Afsoon Johnston, Valentin Kalika named as women’s freestyle coaches for 2016 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | July 28, 2016, 12:16 p.m. (ET)
Afsoon Johnston of San Diego, Calif. and Valentin Kalika of Aliso Viejo, Calif. have been named as the volunteer women’s freestyle coaches for the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The women’s freestyle wrestling competition will be held August 17-18 at the Carioca 2 Arena in Rio.

They will work with National Women’s Coach Terry Steiner and Assistant National Women’s Coaches Erin Tomeo in the preparation of the team and the coaching of the athletes at the Olympic Games. These assignments are subject to approval by the United States Olympic Committee.

Both of the Olympic coaches from other nations, with Johnston from Iran and Kalika from Ukraine. Both have amazing personal stories of triumph over challenges which have led to the opportunity to coach for the United States at an Olympic Games.

Johnston served as a 2014 U.S. World Team coach in women’s freestyle in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the team was third in the standings, led by three medalists. She has also coached numerous U.S. Senior-level teams on international tours throughout this Olympic four-year cycle. She was named 2014 Women’s Coach of the Year by USA Wrestling. Johnston also coached a Senior Pan American team and the USA Junior World Team in 2001. Born in Iran and moving to the USA as a teenager, she became one of the pioneers of women’s wrestling in the United States. Competing under her maiden name Roshanzimir, she won the first World Championships medal ever for the USA in women’s freestyle with a bronze medal in 1989. She added a World silver medal in 1990 and made four U.S. World Teams.

“What an amazing opportunity for me. It has come full circle for me. The opportunity wasn’t there for women wrestlers to represent the United States at an Olympic Games when I was competing. I am very honored, especially for the women from my generation who are at an age where they have raised their kids. Wrestling is not over for us, and it is a time to come back and give back to women’s wrestling. Now is a time for more women to step into these roles. I hope that this also opens the door for the next generation of women wrestlers to step into the role of Olympic Coach in the future,” said Johnston.

Kalika is the personal coach of two U.S. Olympians in women’s freestyle, Elena Pirozhkova and Helen Maroulis. He also coaches Cadet World champion and Olympic Trials runner-up Aaron Pico. He works as Coaches Education Coordinator for Beat the Streets Los Angeles and also works as a coach for the Titan Mercury WC. He has coached U.S. men and women wrestlers on international tours to more than a dozen different nations. A native of Ukraine, Kalika he was a Ukrainian national champion and a Soviet Union University champion in Greco-Roman, and later coached the Ukrainian Junior Team. He was a National Coach and club coach in Israel for three years before moving to the United States, where he continued his coaching career in a variety of positions. He has more than 35 years of professional coaching experience. He has a Master’s Degree in Professional Coaching and Sports Education from Kiev Sports University.

“I cried. It was joy and pride,” said Kalika about learning of his U.S. Olympic coach assignment. “ I always dreamed to coach wrestlers with Olympic goals, like athletes in the United States. The way I came to the U.S. has been hard. My dream was always to come back to the Ukraine airport in Kiev as a U.S. coach. My Olympic dream has never left me. When I met Aaron Pico, I realized that this kid could make it. I couldn’t stop dreaming about that. I love the USA to death. When I got here, I could not even dream about being the USA Olympic coach. That would be crazy. Being a part of this great country is so incredible. I am not sure someone who was American-born could feel what I feel about this.”

Both Olympic coaches have confidence in the U.S. women’s freestyle Olympic athletes in their quest to win medals for Team USA.

“I believe these four Olympic athletes have the potential to win four medals, and we can put all four on the podium. At the Olympic Games, you have to come ready the day of your competition. Everyone they will wrestle are phenomenal athletes. I learned as the World Team coach that the little things will make a difference. You have to believe in your training and bring it when you step on the mat. They all have the ability to do that. I am optimistic that for the first time we will see a gold medal won by a U.S. women’s wrestler. I think we are about to make history,” said Johnston.

“In reality, we have three World champions in Elena (Pirozhkova), Helen (Maroulis) and Adeline (Gray). I also like Haley (Augello). She proved in the Olympic Trials how badly she want to become Olympic champion. As a personal coach for two of them, Elena and Helen, I can’t imagine us not winning a gold. Adeline has been such a great champion and Haley will also be ready. Everything is good and on schedule. I think we will be fine. It is now my dream. American women don’t have a gold yet. With this team, we can make history,” said Kalika.

Johnston and Kalika have coached the U.S. women’s freestyle Olympians during Olympic training camps. National Women’s Coach Terry Steiner has great confidence in their abilities to help the women’s Olympic wrestlers achieve their goals.

“We are very happy to have them involved. They both bring such different aspects to the team and to the coaching staff. It is a very good mix, a very good blend. Afsoon is one of the pioneers of the sport in the U.S. and for her to be a part of this staff is a huge thing. It is huge for this program to have her involved, to have our past involved with the current state of affairs. She brings experience. She has been part of National Teams and World Teams for years. She can give them a real feel of what it is like to compete at this level. Valentin is a great coach. He coaches Elena Pirozhkova, Helen Maroulis and Aaron Pico and has done a great job with those athletes. To have him a part of the women’s program and helping the athletes is a great addition for us. We are very excited to have him on board,” said Steiner.

AFSOON JOHNSTON BIOGRAPHY

Johnston served as an official coach of the 2014 U.S. Women’s World Team Coach in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The United States placed third in the team standings, led by World champion Adeline Gray, World silver medalist Elena Pirozhkova and World bronze medalist Helen Maroulis. Five U.S. women reached medal matches.

Johnston has been active coaching a number of U.S. Senior teams in the last four years. She was a coach at the FILA Golden Grand Prix Finals in Azerbaijan in 2013 and 2014. She also coached Senior teams at the Poland Open and Grand Prix of Spain, as well as the 2013 Battle at the Falls in Niagara Falls, Canada.

She helped coach the USA women at the 2016 1st World Olympic Games Qualifier in Mongolia, where U.S. wrestlers Maroulis and Haley Augello qualified for the Rio Olympics. She also coached the U.S. women at the 2016 Beat the Streets Gala, where Gray and Maroulis beat Canadian opponents. Johnston also helped coach the U.S. women at a 10-day training camp in China as the U.S. women prepared for the Olympic Trials process.

Johnston was named 2014 Women's Coach of the Year by USA Wrestling.

Johnston returned to coaching in recent years after taking time to raise her family. She was a coach at the 2001 Pan American Championships in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where the team won four of the six gold medals and had a medal in every weight class. She also coached the U.S. team at the 2001 Junior World Championships in Martigny, Switzerland, where the USA won two medals.

Born in Iran, a nation where as a girl she was not allowed to wrestle, she was the daughter of a top wrestler in Iran. When the family left Iran and ultimately immigrated to the United States, she joined the boys wrestling team at Independence High School, where she started her career as an athlete.

Competing under her maiden name Afsoon Roshanzamir, she was a star in the early years of the U.S. Women’s wrestling program, before it was an Olympic sport. She was considered one of the true pioneers of women’s wrestling in this nation.

In 1989, at the World Championships in Martigny, Switzerland, she was the first American woman to win a World medal when she captured a bronze medal. In 1990, she was a World silver medalist. She made four U.S. World teams, including a fifth place finish in the 1992 World Championships.

Johnston won three U.S. Open national titles and placed second twice. She was also second at the World Team Trials two times. She captured international medals in the USA, France, Russia, Poland and Canada.

She made her first U.S. Senior World freestyle team while still competing in high school. Later, she competed on the men’s wrestling team at UC-Davis.

Johnston became the first woman to referee a Div. I wrestling match, when she filled in as referee for a UC-Davis dual meet when the assigned official did not attend. She was a local wrestling referee on the high school level while she attended college.

Johnston worked as a physical therapist for many years. She is married to Byron Johnston, and they have three children, Aiden, Samira and Layla.

VALENTIN KALIKA BIOGRAPHY

Kalika over 35 years of professional coaching experience in Ukraine, Israel and the United States. Kalika is the personal coach of two women’s freestyle athletes on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, 2015 World champion and three-time World medalist Helen Maroulis at 53 kg/116.5 lbs. and 2012 World champion and four-time World medalist Elena Pirozhkova at 63 kg/138.75 lbs. Pirozhkova is on her second Olympic Team.

Kalika is also the personal coach for 2014 Cadet World Champion and two-time Junior World medalist Aaron Pico in men’s freestyle. Pico placed second in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials at 65 kg/143 lbs. He also coached young Cade Olivas in California, who won a Cadet World medal in Greco-Roman, giving him World-medalist students in all three international styles.

He currently works as Coaches Education Coordinator for Beat the Streets Los Angeles and also works as a coach for the internationally-respected Titan Mercury Wrestling Club which is located in San Marino, Calif.

He has been one of the most active coaches from the United States coaching top American athletes at international events in men’s and women’s freestyle. In his role as an assigned coach or club coach for competitors on the tour, Kalika has worked with both men and women athletes in Russia, France, Cuba, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Spain, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Croatia and Serbia in recent years.

As a volunteer, Kalika has been very active in wrestling in California at many levels and has also coached in a variety of roles with California USA Wrestling. He also coached his son Yuri Kalika to a California state high school title and to All-American status at the Junior Nationals.

A native of Kiev, Ukraine, Kalika excelled in Greco-Roman wrestling, where he was a Ukrainian national champion and was also a Soviet Union U.S.S.R. University champion. Kalika earned a Master’s Degree in Professional Coaching and Sports Education from Kiev Sports University in Ukraine. He served a year as Head Coach of the Ukrainian Junior National Team.

With a goal of moving to the United States, Kalika left Ukraine in 1991, and spent three years in Israel, where he was a National Team coach and club coach there. He was able to emigrate to the United States in 1994, and has lived in Orange County, Calif. during his more than 20 years in the nation.

For many years, Kalika worked a variety of jobs to support himself and his family, while finding the time on a daily basis to coach the sport as a volunteer. Many of the athletes he helped coach went on to win state, regional and national-level events. From 2004-2007, he hosted a training camp in Ukraine, where young American wrestlers could train with the Ukrainian National Team and continues to bring young athletes there for training and competition opportunities.

Kalika won a Veterans World title in Greco-Roman for the United States in 2009, competing at 69 kg/152 lbs. in Division D (51-55 years old). He was also a Veterans Nationals champion in 2009.

He agreed to work as personal coach for Aaron Pico under the condition that his goal was to become an Olympic champion. He met Olympian Elena Pirozhkova after the 2012 Games and agreed to coach her, and became Helen Maroulis’ personal coach in recent years after meeting her through Elena. Kalika credits Titan Mercury WC founder and Beat the Streets Los Angeles founder Andy Barth for believing in his vision, supporting his coaching career, and allowing him the opportunity to work with talented American wrestlers. Barth also serves as Team Leader for men’s freestyle wrestling on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team