Story was written this spring and is being shared again on WestChesterBuzz.com just before the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London. On Friday afternoon, WestChesterBuzz will post a video interview with former Lakota East wrestler Khetag Pliev, who is competing for Team Canada (96kg) after being trapped in Russia for three years.
On a warm spring day at his family’s home in West Chester, Khetag Pliev slowly breathes in the air. He says that it is “peaceful” here, remembering a time when he thought that he may never see it again.
About 10 years ago, Pliev had offers to wrestle at universities throughout the United States. He was coming off back-to-back state and national wrestling titles at Lakota East and seemed destined to accomplish his dream of becoming an Olympian.
“I think about it every day. I try to forget it because that time is gone,” Pliev said. “I was 100 percent thinking, that now that I was No. 1 in the U.S. that I would be No. 1 in the world. At least that was my belief at the time.”
Every college wrestling program in the country wanted Pliev, who grew up in The Republic of North Ossetia. In that southern Russian republic, wrestling was king.
“They give their sons to wrestling. If he succeeds, he succeeds. If not, at least at some point of his life, he will. It is like hockey in Canada. Everyone kid competes, so they have the best selection of kids,” Pliev said.
At Lakota East, Pliev succeeded on the mat. In the classroom, however, the wrestler, who struggled with the English language, didn’t have the grades to qualify to compete in the NCAA, so he went to Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif.
There, he eventually decided to return to Russia, against the advice of his Lassen coach Rex Branum.
As Branum feared, Pliev would never get that chance to wrestle at Lassen. Instead, after arriving in Russia, the former Lakota East star athlete was trapped for what turned out to be three years. While there, he missed his family and didn’t feel like he was home.
“It went downhill for me,” said Pliev. “I was not of U.S. and I was not of Russia. I wanted to come here, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t completely there and I wasn’t here. I didn’t train well. I wasn’t focused.”
With each passing year, his family back in West Chester worried that they would never see him again. His father, Alex, called it a time of “deep depression.”
Back at Lassen College, his coach decided to fly to Moscow and visit the U.S. Embassy, hoping to get Pliev a student visa.
“I thought it would help if I was there,” Branum said. “But the guy just looked at me and said ‘Rex, I know that you have come a long way, but there is no way in hell.’”
Trapped in Russia, Pliev filled out paperwork and requested a student visa in person five times at the U.S. Embassy. He was never accepted back into the United States.
He was, however, allowed to go to Canada.
While there for a tournament with his Russian team, a Toronto man named Ruslan Kuchiev, who grew up with Pliev’s father, convinced him to stay in the country.
Kuchiev helped him fill out the proper paperwork in order to become a Canadian citizen and in just a little more than two years, he was successful.
“Never in my mind was Canada, but God made it that way and he is ruler of all and everything,” Pliev said. “When I was here, I obviously wanted to be a U.S. citizen … but Canada opened a door for me.”
With Canadian citizenship, the door was open for Pliev to see his family.
“It was a long five years,” said Pliev. “There was a lot of happiness.”
At this year’s Summer Olympic Games in London, his lifelong dream will become a reality when he wrestles for Team Canada.
“It doesn’t matter where I live, even if I am in Africa. It is the same goal – to win gold in the Olympics,” Pliev said. “It is any small boy’s dream even here, especially where I am from – North Ossetia – that is the main goal, to be Olympic champion.”