Former Lakota wrestler competes in 2012 Olympics
WestChesterBuzz.com will count down the area’s top 12 stories of 2012 this month, concluding with West Chester’s most discussed topic of the year on Sunday, Dec. 30.
Former Lakota East and Princeton wrestler Khetag Pliev competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Pliev defeated Javier Cortina Lacerra of Cuba before losing to Jacob Varner of the United States in quarterfinals of the men’s 96kg freestyle. Varner would go to win the gold medal.
Before the Games, Pliev spoke with WestChesterBuzz.com about his experience at local high schools and on being trapped in Russia for three years, away from his family.
About 10 years ago, Pliev, who was born in The Republic of North Ossetia, which is located in Southern Russia, 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 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.”
When 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, that Olympic dream became cloudy.
“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.”
Once there, Pliev quickly found out that he wouldn’t be able to fly to wrestling meets with his new college 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.
“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.
“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, Russia – that is the main goal, to be Olympic champion.”