By Noell Dickmann
Multimedia News Intern
the final countdown
Nazar Kulchytskyy is two points up with 55 seconds left in the match. He sees the exhaustion in his opponent’s face but doesn’t let up. Too much is at stake. They are the last two men standing in the 165-pound class of the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship. The wrestlers twist each other around a big white circle painted on a blue mat, grappling and grunting like ogres.
With the clocking ticking down… eight, seven, six… his opponent lunges, aiming for Nazar’s legs, but Nazar fends off the last-ditch effort. Seconds later, the crowd goes wild. Nazar grins broadly and celebrates with a backflip.
A junior at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Nazar has just become a two-time NCAA DIII Champion. He’s made history, as no one from the university has won the title before, and no one has won it two years in a row.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. Just over a decade ago, Nazar was living in Ukraine, dreaming of the day he would be called the world’s greatest wrestler.
Though winning a couple of national titles may be a dream come true for some collegiate athletes, Nazar is only warming up.
Nazar Kulchytskyy [nuh-zar kull-chit-skee] was born in Sosnivka, Ukraine, a small, rural town of about 15,000. His parents were both music teachers whose only wish for their three children was to have better opportunities than what Ukraine could provide.
|Nazar, age 8, and his coach, Leonidas.|
Nazar started wrestling when he was 7. New to the mat yet, he lost the first tournament he went to. A few months later he tried a second tournament and won. It was then Nazar gained confidence and realized he could win; he beat older boys with experience.
He continued to wrestle older boys because he placed into their weight class. He got so good he can’t remember a time since that first loss he’s placed lower than third.
Nazar's adolescence was dominated by wrestling. Instead of playing soccer with friends for fun like other eight-year-old boys in Ukraine, his strict father limited him to two activities, school and wrestling. Nazar didn't mind.
His coach, Leonidas, saw his dedication and potential early on. He liked that Nazar never gave up, even on the tough days. Leonidas challenged the young wrestlers with hard training exercises that left some unable to breathe. "If you want to be a champion, do it," he’d tell them. "If not, you can leave."
Nazar was one of the few who never left. In fact, he’d stay after practice to train more. Before he was 10, he had already made a lifetime goal: Nazar Kulchytskyy would be a world wrestling champion.
A goal like that meant a lifetime of work, and Nazar soon learned how hard that work would be.
When he was 12 years old, Nazar moved to Odessa, Ukraine with his coach and one other young wrestler to be in a wrestling club and train. Odessa was more than a thousand miles away from home.
If missing his family wasn’t hard enough on him, the training was. Every day Nazar woke up at 5 a.m. to run at least three miles before wrestling practice. Then he’d attend school and after-school wrestling practice. By the time he completed his homework it was time for bed. The next day the cycle repeated.
When the weekend came, he was usually too tired have fun with friends. "All you want is to sleep, and just relax and get ready for next week," Nazar said.
The discipline paid off. Nazar won five Ukrainian National Wrestling Championships and placed third in the European Wrestling Championship - all before the age of 17. In the meantime, back home his parents were trying to move their family to America, seeking a better life for their children.
He also tried to find a way out of Ukraine. With his older sister’s help he began contacting coaches in Germany and America to see if he could move and wrestle there.
They found Larry Marchionda of Fond du Lac, Wis., a former international wrestler who now runs his own wrestling business called World Class Wrestling Enterprises. Marchionda was conducting business online when he received a one-sentence email from Nazar:
“I want to come to America and learn English and wrestle can you help” (sic)
Marchionda liked Nazar’s priorities. “I liked it because he said learn English first, and then wrestle,” said Marchionda, who is also the wrestling administrator at UW Oshkosh. “So that meant to me that he really did want to learn.”
|Nazar with Larry Marchionda (left) and his father, Arkadiy Kulchytskyy (right).|
It took about 2 ½ years, but Nazar’s family got lucky. In 2008 they won the Green Card Lottery, or Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. The annual U.S. program makes 55,000 visas available worldwide by drawing from a random selection of entries from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State website.
According to statistics from the Diversity Visa Program website, the odds of the Kulchytskyy family winning were about 1 in 500.
Before he could move to America, Nazar needed one more thing: his high school diploma. He didn’t want to leave Ukraine just shy of graduating high school, so he studied even harder and took exams early. His Ukrainian diploma now proudly hangs next to his American one.
That spring Nazar, 16, his mom and dad boarded a flight to America, ready to start a new life in a land where endless opportunities awaited.
Leaving Ukraine was bittersweet. Nazar couldn't wait to see what America would be like. He imagined a life free of worries and financial struggles.
However, Nazar was leaving loved ones behind - his brother and sister who couldn't come because they were too old to qualify for the visa, as well as many relatives. He had to leave wrestling friends, the people of Odessa who had come to love him as a local celebrity and Leonidas, his beloved wrestling coach for the past five years.
“Do your best, and always remember what I’ve taught you,” Leonidas told him right before he left for America.
His parents, too, were faced with big changes. They knew coming to America would give their youngest more opportunities to be successful. But it also meant they would trade their love of teaching music for working in a factory. They don’t mind, because a factory job in America has provided more financial stability than teaching in Ukraine.
the land of opportunity
When they arrived in Wisconsin, they finally got to meet Marchionda, who’d kept in close contact. He got the family settled in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and set Nazar up with a new wrestling coach and team at the local high school. Even though he had already graduated from high school in Ukraine, the American system was different and he still had to go to senior year.
However, Nazar couldn’t wrestle competitively. He was considered a professional at the high school level because of the championships he’d won. But he took it to his advantage and worked on his English skills instead.
The first year in America was rough. Nazar had already learned English for 10 years during school in Ukraine and thought he would be in good shape to speak. His first conversation was with his coach, he said, and it was a rude awakening. He couldn’t understand a word.
“That was a really tough year for me,” Nazar said. But he didn’t give up; instead he immersed himself in conversations as much as possible. “I just like to communicate with people,” he said. After a year he learned more words, then how to build a sentence and the rules of the English language.
Everybody in his high school liked Nazar because he was so different. “I didn’t have a tough time making friends,” he said. “Tougher time was to talk and talk well.”
Sometimes words weren’t needed, especially on the sports field. He and his new friends broke through the language barrier by playing basketball and soccer - they made a connection without words.
|Nazar in front of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.|
Already in 2010, Nazar had caught the U.S. Olympics Committee’s attention. He was invited to - and did - train at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. He also caught the eyes of many Division I schools. He would soon be choosing a college to attend, and the best of the best were wooing him.
Unfortunately, an injury changed his plans. He nearly tore his ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] during practice three days before a national tournament. Still, he competed and placed third, which ranked him second in the country. He practiced through the pain of his knee for almost a year before undergoing surgery.
He was sidelined after knee surgery in June 2011, so he enrolled at UW Oshkosh to recuperate. The plan was to stay a year, then move to a Division I school.
Even then Nazar couldn’t be kept out of the wrestling room at UW Oshkosh. He met coach Christopher Stratton and began practicing with Titan wrestlers as soon as he could. Nazar quickly became a team leader and arguably, the most dominant wrestler in the country.
“It’s just a pleasure being on his team cause he’s so good,” Stratton said. “He is an elite athlete.”
Nazar knows what it takes to be a winner. “When you see results, you keep working even harder,” he said. “You enjoy it because you want another medal, you want to win another tournament.”
To non-wrestlers, brute force may be the key to winning, but Nazar compares wrestling to chess - it’s all about brains. “The best guys in the country and the best guys in the world.. they’re fast, their technique is well, they’re strong, they’re powerful,” he said, “but strategy is number one.”
Before a tournament there are headphones in Nazar’s ears. Sometimes he listens to classical music if he needs to clear his mind, sometimes European techno if he needs to pump up. But just before a match, Nazar can be found alone. No noise, no people, no music, just Nazar.
“I think about [the] match and make a strategy,” he said. “And then I’ll just go in and do it.”
He’s racking the wins, including the Freestyle World Trials in April 2012, which qualified him to represent the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics in London. But because he is not yet a naturalized American citizen, Nazar could not participate. He’s received the 2012 and 2013 WIAC Wrestler of the Year award, and dons countless gold, silver and bronze medals around his neck in a picture posted on Facebook.
|Nazar wears some of the many medals he's won.|
|In this audio-only podcast, Nazar discusses the hard work involved with wrestling. Produced by Noell Dickmann.|
The plan to transfer to a bigger school has been all but forgotten. “I just can’t transfer,” said Nazar, who turned down a scholarship to UW Madison. “There’s just such nice people here who help me. I’m really close to graduation, so I don’t want to go somewhere else.”
That doesn’t mean he has dropped his main goal. He will participate in the Ukraine World Trials in the summer. If he wins he will go to the World Championship.
“My biggest dream is to be Olympic Champion,” Nazar said. “So all these tournaments are just good experiences before that biggest dream.”
He plans to become an American citizen in summer 2013 and graduate that December. Then he hopes to move to the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and compete in the 2016 Olympics.
fish out of water
Even off the mat, Nazar’s determination can be seen in everything he does.
At UW Oshkosh, he took a swimming class as a general education requirement for his major, human services and leadership. The class did a timed, 500-yard swim at the beginning and end to see how much they improved over the semester.
Nazar took one last glance at his old time before diving into Albee Pool. He didn’t have to beat the old time, it wouldn’t affect his grade, but he wanted to.
Minutes later he touched the pool wall in completion. He heard his classmates chatter over their improvements. Then Nazar heard his new time from Titan Swimming Coach Jon Wilson.
He was the only student who didn’t beat his old time. Without a word, Nazar got out of the water, grabbed his towel and walked away.
Later that day Wilson heard a knock at the door during the Titan Swim Team practice. He knew who it was.
“Can I try again?” Nazar asked.
“Of course,” Wilson smiled.
This time, everyone in the pool cheered him on, including the Titan Swim Team. “Go! Go! Go!” they shouted as he glided past in the water.
He again touched the pool wall. Nazar had beat his previous time by 30 seconds, an incredible feat for any training, competing swimmer, let alone a wrestler.
off the mat
Nazar seems just the opposite of a dominant athlete off the mat. A friendly smile and bright “Hello!” always appear when he sees a friend or meets someone new.
He is still known in Ukraine for his success, and some of his fellow wrestlers are actually happy he’s left because they have a better chance to be No. 1 in the country. Nazar humbly laughs it off; he’s just happy they can be successful too.
|Nazar uses Lucas Peters, 6, to explain a move during a Mat Rats practice at UW Oshkosh. Photo by Alex Beld.|
For now Nazar is happy where he is, but he’s not standing still. He helps coach the Mat Rats, an Oshkosh-area youth wrestling program that uses the UW Oshkosh mats to practice. An idol to the young boys, they all want to be the best.
One boy, Lucas Peters, is somewhat of a mini-Nazar. The 6-year-old had barely any experience on a Thursday, and then Nazar gave him some tips. Lucas won a tournament that Saturday.
At a Tuesday practice, Nazar noticed another boy. “He’s hurting me!” the boy whined, his face red and eyes tired as he was held down by his opponent. Nazar chuckled from afar as he mimicked the boy under his breath; champions don’t complain.
Nazar didn’t have any idols when he was a little kid; he just wanted to be the best wrestler ever. “I just want to be who I am, and keep improving and having fun,” he said.
Someday he will open his own wrestling club and start an exchange, where he will send wrestlers to different countries to learn and train. He’s already doing the latter, and will bring UW Oshkosh wrestlers with him this summer to train in Ukraine. After, he’ll stay behind and visit his siblings and extended family.
Nazar is thankful for his family. His wish for his parents is to not have to work anymore; to be able to relax in a Jacuzzi and do nothing, he said. He wants to repay them, for he knows how lucky he is to have parents who have made such incredible sacrifices to better their child’s life and how much they support his wrestling endeavors.
Ultimately, wrestling is not just a sport to him, Nazar said. It’s a part of life. It’s molded who he is and guides him in everything he does.
|Nazar Kulchytskyy competition highlights. Produced by Noell Dickmann.|
“I could be in Ukraine right now on a farm and have nothing, and now I’m here,” Nazar said. “It’s all because of wrestling.”