Former Lakota East and Princeton wrestler Khetag Pliev sat down for an interview this spring at his family’s West Chester home to talk about his unique journey to the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Pliev talked about his experience at local high schools and on being trapped in Russia for three years, away from his family. In off-camera interviews, Pliev shared more stories that were not included in the original article published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and posted on WestChesterBuzz.com in May.
Pliev was born in The Republic of North Ossetia, which is located in Southern Russia and known for raising champion wrestlers. When describing it, Pliev said it was a place where “they (fathers) give their sons to wrestling.”
There, Pliev became skilled in freestyle wrestling and not folksyle, which is the common style of wrestling in the United States.
So, when he arrived at Princeton High School and competed on the wrestling team his freshman and sophomore years, he struggled.
In addition, he spoke very little English and was a target for bullies.
“Princeton was one of the best experiences in my life. I didn’t have much English, but everyone showed me love there. Right away, I fit in,” Pliev said. “Maybe I … had a few fights here and there.”
However, the future Olympian didn’t have much trouble taking care of himself.
“You know Princeton is a little bit gangsta school, homey school. So, after I had a few fights, they knew that they don’t mess with me.”
When asked how he did in the fights, Pliev said, “I win. Number 1.”
Quickly, Pliev became the top wrestler in the nation. During his junior and senior years at Lakota East High School, he won back-to-back state and national titles and had offers to wrestle at the country’s top collegiate programs.
“I have seen plenty of good high school wrestlers who dominated, but he just dominated at that level unlike many others,” Lakota East wrestling coach Jim Lehman said. “Hands down he is the best wrestler to come through Lakota and the best high school kid I have ever coached. He is a very special athlete, there is no doubt about that.”
It appeared that the wrestler had his pick of colleges, but his grades failed to qualify him for a four-year university. His choice would eventually become clear as he decided to attend Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif., a program that was well-known for recruiting Russian wrestlers, including Vladimir Matyushenko of UFC fame.
Now, with the right school, Pliev believed that he was well on his way on becoming a future Olympic champion.
That dream, however, hit another roadblock when arriving at Lassen. In a short time, he found out that he wouldn’t be able to fly to wrestling meets with the team without a student visa.
“Being the year it was (summer after 9/11), he really couldn’t wrestle because he was out of status with his papers,” said Rex Branum, who was the coach Lassen at the time. “We began to talk about the difficulties we were going to have traveling. With him being stubborn as he is, he said that he will just go back and get status.
“I loved the guy … my legal advice told me to tell him not to go, but he said, ‘I have done it before, I will be all right.’”
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.
Branum even visited the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 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.’
Determined to see his family, 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.
In 2005, he saw another way out while competing with the Russian national team at a meet in Vancouver, Canada. Knowing it was much closer to home, Pliev decided to stay and with the help of family friend was able to become a Canadian citizen in just a little more than two years.
It was then easy for the former local wrestler to cross the U.S. border and see his family.
This summer, back home in Canada, Russia and the U.S., his extended family will get to see him compete in the Olympics.
Pliev, who is competing for Team Canada, will wrestle in the 96kg, 211-pound division on Aug. 12.