Pirozhkova got in touch with Russian roots with silver medal in women’s freestyle

Updated: October 8, 2010

By Jason Bryant

Elena Pirozhkova doesn’t get asked a whole lot of questions.

But if she had to pick the most common question asked, it would center on what she considers herself to be: Russian or American?

Elena Pirozhkova (right) rallied from a first-period loss to beat Cuba's Katerina Lopez in the quarterfinals of their 138.75-pound women's freestyle match.

The 23-year-old Pirozhkova was born in Novokuznetsk, Russia — which is near Kazakhstan and Mongolia — but was raised by Russian parents in Massachusetts. Her family moved from Russia when she was three and kept many of the traditions of their homeland.

She started wrestling in middle school and was twice an All-American at the Junior level in Fargo.
But the question of heritage arises in the strangest of places. When Pirozhkova’s name was announced at the 2010 World Championships in Moscow, it turned heads … Russian heads.

“A couple of Russians came up to me and said, ‘We heard your name,’ and when they heard I was from the United States, they were shocked,” said Pirozhkova.

Pirozhkova came “home” from Moscow with the United States’ top individual performance, a silver medal, losing in the finals to Japanese wrestling legend and six-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho.

Pirozhkova brushed off too much emphasis on “going home,” so to speak, more pleased with her performance rather than where her performance took place.

“I don’t think it was such a big deal that it was in the country I was born, but it was a big deal that it was my first medal,” said Pirozhkova. “The biggest thing about going to Russia was I got to stay and enjoy it.”
Following the tournament, Pirozhkova had a chance to fully envelop what “home” was in this case, touring Moscow and the surrounding areas and got a better understanding of her Russian heritage.

“I think a lot of my questions were answered,” Pirozhkova said. “Why do my grandparents act like this or say this, and that baffled me (growing up).

“Now I could see how it was different from the American culture,” she said. “I can see where all the things I was surrounded by growing up came from.”

Even before her runner-up finish in Moscow and her what-just-happened semifinal victory, Pirozhkova had to ready herself.

A concussion at the Golden Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, in July sidelined Pirozhkova for a month. She would spend the rest of July and the majority of August off the mats, unable to raise her heart rate or practice.

“The biggest thing I had to focus on was my mental approach and keeping my weight in check,” she said. “I couldn’t work out for a month. I had to focus on whatever it was: visualization, staying positive, just telling myself even if I get cleared two days before weigh-ins, I can do it.”

It wasn’t two days before weigh-ins, rather three weeks, but in short time with training, Pirozhkova had to slowly get back into shape.

“It wasn’t super easy, but maybe it seemed easier because I was so eager to get back into it,” she said. “It wasn’t a smooth road back. The first week, I’d work out and start feeling crappy and I’d have to play everything by ear.

“Some days, I’d only have a half-hour workout,” said Pirozhkova. “I think the fact we eased into it, I wasn’t overtrained.”

But the initial question still looms, what does Pirozhkova consider herself?

Until 2006, legally she was Russian.

“When you wrestle in tournaments, it wasn’t a big deal,” Pirozhkova recalled. “I remember filling out paperwork for the resident athlete program and there was a question on if I was a U.S. citizen and I didn’t know what to put.

“They’re like, this is pretty serious,” Pirozhkova explained about the sign-up process. “If I’m not a U.S. citizen, I can’t stay here, so I had to get everything rushed. For most people it takes a year, but I got it done in six months.”

Now in her fifth year at the Olympic Training Center under coaches Terry Steiner and Vladislav “Izzy” Izboinikov, Pirozhkova has her first World medal and she’s gracious to accept how that opportunity arose.

“Because I was born in Russia and I was raised in a Russian home, I have a lot of Russian values,” she said. “I’m a U.S. citizen, I grew up in America and I have a lot of American culture in me. I don’t lay claim (exclusively) to either one, but I’m grateful for both.

“The Russian culture made me the person I am, but America gave me the opportunity to get what I have,” she said.

As a team, the U.S. finished fifth in the team standings, improving on last year’s finish by one place. Tatiana Padilla at 55kg was the only other U.S. medalist in any of the three styles, while Kelsey Campbell, wrestling in her first World Championships at 59kg, finished fifth.