In his longest overseas training trip to date, the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club’s Tyrel Todd will spend three weeks abroad in Russia, first in Yakutsk for a dual meet and tournament then in Grozny to close out the trip with another tournament appearance. Tyrel will renew his On the Road blog to share his thoughts, insight and experiences from halfway across the world.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 9 | Hello from Grozny!
Today was a great training day. We got on the mat twice — at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. — and went hard to get the trip out of our system.
And what a trip it was from Yakutsk to Grozny! We departed from the training center at 8 a.m.; our flight from Yakutsk arrived in Moscow at noon, because we traveled six time zones — all while staying in the same country. Then we had to drive another 80 kilometers to another airport to catch the one flight of the day into Grozny. Traffic was so bad in Moscow that our bus driver tried to go around the city, but, unfortunately, we got stuck behind a bunch of semis and big trucks, and it ended up being even slower. We arrived at the airport at 2:25 p.m. for our 2:30 flight. It seemed rather obvious that we had missed our flight, so I didn’t know why we were hurrying. We rushed through ticketing they told us to just bring our luggage, so we continued running through the airport and security check carrying and pulling our luggage. Then we jumped on a bus and they drove us out to the end of the Tarmac right on the runway where the plane was still waiting for us.
When I exited the bus, a big Russian soldier was yelling at me and pointing at the bottom of the plane. I realized that he wanted me to load the bags though the hatch in the front. So, as quick as we could, we through our bags in and boarded the plane. Some of the people looked annoyed at us because they held the plane for us but no one said anything. It seems to take a lot to get Russia people excited; they seem to just go with the flow. We took off about 2:50 p.m. I can honestly say I never thought I would load my own bags onto a plane, let alone have a plane held for the group I was in. It was clear that our contact in Moscow is pretty well connected and they wanted us to get to Chechnya.
The flight from Moscow to Grozny was about three hours, and we arrived around 6:10 p.m. After getting our bags, some Russian or Chechen guys motioned for us to follow them. It was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore. Most of the men wore Muslim caps and almost all the women wore dresses and scarves on their heads. As we left the airport, there were soldiers everywhere with machine guns. Adam Hall and I loaded our bags in one of the small cars, and as I sat down, I saw our driver reach over, open his glove box and grab what looked like a Sig .40 hand gun and tuck it into his belt. Then it was off to the races. I couldn’t believe how fast these guys drive for how narrow the roads are and how many cars are around. We had to go through a check military checkpoint, then it was one honk after another for 15 minutes until we parked at a hotel close to the wrestling gym. It was a nice 30-hour day with the time change and pretty eventful to say the least.
Today is Tuesday and my internal clock is a little messed up. I woke up wide awake at 4:00 a.m. and waited for a few hours until our 8:30 a.m. team meeting. We went for a short walk before breakfast, which I had heard was very good from Jimmy Kennedy and some of the other University World guys who beat us here by a few days. We had rice porridge, bread and cheese and eggs. Then it was back to our rooms for a couple hours before practice at 11:30 a.m. I have realized very quickly that these foreigners don’t like to wrestle early.
I had a good practice and worked on my defense, shutting guys down when I am ahead. I was very unhappy with my performance in Yakutsk. l lost three rounds when I was up with a minute or less remaining. I have great coaches out here, and I have been making some improvements technically and in my conditioning.
Lunch was at 1:30, and consisted of beef soup, spaghetti and chicken. It was followed some lounging in the hotel hall, hanging out with some of the guys on the trip and reading. There are 15 guys from the U.S. here right now, so we have a great group for this tournament in Chechnya. The 6:00 p.m. practice was optional, but I went in and sparred and wrestled live with a Russia who spoke good English and was trying to defect to Spain to make their world team. He introduced himself as “Ackmed, like the terrorist.” All I could do was laugh and hoped he had a good sense of humor. I told him I was not used to seeing soldiers with AK47s all the time. He informed me that Americans were too crazy to carry guns around all the time like the Chechens and Russians. I held my tongue. He said that in his lifetime — he was my age, 27 — he has seen three wars in Grozny, so everyone is very used to guns. The last big war was six years ago when Russia crushed then-independent Chechnya, completely leveling the city of Grozny. Chechnya is oil rich and right on the Caspian Sea — vital for worldwide trade.
After workout, I went back to the hotel, showered up and ate a light dinner. I am keeping my weight down as instructed by coach Hrovat. Just a few more days until weigh-in and the tournament!
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 5 | Calm Before the Storm
It is the night before the Dmitri Korkin Memorial here in Yakutsk. I made weight this afternoon and went out to eat at a nice restaurant. It was probably the best meal we have had since we have been here.
My plan tomorrow is to wake up around 8 a.m., eat a bite and work out to get the weight cut out of my system. Then grab some breakfast before waiting on the bus to leave at 11:30 a.m. The tournament begins at 1:00 p.m.
I am excited to compete. The last two weeks training in Yakutsk have been good, and I have sure learned a lot, but I’ll admit that I’m definitely ready for a change of pace. After the tournament this weekend, we’re leaving on Monday for Grozny in Chechnya.
There are lower numbers in the upperweights at this tournament. My weight class only has 11 guys, while at 55kg and 66kg, there’s closer to 40 wrestlers. I drew Max Askren first round. The chances of drawing another American were pretty good since there are three of us here at 84kg and only 11 guys in the weight class. I know we’ll both be ready to step on the mat tomorrow. Should be fun!
Time to hit the sheets.
MONDAY, OCTOBER 1 | Road Tripping in Yakutsk
Training has been going well and has been fairly consistent. We wake up in the morning for a team meeting before going on a short walk to wake up our bodies and eating breakfast. We then relax for a little while to let breakfast digest before our 11 a.m. training session. After two hours of practice, we go to lunch and recover until 5 p.m. training. After the evening practice, dinner is at 7:30, then it’s back to the dorms to relax and get some rest.
Our practices are very similar right now and geared toward the tournament on October 6-7. Each practice begins with a dynamic warm-up followed by stretching, situation live wrestling, sparring and live wrestling. The coaches usually give us some recovery time before a match, and then the end of practice is all circuit training for strength and conditioning.
Last Saturday, we traveled 100 kilometers to a little village for a team USA vs. Russia dual. We wrestled a local Yakutian team from the wrestling school where we have been training. It was a really cool experience. Several of the locals met us outside the village on a ridge overlooking the whole valley. They were dressed in traditional Yakutian attire and gave us their ceremonial warriors’ meal, consisting of sour reindeer milk and a pancake-like bread. After we ate and drank, the elders played some very strange Yakutian music and some young girls with thick braids that nearly reached their knees did a ceremonial dance.
I was honored to be a part of the experience. My match went well, and I beat the guy fairly easily. He got so tired he could barely stand up. Andy Hovat made a brief comeback at 120 kilos. He wrestled tough but, the guy he wrestled was pretty good — not to mention way bigger and he competed in the worlds in 2011 at 120kg. Unfortunately, Andy did not beat the Russian, and we lost the dual. They did a great job making us feel welcome and put on a nice event, but it still hurt to lose the dual to those guys.
The other downside from the trip was that the drive was the worst, bumpiest ride I have ever been on. The bus we road in was practically falling apart and the roads around Yakutsk are in terrible condition — twisted and broken by the marshy ground and the extremely cold winters. We were all pretty sick by the time we go to the little village and then the return ride home was just as brutal. There was a lady taking her reindeer for a walk, so we stopped to see if it was Rudolph. Then we broke down — actually the van muffler fell off on the drive back — so we had to stop, and I think the driver ducktaped the muffler back on. Travel by road in this part of the world is no picnic. Our team leader Pauly told me that it took a team of wrestlers in a bus 10 days to get from Moscow to Yakutsk. I didn’t believe him at first, but now I could see how it could take that long.
This week’s training is a little lighter. We are just fine-tuning and getting ready for this weekend. My weight competes on Saturday, so I will weigh-in on Friday. As always, I am looking forward to stepping to the line and hearing the whistle blow.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 27
Whatever I was expecting from Yakutsk, I was way off. This place is a little rough around the edges to say the least. It is basically a third-world country, with extreme poverty and some of the harshest weather conditions on the planet. It is locked in permafrost nine months out of the year, and we are lucky it has not snowed yet. But it is supposed to start any day.
The people at the Olympic Training Center are very nice. They smile and seem to be polite even though my Russian fluency is somewhat nonexistent. The natives are basically Eskimos, which makes sense geographically, because Yakutsk is very close to Alaska. The amenities at the training center are pretty good. The cafeteria has good food, the rooms are nice, and beds are comfortable; the only hangup has been no internet connection. That seems pretty minor — it’s certainly not life or death — but it does make it hard to connect with the rest of the world.
To give you an Idea of the harsh conditions in Yakutsk, here is a little history:
Pauly, or Pasha, our team leader, told me today that when Stalin was spreading his empire throughout Russia, he loaded conquered countries gentry (i.e. upper class) onto trains and shipped them to Yakutsk. When they arrived in this desolate country, these people, who were not farmers or builders, were told to find food and shelter before winter. Over one million people died in the harsh winters that followed. Due to the exportation of many Russian citizens, there are fair-skinned people of different nationalities sprinkled in with the predominantly darker-skinned, stocky-built natives. All of the houses, shops and buildings in Yakutia (of which Yukutsk is the capital) are built 4-5 feet off the ground on concrete stilts, and all the sewer and water pipes are insulated above ground because permafrost bends or breaks anything on or close to the ground. The entire town is built on a marsh, so when it gets cold, the humidity on the ground is a destructive force. I’ve never anything like it.
There are several good wrestlers from this area despite the harsh climate. It seems very cold places breed tough, hardy people that are good wrestlers — survivors. One must be to be tough to live this far north. We had just one practice today, because we dual a local Yakutian team tomorrow. The dual is in a little town about 100 kilometers away where they never see Americans and are trying hard to promote the sport. We all have a match scheduled, and a sponsor put up some prize money for the winners. I can’t wait to compete.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 22 | Hello from Moscow!
We landed in Moscow around noon today, and they immediately took us to the motel. I was struck by the way everyone dressed and looked. The only way I know to describe Moscow is, well, Russian. It seems as though most people smoke, and they all seem to be wearing skinny jeans. Hollywood does a pretty good job depicting Russia — the harsh language, lots of sweatsuits, leather jackets and European haircuts.
We have been taken care of very well since arriving here. Sasha, a local Russian team leader, picked up all eight of us — me, Andy Hrovat, Max Askren, Keith Gavin, Chase Pami, Adam Hall, Kevin LeValley and Frank Perelli, not to mention, Paul Kieblesz, or Pauly, our fearless team leader and translator — at the airport. Sasha was a good guy to have around. He didn’t speak much English but took care of everything we needed. He just kept repeating, “no problem,” in his strong Russian accent, and I have to admit It did make me feel better. Even at the airport the next day, when my bag was nine kilos over the required weight, Sasha started talking to the nice girl at the desk, telling her she was beautiful, and next thing we know I didn’t have to pay extra for the weight. I have learned quickly that in Russia there are always ways around the rules, especially for wrestlers.
We drove around Moscow during our one-day layover. It was quite an experience — horrible traffic, huge city, much like Kiev, many apartment buildings and people walking everywhere. The thing that really stood out was there were huge wrestling billboards over interstates and on buildings. Andy Hrovat has told me for years how much they love wrestling in Russia, but you really have to see it to understand what is like. They don’t have soccer players — American football — or baseball players on their billboards; they have wrestlers. That was a thing to see. I look forward to Yakutsk.