Pan Am medallist looking to enter Olympic year strong

Khetag Pliev training with Team Impact in East York. (khetag1)

As the sun rises over Toronto each morning, Khetag Pliev wakes up and starts his run.

The 6:30 a.m. wake up is just the beginning to a long day for one of Canada’s brightest amateur stars.

Pliev was one of 500 Canadian athletes who competed in last month’s Pan American Games, where he won the bronze medal in the 95-kg freestyle wrestling event.

Like a true champion, he is not satisfied by a third-place finish.

“Bronze is good, but (I was) hoping to get gold,” Pliev said. “I was hoping to get better, but it was good experience.”

But that medal was not just won in Guadalajara, Mexico. It was won much before that, in part to his strict training program.

After running, Pliev heads to the gym for his weightlifting regime. And as night falls on the city, he hits a school on the Danforth’s west end for his two-hour practice.

This is his routine, each and every day; Monday to Saturday, with Sunday off for a very important reason.

“Sunday I go to church,” Pliev said. “I believe in God. My God is Jesus Christ, and I believe he gives me all this strength and everything around me.”

Indeed, the 27-year-old is a very humble and gracious man. But while his God-given talent is easily visible, it is his lifetime of determination and dedication that has taken him to such great heights.

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Pliev’s talent has been honed and developed from a very young age. He was born in the Russian province of North Ossetia, where wrestling is of the utmost importance to it’s citizens.

“It is almost like tradition,” Pliev said. “My father took me when I was six years old. Almost every Ossetian man at some time in their life has wrestled.”

It was here that Pliev developed a strong wrestling foundation, and his next move only added to his arsenal of abilities.

“I had already a Russian style of wrestling,” said Pliev, “which is more technical and relaxed and those things. When I came to (the) US, I had to change my style.”

When he was 14-years-old, Pliev moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. At Lakota East High, he took skills from both Russian and American fundamentals to establish a successful synergy.

“The American style of wrestling is more physical,” Pliev said. “So I had no language, nothing, and I didn’t know the rules or anything, but I still competed.”

He did more than compete.

He won two State Championships in 2001 and 2002, a US Junior National Championship, and among other accolades was ranked the number-one wrestler in his weight class by Wrestling USA.

Some paperwork issues back in Russia prevented Pliev from attending junior college in California, but in 2005 he made the move to Canada.

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Pliev taking advice from Team Impact coach Stan Tzogas. (khetag2)

When Pliev moved to Toronto he joined Team Impact, where he is under the tutelage of coach Stan Tzogas.

“When he first came here he was good,” said Tzogas, “but he wasn’t a national champion. Now he is national champion, and at last year’s world championships he was sixth in the world.”

A national champ three consecutive years, Pliev keeps his skills sharp with his training six days a week in Greektown.

On this day, a gym full of wrestlers are there honing their skills as well. Pliev is sparring with Amir Bazrafshan, a 25-year-old grappler who competed in the same tournament this past weekend, the Hargobind International in Burnaby, B.C.

“I’m going to help him,” said Bazrafshan, “and he’s going to help me also.”

“Iron sharpens iron,” said Tzogas in agreement. “If you can get somebody really good and you’re wrestling with somebody really good, they’re going to keep you sharp.”

The sparring proved beneficial, as Pliev won his division at the tournament. He even took the special challenge match, taking on 120-kg winner American Les Sigman.

While the weight difference proved to be too much for Pliev to overcome — he lost to Sigman 2-3, 0-1 — the fact that he wrestled well against a man that size is most certainly encouraging as he heads towards the most important part of his career.

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The schedule for Pliev is busy as he heads into 2012. This being an Olympic year, his focus is now more intense than ever as he looks to qualify for the games.

Even after accomplishing so much in the sport, it is still very easy to see what keeps Pliev motivated.

“I still want to win the Olympic gold medal,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going; all my life it has been my dream to win the Olympics.”

And if his focus were to waver even in the slightest, his coach knows exactly what to do to guide him towards the top of the mountain.

“The room for improvement,” Tzogas prophesies, “is the biggest room in anybody’s house.”