In a two-inch by two-inch box, on a crappy laptop screen, in pixelated laggy video, at four o'clock in the morning, I watched Andy Hrovat's heart break in Beijing. He made a mistake, exposing his back in a scramble, and lost. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics in freestyle wrestling leaves no room for error. The Cuban kid he lost to wouldn't make it to the finals, which would have kept Hrovat alive for a bronze medal, and I'm pretty sure he knew that immediately. In the briefest of moments, his Olympic dream was over, and you could see the realization crash down on him when that final buzzer sounded. The mere thought of it still troubles me; I can only imagine what it felt like to him back then in 2008.
At 28 years old in the Beijing Olympics, most of Hrovat's competitive life lay behind him. I think that the majority of wrestlers would have taken off their shoes at that point, and walked away for good. Hrovat chose a different path. He decided to pursue a second Olympic berth, and was willing to take quite a long journey in the process.
North Ossetia, nestled in the North Caucasus on Russia's southern border with Georgia, produced one fifth of the Olympic men's freestyle wrestling medals in the 2008 Games. It only has a size and population comparable to Cyprus, and as part of the Russian Federation, isn't even an independent nation. 700,000 people live in North Ossetia, and seven of the 2008 men's freestyle medalists were North Ossetian. Take a second to do that math. Then think about how the continents of North America, South America, Africa and Australia produced a grand total of one medal in freestyle wrestling in 2008.
Hrovat determined that he wanted to drink from the waters of wrestling greatness at their source. He made up his mind that he would go train in North Ossetia's capital city of Vladikavkaz. In 2009, he first went over a couple times for short, month-long trips, and impressed the coaches there. The coaches asked that he visit for a longer period. Hrovat made plans for an extended stay in Russia, and ended up staying well over a year.
I sat down and interviewed Hrovat about his experience in Russia, Eventually I got around to asking him how he managed to afford to spend so long living in the Caucasus. He revealed that funding came from an unlikely source
Like a month and a half before I was leaving, Chael Sonnen after his first fight with Anderson Silva...I thought it was a joke, I thought the Paulson brothers were messing with me, cause we were watching the fight, and I've wrestled so many people in the UFC, you know, like Sonnen, Munoz, Jon Fitch, Mo Lawal, I've wrestled Cormier, Aaron Simpson. I've wrestled so many of these guys. So yeah, I've wrestled [Sonnen] once, it was at University Nationals, it was my freshman year in college, I didn't even think he'd remember it...
So after the fight, I get an email from him saying 'Hey, I want to send you some money, it's going to be in an envelope that looks like junk mail, because it was from his bank, his bank just cut a check and sent it and they send them in unmarked envelopes so people don't steal the mail.
He sent me three or four thousand dollars, and for me every thousand dollars was a month's pay. Room and board were a thousand dollars a month.
I asked Hrovat how Sonnen even knew to send him money, and how he discovered Hrovat's desire to travel to Russia in the first place. He told me that Sonnen watched a recorded interview of him after he failed to make the world team in 2009, a low point for Hrovat.
Chael is a big wrestling fan, and I had a rough year in 2009, I had a staph infection in my ankle so i wasn't able to wrestle. I was up a weight at the [World Team] trials, and lost only one match, in the clinch, and it really hurt me. [Sonnen] said he saw an interview afterward where I said I wanted to go to Russia for a year and train, and he said he thought that was a really great idea and he wanted to help contribute, get me over there, and help me out along the way.
After I was already there, I won three tournaments, I beat the number three wrestler in Russia from the year before. [Sonnen] ended up sending me another 2 or 3 thousand dollars, he told me to enjoy myself over there.
He would send me emails every once in a while and check up on me, see how I was doing, and I was doing the same with him. He was just following up and seeing how training was going. We talked about the experience over there.
I had no existing relationship with him before this, but now we still keep in touch.
Sonnen, unsolicited, saw to it that Hrovat had the means to stay in Russia to learn and sharpen his skills on the mat. While in the Caucasus, however, Hrovat didn't just improve his wrestling, he made friends. In the Ossetians, who became his teammates, he found warm and generous spirits. In particular, he befriended Besik Kudukhov, one of the greatest wrestlers to ever live. Earlier this month, traveling to a nearby city to take part in the Olympic torch relay for the Sochi Games, Kudukhov died in an auto accident. He was 27. I provide an account of Hrovat reminiscing with me about his time with Kudukhov in the article here.
Hrovat didn't make the London Olympic team; the Olympic Trials in 2012 were not kind to him. However, he returned from Russia equipped with the blueprint for the most effective wrestler development system in the world, as he now knew the Ossetian way. These days, he applies the lessons he learned in Russia as the head coach of the Cliff Keen wrestling club, one of the nation's top Regional Training Centers for Olympic-level wrestlers.
While Andy Hrovat's dreams of a second Olympics and an Olympic medal did not come true, he now occupies an important coaching position while in possession of unique knowledge which can help him realize the Olympic aspirations of wrestlers to come.
And, in a way, I guess we have Chael Sonnen to thank for this.