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Photo: The 2021 Olympics will mark the third World-level tournament where Ildar Hafizov will represent the U.S. since becoming a citizen in 2015. (John Sachs photo)
By Mike Finn
Shortly before 2014, Ildar Hafizov took a gamble on the United States and seven years later, that gamble has paid off for the 33-year-old native of Uzbekistan … and for the United States’ Greco-Roman program.
And once Hafizov reaches Tokyo this August as one of a few Olympians to compete in the Games for two different countries … with a goal of winning the USA’s first Greco Olympic medal since 2008 … Hafizov — who represented Uzbekistan in the 2008 Olympics — may take some time to think about what he has accomplished on and off the mat since he decided over a decade ago he wanted to immigrate to this country.
But for that to happen, Ildar, and his wife, Dina, and daughter, Itel, who is now age 9 — they have since had another daughter, Nelly, who is now two years old — needed to apply for green cards through a console in their central Asian country, the former Soviet republic that sits southwest of Russia.
That’s where his gamble fits in. And while Hafizov’s gamble did not take place in a casino, it was a financial one … as he looked to find a way to pay for the opportunity for his family to earn green cards via a lottery and come to the USA.
“You had to pay $330 for the opportunity, which was $990 the three of us,” Hafizov recalled. “And if you pay all the amount, you know the application is going to be approved.”
The only problem for Hafizov was how this Greco-Roman wrestler would find the money to pay for such an opportunity.
“I had a small apartment I sold for $12,000, I believe,” he recalled. “For the whole process, including plane tickets (to the USA), I think I paid something like $5,000.”
In the end, it was his wife who actually received the first green card (that later included Ildar and his daughter). That brought the trio to this country; first in New York, then Texas, and eventually to Colorado Springs, where he serves in the U.S. Army and competes for the World Class Athlete Program. They eventually became American citizens in 2015; two years before he wore a USA singlet in two World Championships.
Hafizov clinched his first Olympic berth as an American last month in Fort Worth, Texas, where he defeated Ryan Mango in two straight matches, 7-0 and 8-0, to win the 60-kilo weight class in Greco-Roman wrestling.
“I call it my American dream,” said Hafizov, who will wrestle on Aug. 1-2 in Tokyo; hoping to win this country’s first Greco medal since Adam Wheeler claimed a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing (China) Games.
“I traveled to a lot of countries in my past,” said Hafizov, who also coached his former country’s youth while representing Uzbekistan in the 2007, ’09 and ’11 Worlds. “But every place I went to, I wanted to go back home. “The only place I felt at home was Colorado Springs. I fell in love with Colorado Springs. I like the mountains. The weather is also similar to Uzbekistan.”
His dream, which began in 2010 while competing in the Dave Schultz Memorial tournament in Colorado Springs, has not been easy.
For example, Dina was homesick in the first six months of their arrival as language has been an issue … and they have rarely made trips back to Uzbekistan, where they still have plenty of family members.
“We have issues with everything. My wife was crying for six months because she wanted to go back home. She would say, ‘Nobody understands me.’ Or that no one knows us here, while everyone knew us back in Uzbekistan.”
But slowly, things started to improve and Hafizov has no regrets about making the move to America, which he believes also kept him in this sport.
“I probably wouldn’t be wrestling if I didn’t come here,” he said. “I had injured my ACL back then and no one (there) was helping me with my recovery. To be good in this sport, you have to be on the mat. (Repairing an) ACL is a hard surgery and it takes four to six months of recovery.”
Ildar used his period of recovery while he and the family made their move to this country, where he also had to adjust to Army life.
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” said Ildar, who said he chose to join the Army to quicken his ability to become an American citizen. “Everyone was yelling at me and I didn’t have any clue to why they were doing that.”
Despite these issues, Ildar never gave up on his dream because he “fell in love” with the American way of life.
“While I worked in New York, I worked in demolition and then I started working with a moving company and I wasn’t wrestling as much as I wanted,” he recalled. “But still I was liking it. If you work hard enough here, you can afford everything like big cars or a big house.”
That work ethic has allowed Ildar to succeed on and off the mat.
“I like work,” said Ildar, who started wrestling in Greco at the age of six. “If I don’t, I feel like I’m wasting my time. And my time is running out (in wrestling). I’m 33 and some people are starting to call me old. Age is just a number. Right now, I feel great and can be smart on the mat. I can do a lot of things I could not do when I was 20 and competed in the Beijing Olympics, which was one of my first world-level competitions.”
Wrestling fans in this country started noticing Ildar, including at the 2016 Olympic Trials where he lost to Jesse Thielke.
Hafizov eventually claimed a spot on the U.S. National team, representing the U.S. in the 2017 and 2019 World Championships … and now will take pride in going to Japan this summer while wearing the red, white and blue.
But he has not forgotten about his heritage and made a point of speaking Russian in his post-Olympic Trials media interview; a message intended for his wife, who was back home in Colorado with their daughters.
“I knew they were cheering me on,” he said. “I told them I’m coming back a champion.”
And an American Olympian … because of a gamble.