Q+A: Elena Pirozhkova

Born in Russia, Elena Pirozhkova moved to the western Mass. town of Greenfield as a young girl. She quickly mastered English and, as one of nine kids, the equally essential skill of wrestling. Now 25, she’s America’s top-ranked female grappler in the 63-kilogram (roughly 139-pound) weight class — and she’s off to London this month, chasing Olympic gold.

Elena Pirozhkova

Photo by Sean Hagwell

So you started out wrestling in school, having to go up against boys. How did you get into it?
I was looking for a sport to play in winter and my older brother came home one day and was like, “Hey, step on the scale!” So I stepped on the scale, and I was 114 pounds. He said, “We need somebody at the 112-pound weight class, you should join.” I tried it and didn’t really like it. My brother would give me a tough time, “Oh, you’re so horrible, go home, I thought you were better, you should just quit.” It made me mad. I showed up just to prove him wrong.

So you’ve made an Olympic career out of spiting your brother. But did any of the kids tease you?
In school, everybody was real cool about it. They were kind of scared of my brother, so they were not gonna give me shit. I first joined in seventh grade and occasionally I would hear people say, “Oh, she joined the team just to be with guys.” No, that’s not it.

Wrestling is probably a loaded activity in the hormone-addled minds of middle schoolers.
Yeah, some guys would say, “Oh, I wrestled her, and I touched her butt.” I’m like, I didn’t notice, I was too busy pinning you.

Do you ever get tired of people like me asking how you got into wrestling, because the subtext is, “Oh my God, you’re a girl.”
At first it was really cool to tell people my story. I like to let people know how I got into it so if their daughters want to, it’d be okay for them. But I’ve told it hundreds of times. Actually, a couple of days ago, I was at my mom’s work, and she introduced me, “This is my daughter, she wrestles.” And a woman was like, “Ooh, mud wrestling?” I still get those responses. Or some people ask me what my stage name is, like the Rock or Chyna. You know, outside of wrestling, I’m just like any other girl.

You live in Colorado now to train. How long have you been out there? Wrestling is basically your job, right?
This November will be seven years. It really is my job. The amount of time I spend working out or recovering or doing something related to my sport is more than 40 hours a week.

Now, this will be your first Olympics. Did you have a shot at Beijing in ’08?
Back then, physically and technically, I was ready to make the team, but emotionally and mentally, I wasn’t maybe. I think when I showed up to the Olympic tryouts, I kind of freaked out. This time, I’m a lot more mature, I’m a lot more confident in myself, and I’m a lot better wrestler.

What’s it like to have put in all that work and then you have a bad day, and you’ve got to wait four more years?
That’s the depressing part, because if you do everything right, you could still lose. My whole future rides on one match, two matches, or a couple seconds in a match. It’s just crazy to think that it’s such a gamble. But that’s also the exciting part.

So if you’re one of the best in the world, who’s tops?
Kaori Icho, from Japan. She’s won two Olympic golds and a bunch of world championship medals. I’ve faced her three or four times. I’ve lost each one, but I’m confident this next time, I’m gonna get her.

What do you think is going to be different for you?
Every time I’ve wrestled her, I’ve done better and better. My last match I had with her, I went three periods. Not a lot of people go three periods with her, so I think I’m getting there.

This is some legit Rocky stuff here. I’m imagining that you have a dartboard somewhere with Icho’s face on it.
No, but in my mind, I imagine myself kicking her butt.