Former DII champ eyes London gold
Dlagnev never dreamed of titles but now chases Olympic medal
There is not a weekend on the calendar year when a young grappler cannot find a wrestling tournament of some kind, somewhere. For some, it starts moments after those first steps outside the crib. It works its way through junior high and high school, and culminates with a spot on a collegiate roster.
The hours spent in mini-vans and SUVs is endless. A weekend might include eight or 10 matches. The grind continues every week as low-level single-legs, cross-body rides and whizzers become ingrained inside a young wrestler’s mind.
The ultimate goal, the top of the mountain for many, is to be an Olympic champion. But only a select few earn that distinction, and most of those are the ones whose first singlet may have been a diaper. It is not out of the ordinary to hear a 10-year-old talking about winning a gold medal; of walking in the footsteps of legends like Dan Gable, John Smith or Cael Sanderson.
Not so for Tervel Dlagnev.
As a sophomore in high school, he barely knew how to put on a headgear much less fight off a double-leg attack. Actually, the big kid had never participated in organized sports. Throw in the fact that he was attending Arlington High School in the not exactly wrestling-rich state of Texas and very few would have put the “pudgy” native of Bulgaria on any future Olympic squad. Yet, he saw something that motivated him.
“I liked wrestling from the start,” Dlagnev said. “It changed my life, motivated me in ways I hadn’t been motivated before.”
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A quick learner, he progressed faster than most.
He won back-to-back Division II titles at Nebraska-Kearney in 2007 and 2008, barely eight years after taking up the sport. His first year of collegiate wrestling ended with a broken foot, for which he was given a medical redshirt. A year later he was sixth at the DII Championships while still in the early part of his learning curve.
"Before we ever got started he wanted to see video on everybody on our team," said UNK head coach Marc Bauer, whose brother was an assistant coach at Arlington High. "He could emulate every one of their stances on the first day because he's spent time already wanting to learn whatever he could. He was like a sponge right from the start.
"But also looking back, I am not surprised he is where he is. He is such a positive influence in everything he does."
Against most wrestling aficionados’ odds, Dlagnev, still in the developmental stage by wresting standards, will represent the United States in London at the 2012 Olympics. In June, the likeable third-place finisher as a high school senior rolled through the 264.5-pound freestyle bracket in Iowa City, beating old nemesis Les Sigman in the best-of-three championships series.
“Looking back, thinking that Tervel was going to be an Olympian … it just shows how far he has come and how much work he has put in,” Bauer said. “He has a ton of supporters in Kearney and it’s going to be unbelievable for us to have someone in London, someone who wrestled at our little Division II school. It's been a good year. We get word we are going to host the first Nebraska Dual State Championships; we win the national championship in March; a month later we have an Olympian."
“I have great memories from Kearney,” said Dlagnev, who moved with his family to Texas from Bulgaria when he was four years old. “I would not be where I am today without my time there.”
As might be expected, Division I coaches came calling after his first DII title. But Dlagnev chose to stay in Kearney, not wanting to put into jeopardy any of the relationships he was starting to establish. Training with former World Team member Tolly Thompson, a bronze medalist at the 2005 World Championships, only sped up the process.
"We didn't have anybody who could really handle him," Bauer said. "There were times during the season when he would go to Northern Iowa [Thompson's job location at the time] to let him train. Tolly really took him under his wing."
Henry Harmony may be the spark that lit Dlagnev’s wrestling flame. As many high school coaches do, Harmony, wrestling coach at Arlington since 1985, was working the hallways and PE classes in search of prospective team members. One kid in particular, a less-than-athletic looking sort who didn’t seem to be too motivated toward any current endeavor, became a topic of conversation.
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“It’s like winning the lottery,” Harmony told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I’ll never win the lottery because I’ve already won it. Very few people make this level. [Dlagnev] has reached the pinnacle of amateur wrestling. They talk about living the dream. Well, he’s living the dream. He wasn’t a guy they would have picked, but he’s there.
“As a coach, you don’t really know. You plant a seed, and once in a while they’ll grow.”
Dlagnev's mother, Igrena, was terrified at first, thinking competing in a sport could be more along the lines of helping her son lose some weight as opposed to going toe-to-toe with 250-pound monsters.
A change in attitude led to better grades, and as a junior a slimmed-down Dlagnev finished fourth at the Texas state championship. A year later he was third. Harmoney, a Nebraska-Kearney graduate, convinced Bauer to take a chance on a kid who had a lot of potential, a potential that translated into four All-America seasons with three trips to the DII finals.
The next step for Dlagnev, the international realm, was quickly put on hold as Dlagnev was nowhere near the nation’s top heavyweights at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.
A year later, amazingly, Dlagnev won a bronze medal at the 2009 World Championships in Denmark. Two years after that, in Istanbul, Turkey, the American heavyweight finished fifth at the 2011 World Championships.
It almost boggles the mind to think that a “pudgy” kid without any wrestling background could go, within 10 years, from beginner to elite in one of the world’s toughest sports. Entering the London Olympics, he is among those to watch when it comes to possible Olympic medalists – his resume includes a victory against two-time Olympic champion Artur Taymazov of Uzbekistan.
“I’ve seen myself standing at the top of the [Olympic] podium a lot,” Dlagnev said. “The Star-Spangled Banner playing, my hand on my chest and probably crying. It is going to be great.
“My goal was not to just be an Olympian, but an Olympic champion.”
A man of strong faith, Dlagnev is that guy you think of when you hear “it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.” And although the loudest cheers will come from a small community in Nebraska and a high school in Texas (Olympic wrestling begins Aug. 5), there is no doubt by the time the London Olympics are finished, most Americans should know the name Tervel Dlagnev, with or without a medal. Among those in attendance will be Bauer, who, like many who have seen the development of America's top heavyweight, will no longer be amazed by what Dlagnev does.