Pirozhkova ready for Rio Olympics

  • Elena Pirozhkova, in blue, takes down Cuba's Katerina Vidiaux Lopez in this file photo. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Elena Pirozhkova, left, is shown wrestling against Japan’s Kaori Icho.

Published: 4/11/2016 11:27:01 PM

To most people, qualifying to compete at the Olympics would be a pretty big deal.

That was the case for Greenfield wrestler Elena Pirozhkova the first time she qualified at 63 kilograms (138 pounds) for the 2012 London Olympics four years ago. Her stint in the London Olympics was short-lived, however, as she was upset in her first match of the tournament. So on Saturday, when she qualified for the 2016 Rio Games (Aug. 5 to 21), her feelings about qualifying were a bit different.

“I would say that ‘satisfied’ is a good word,” the 29-year-old said Monday afternoon as she got off a plane in Washington, D.C., on her way to visit her sister. “I was actually talking to my sisters about it, because Rita and Nina came out to watch me compete. It’s awesome and it’s exciting. But I think the first time around, when I made the team, you are kind of in awe of everything and the opportunity. This time, it’s still awesome to make the team, but I’m not impressed with myself for it. I will be impressed if I win a medal.

“This was something I had to get done,” she continued. “It was a tournament in the way of my thinking about the Olympics, because you don’t want to think about the Olympics before you qualify and you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. Last time I was excited, it was my first Olympics, you know, but this time I’m excited for the Olympics, rather than just making the team.”

Pirozhkova is a 2005 graduate of Greenfield High School. She was born in Siberia and her family made a long trek to leave Russia when she was 3, crossing Europe and the Atlantic Ocean before eventually settling in Greenfield, where her parents and eight brothers and sisters made their home. When she graduated from GHS and began training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., she was still know as Elena Pirozhkov. She said that when her family moved to the country, the entire family used the same last name, but in Russia, women actually have the “a” in their last name and her lack of an “a” stuck out when she began wrestling internationally.

“In Russia, when you have an ‘a’ at the end, it just means you are female,” she explained. “I didn’t really care about it until I went overseas and competed with Pirozhkov and some of the Russian girls were making fun of me. I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I better change my last name.’”

Pirozhkova laughs as she tells me that story. Even when I told her that I screwed her name up in Monday’s edition of The Recorder, still being stuck on knowing her as Pirozhkov when she was in high school, she laughs it off. If you’ve met her, you can’t help but be drawn in by her personality. She is all business on the mat, but she is a really down-to-earth person away from it and you can’t help but root for her.

Take, for example, her description of how she wrestled over the weekend. Pirozhkova, the top seed, needed to defeat four opponents to earn the spot on the U.S. Olympic team and she was nearly flawless in her five bouts (she had to win twice in the championship round), outscoring her opponents, 29-2, and also earning one pin. That’s pretty impressive when you figure that she was wrestling the best women in the country, and I spoke to her about the great defensive performance.

“I was actually kind of upset that I gave up those points, to be honest,” she laughed. “I wanted to go scoreless. I didn’t get taken down, but I got pushed out a couple of times and I got called for stalling. It was all right, but I don’t like when anyone scores on me.”

It has been a long four years for Pirozhkova as she has worked to get back to the Olympics. She got a new coach and moved up to the 69 kilogram (152 pound) weight class. She won a bronze medal at the 2013 World Championships, and a silver medal at the 2014 Worlds, but decided to move back to 63 kilograms as she tried to qualify this time around.

“I’ve always been at 63 kilograms but I went up to 69 because I was literally sick of cutting weight,” she said. “It didn’t quite turn out how I wanted, and it was a little too risky to stay up at 69 for the Olympics. I still would have made the team, but making the team is not really my goal. It’s part of the process, but it’s not the final goal. I think I have a better shot of medaling at 63, so I just got on a good diet plan and I’m back at it.”

One of the other good things about the 63-kilogram weight class is that the U.S. had already qualified for the event at the Olympics by virtue of another wrestler, Erin Clodgo, winning the Pan American Olympic Qualification event last month in Dallas. That assured the U.S. of having a spot at that weight.

That all led Pirozhkova to Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Iowa City, Iowa. It was a one-day tournament for the right to represent the country and Pirozhkova was the top seed, but did not take anyone lightly. She was not about to let her second chance at fulfilling a dream and getting the chance to medal at the Olympics fall by the wayside.

“It was really important to me,” she said. “Last time around, I was with some really good coaches, but I think this time around I’m making decisions that are better for myself and what I feel like I need. Last time, I feel like I was over-trained, and I had a lot of stressful things going on in my life. I think with all the years I’ve put in, the good coaching I’ve had, and the talent that I have now, it was just too early to stop and give up on my dream. I just wanted to get another legit shot where I can say that I’ve given it my all.”

Pirozhkova won her first two matches by technical fall and then defeated Jennifer Page, 5-1, in the semifinals. That pitted her against Clodgo, the second-ranked American at 63 kilograms, in the championship round, which was a best-of-three. Pirozhkova defeated Clodgo, 3-1, in the first match of the finals, and then led 4-0 in the second period of the second match. At that point, Clodgo shot in on Pirozhkova, going low for her legs, but Pirozhkova wound up using that to her advantage, taking Clodgo down. Then she really stunned her opponent when she cradled Clodgo and earned a pin to punch her ticket to the Olympics.

“She shot in and she’s pretty strong, but I’ve been lifting myself, and I just got the leg and crunched her down,” Pirozhkova said. “I was pretty surprised with how easy it was to get her in that cradle. Actually, when my hand was underneath her, I was trying to lock it, and she bit me. One of my fingers got stuck in her mouth and she bit down. She was supposed to be disqualified, but I was like, ‘I’m not going to win like that. I’m going to take my fingers out, pretend this didn’t happen, and continue this.”

That’s exactly what she did, and now she’s Olympic bound. One more step on her way to making her dream come true.

You can watch the entire match online by going to www.nbcolympics.com., then searching Pirozhkova in the top right search box and it will bring you to her bio page. At the bottom of the page is an article entitled, “Three former Olympians win Wrestling Trials, on way to Rio.” Clicking on that story will bring you to a video of Pirozhkova’s match with Clodgo.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.

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