Elena Pirozhkova wipes her eyes. She’s used to the question, but nowhere close to desensitized yet.
“Do you mind if I ask about your dad?”
“Go ahead,” she laughs, not out of humor but because it’s the only way she knows how to respond. “I might…I might tear up.” A sniffle for composure and a deep breath, and Elena is ready to tell her story.
Born in the small town of Novokuznetsk, Russia to parents Sergey and Tatyana, Elena and her family left when she was three to avoid religious persecution and search for a better life than the one in Russia, where the family had no running water and the nearest bus stop was a 30 minute walk.
After traveling Europe for several months without a true home, the Pirozhkovas eventually arrived in the U.S., thanks to a church in Greenfield, Massachusetts that sponsored the family.
It’s where the Pirozhkovas – who would eventually grow nine-children strong – settled. Despite having five sisters, Elena spent a majority of her time with her younger brothers and their friends.
“I want to say I was a tomboyish kind of girl,” says Elena. “I always liked playing with the guys. All of my friends were guys because I was friends with all my younger brothers’ friends. And we would all go play Manhunt together in the neighborhood.”
Outdoor activities were a staple of the Pirozhkova clan. Devout Pentecostals, the family didn’t buy a T.V. until Elena was in fourth grade because, as she recalls, Sergey and Tatyana “didn’t believe in it, I guess.” She credits this as a major reason why she took to athletics.
When they finally came around, Elena got her first dose of the Olympics. As she explains, “There was a track event going on, with these women that were really ripped and they’re running really fast, and I just remember watching it with amazement. First of all, I had never seen T.V., so I never even knew that these type of women existed. They showed the ceremony after with the flags. And I wanted to be a part of that.”
Despite dreams of track and field glory, reality hit home quickly. “I thought I was going to be a runner,” laughs Pirozhkova. “As I grew up, I knew I wasn’t going to be a runner at all. I’m really not that fast.”
It wasn’t until the seventh grade that Elena finally found an athletic calling. In the fall she ran cross-country, but still wanted to do a winter sport. Since she didn’t play basketball, Elena’s options were limited.
One day she got on the scale and weighed in at 114lbs. Her brother Viktor, who had just joined the wrestling team, pointed out that there was an opening in the 112lb weight class. Always a tomboy, Elena joined despite being the lone girl on the squad.
Says Pirozhkova, “We had an awesome coach and my brother was there. Everybody was kind of scared of him, so nobody really gave me any trouble.” Even with allies in the ranks, there was still some adjustment. Explains Elena, “Wrestling is a contact sport and rolling around with guys was kind of awkward at first. But once you get past that, you just look at it as a sport. It’s really not that awkward after.”
A year later - as an eighth grader - she won her first match, pinning a high school freshman boy. Once in high school herself she excelled, culminating in a Second Team All-American award as a senior in 2005.
Elena’s wrestling future gleamed bright, but graduation proved to be a crossroads. In order to reach her potential, she would need to leave her family and friends and move to the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs.
The decision proved to be an easy one despite the obvious uncertainty. From an early age the Pirozhkova children were raised to be independent, and everyone in the family was supportive. As Elena puts it, “He [Sergey] always said, ‘If you think you’re old enough to make decisions, you’re old enough to accept the consequences. So if you go out and do something and something happens, you’ve got to accept full responsibility and you can’t come crying to me about something.’”
Sergey Pirozhkova passed away last July after a three year battle with liver cirrhosis. Less than a year after Elena took home silver at the 2010 World Championships and just two months before 2011 Worlds, the man she called one of her “biggest supporters” would no longer be there for the push to London.
Despite knowing about the condition for three years and her aforementioned independence, Sergey’s death hit Elena hard.
Though trivial in the grand scope of things, wrestling proved to be a coping mechanism. As Elena explains, “My dad would always say, ‘In Russia, the life that we are living, we never would have had. You would have never been wrestling; instead you would have been married, working and having kids. Here you can pursue what you want in whatever that is.’”
In July, Elena’s pursuit of an Olympic medal will reach a decisive stage. Proudly donning a singlet with U.S.A. across the back, she’ll take the mat not just as a wrestler but as a representation of the dream Sergey had for his family.
One year after he passed, Elena knows her father won’t be far. “I guess I really want him to be there. He would have gone. But somebody I was talking to said he has the best seat in the house now. Even though he won’t be at the Olympics in person, he’ll still be there.”