year for Pirozhkova, who won gold at the Pan American Championships and also took the title at the U.S. Open earlier this season. The silver at the world championships was her first medal at the event after failing to place each of the previous two years.
“I’m happy,” Pirozhkova said. “To have a perfect season would make me even happier, but I think I’ve had a really good year. I’ve made some progress, I’ve made some changes and I definitely see the work paying off.”
Pirozhkova has been making changes ever since she took up the sport. She acknowledges that when her older brother, Viktor, introduced her to wrestling, it was hardly love at first sight.
“I didn’t like it right away,” she said. “The sport was really awkward for me. People are touching you and you’re touching them, and that was very uncomfortable for me when I first started.”
But fortunately she had her brother’s — uhh — support.
“He was like, ‘You’re horrible. You should quit,’ ’’ Pirozhkova recalled with a laugh. “But I think just to prove him wrong, I stuck it out. But then I started to like it, so I just kept doing it.”
Having her brother on the team was actually a huge boost for Pirozhkova, who acknowledges that her teammates went easy on her because Viktor was such a well-respected member of the squad.
“He was a team captain,” she said, “so nobody really gave me (trouble).”
From her beginnings as a novice in the 112-pound weight class, Pirozhkova went on to become a second-team All-American in high school, a regular contender in the Junior circuit, a World University Champion and ultimately a world silver medalist. Now she has her sights set on competing in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“Win everything,” said Pirozhkova when asked about her future goals. “But obviously being a world champion and an Olympic champion. Those would be the big things.”
Pirozhkova credits her family and friends for helping her get to this point, but she acknowledges that Team USA assistant coach Izzy Izboinikov has been particularly critical to her success on the mat.
Izboinikov, she said, has served not only as her coach, but also as her psychologist in a sense. When she first arrived at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs five years ago, Pirozhkova went through a period of time when she doubted herself, her abilities and her future in the sport.
Izboinikov helped put a stop to that, though it was ultimately a change in attitude that led to Pirozhkova’s resurgence.
“When I got to the training center, I wasn’t doing well and I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to do it,” Pirozhkova explained. “You know, you’re not doing well, but then you start placing in tournaments, you start winning tournaments and you start thinking, ‘OK, I can do this.’ It definitely wasn’t easy at first, especially when I was struggling.
“And also last year’s world championships (where she finished seventh). I started questioning my dedication and my approach and I made some changes — with my diet, with my sleep, with my mental approach. And it really paid off.”
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Drew Silverman is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.