As the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club nears the this weekend’s Olympic Trials in Iowa City, CKWC coach and 2008 Olympian Andy Hrovat reflects on his own Olympic experience in this three-part My Road to the Olympics blog. In part two, Andy writes about making the 2006 U.S. World Championships team, spending some cold days overseas in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, and the feeling of losing his No. 1 spot on the 84kg ladder.
• My Road to the Olympics: Part I
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 18
I continued along on the right path after the 2004 trials. I didn’t wrestle particularly great in 2005, but I continued to improve. After the 2005 World Team Trials, I was beat up. I had broken the tip off a rib while training with Daniel Cormier in Colorado Springs right before the trials, so I took a little time off to heal but was back at it as fast as I could be. A month after the trials, in July, I wrestled in the Canada Cup. I just couldn’t stay off the mat. All I wanted to do was to compete.
In my very first match, I threw my opponent and when I landed, I immediately knew something bad had happened. I had no clue what it was at the time, and I eventually defaulted out after my second match and drove home. I was in so much pain, the worst pain I had ever experienced. It was all coming from my neck, so it was surprising when I found out later that I had popped out my AC Joint in my shoulder.
I was off the mat for the longest I had ever been. It was terrible, but in hindsight, it was probably exactly what my body needed to recover. When I came back, I was stronger and more focused than ever. My body just needed the down time. I had never taken a break until that point. Even after NCAAs my senior year, I had wrestled in the University Nationals — at 163 pounds no less — about a month later. Looking back I don’t know how I did it, but I was young and disciplined.
After I healed from my injury, I finally won my first international freestyle tournament, beating Aaron Simpson in the finals of the Sunkist Kids tournament. I went on to win the NYAC and Henri Deglane in France and was second at the Dave Schultz. But then I placed fifth at the 2006 U.S. Open. I had had the same results at the 2005 and 2006 U.S. Opens, losing very close matches in the semifinals to Lee Fulhart before losing my next match in the wrestlebacks to Clint Wattenburg. It’s hard losing in the semis to a tough opponent and then turn around 15 minutes later and wrestle again. I was definitely disappointed with my finish, but in my mind, there was no doubt that I would win trials.
I was feeling great going into it. I was the perfect size 84kg wrestler, and I was stronger and faster then I had ever been. This was the first year a lot of us went to Overtime to train. I was training with Wattenburg, Donny Pritzlaff, Damion Hahn and a few others. We pushed each other daily and Sean worked us hard and smart. I was having some success, but I was flying under the radar just enough that people probably were not too concerned about me leading up to the trials. I felt like I knew every opponent better then they knew themselves. After I pinned Mo Lawal in the semifinals, I couldn’t have been more excited. Wattenburg followed me and upset Fullhart in the other semifinals. I was so happy to not have to wrestle Lee in a best-of-three series, but I had also lost to Wattenburg at least three times in a row. He beat me at NCAAs my senior year then in the open in 2005 and 2006. My strategy doing into that championship series was simply to convince myself I was better than him; the only reason he had beaten me was because I had gotten tired during those matches. This time there was a long break before the finals, so I knew I was going to be fine.
Of course I still viewed Clint as a big threat, but since we had been training together at Overtime, we were comfortable warming up together. We drilled to get ready in the morning, and we did the same for the evening session. I noticed he was nervous, and I knew it was time to shine. Before the finals started, I went up to Kevin Jackson and told him that I was two matches away from making the team. It was a bold predictions seeing I had never beaten Clint, but I was confident. I had just turned the corner and knew it.
I lost my first match at the World Championships to Armenia’s Vladim Laliev, and he lost a close semfinal match to the eventual champion from Georgia. Incidentally, Vladim is from Vladikavkaz, Russia, and in my stay overseas last year, we developed great friendship, and he became my coach and mentor. He is now the head Russian junior coach. After the World Championships, I went right back to work. I didn’t place and I cost my team a World Championship, so I was not in a position to relax. Most people in the U.S., high level coaches included, didn’t want me in the No. 1 spot, but I was out to prove everyone wrong and to win a world title.
My first competition back after the worlds was the NYAC tournament. I won the tournament, pinning my rival Clint Wattenburg in the process, and was selected as the outstanding wrestler. This was my last tournament of the calendar year, so I was able to heal up and train to get ready for the international season in January. I traveled first to Bander Abas, Iran, for the Takhti Cup. This was my second trip to Iran. There is no better feeling than competing well in Iran. The Iranians put on all the biggest events. The crowd loves wrestling and the whole country is watching on television. The only tournament that rivals the NCAA Championships is when the World Championships or World Cup is held in Tehran. I did alright at this tournament; I lost in the semis and ultimately took fifth.
From there, Terry Brands took us to Russia for the Yariguin Tournament. This was a memorable tournament for me, because it was the first time I beat Lee Fulhart. I finished third, beating a good Russian wrestler in the process. Our team flew out for a dual meet in Nalchik, Russia, where I beat the same Russian wrestler for the second time in a week. I was feeling good about myself, but the road trip was not quite over. We flew home as a team but went our separate ways in New York. I went to Ann Arbor for a couple nights then got in my car and drove four hours to Chicago for the first Chicago Cup. I was going up against the Yariguin Champ, Georgi Ketoev. Georgi was wrestling as well as anyone I have ever seen at that time. He crushed me in the dual and later that year crushed everyone at worlds. Georgi was one of my training partners when I lived in Vladikavkaz. He is a great guy and showed me a lot of great stuff.
Knowing Mo Lawal was going up to 96kg and with the way I’d been wrestling, I believed the 2007 world team spot was mine. I worked so hard that year and competed at all the places I needed to. I was selected to wrestle in the World Cup, scheduled about two weeks prior to the U.S. Open, in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Let me give you some information on Krasnoyarsk. It is 12 times zones away from Eastern Time. I had to fly from Detroit to New York then take an evening flight to Moscow. When we arrived in Moscow, they picked us up in a bus and drove us to a gym to get on the mat. Then we had another evening flight that went over six time zones. When you finally arrive in Krasnoyarsk, the weather is cold, around -45 degrees Celsius. In 2007, I was lucky enough to go there twice.
At the World Cup, I was warming up with Donny Pritzlaff when right at the end while we were going close to live, I snapped him down and he pulled his head up and clipped me right under the chin. This was the first and only time I had a concussion. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, because I knew they needed me to compete. I wrestled Yazdani from Iran in my first match, and after losing I couldn’t even remember the match from the time I walked from the middle to the corner. I flew home, went to the U.S. Open and lost to Joe Williams in the semis. I was crushed. It put me in a big hole heading into the trials later that summer. In hindsight I wish I had been a little better with my scheduling. I always pushed the envelope and tried to do too much. I gave it my all at the trials and won the mini tournament, but in the end, I lost in the best-of-three series.
The 2006-2007 season was a series of highs and lows. I went from No. 1 to No. 2 in the U.S., and I hated it. I woke up every morning unhappy. It became my motivation.
I had lost to Joe in the finals at the trials, but in the last match, as I was took another shot to add to my lead, Joe whizzer-kicked me for three points and the win but tore his pectoral muscle in the process. I was the alternate for the Pan American games that summer in Brazil and was selected to wrestle while Joe was healing. Before flying to Brazil, I drove home to Cleveland. I had not been home in a long time, probably six months, and my grandmother was not doing well. It was hard on my family, and they spent a lot of time visiting and taking care of her for months while I was away wrestling. I went home to see her in the hospital, and I can still remember her telling me she was going to be okay and that she was excited to watch me wrestle in the Olympics. She passed away while I was in Brazil. My mom had tried to hide it from me so not to interfere with my wrestling, but she couldn’t continue with it and told me a day or two after it happened.
I wrestled alright at the games but lost in the finals to the Canadian. I blew the match, and to me, it felt like an extension of losing at the trials. I went home and committed myself to becoming the best again. I trained with the national team in Colorado Springs as the No. 1 84kg wrestler since Joe wasn’t there for the first two camps. After the second camp ended, I stayed in Colorado and trained under Terry Brands. He was in my ear the whole summer about proving I was the best wrestler in the country. Joe arrived for the third camp, and I saw what he was doing during training. I knew I was never going to lose to him again. We were in the final stages of training, and I still had people around me telling me that I would be the one wrestling at the World Championships. So, I stayed in Colorado all summer, committing myself to keep training and keep pushing as hard as I could. The last weekend before we were scheduled to leave for Azerbaijan and right after we had just finished a great workout on the mountain, I asked Terry if I was really going to wrestle. I love Terry’s passion, and he gave me this intense look and told me no. I knew in his heart he wanted me to wrestle. He was my coach that summer, and I did everything he asked of me. He pushed me hard, and he set the path for my Olympic run. I worked very hard that summer, and while I tried to never get my hopes up about wrestling, it hurts when you work hard and sacrifice everything. I didn’t earn the spot and didn’t want it just to be given to me, but I worked for it. I decided that the next year, nobody was going to take it from me. It was my spot.
Tune in tomorrow for Part III of Andy’s My Road to the Olympics blog.