By Dan Plouffe, published Jan. 30, 2007 in The Link, Concordia University’s Independent Student Newspaper
Tyler Marghetis doesn’t have too bad a resumé for a 23-year-old.
In his senior year on the Stingers wrestling team, he’s the three-time defending Canadian Interuniversity Sport national champion.
He’s become so dominant at the CIS level that last year he was disappointed when he had two points scored on him in the national final. His goal had been to win every period of every single match by a mercy score of 6-0.
Marghetis has traveled all over the world to compete in tournaments, including the Junior Worlds and the World University Games. He’s presently in Europe attending elite international events in France and Ukraine. He calls his bronze medal from last year’s Canadian senior nationals “disappointing in a lot of ways.”
Marghetis expects himself to qualify for the 2008 Olympics.
“That’s what I think of every time I’m training,” he says.
The Link‘s Dan Plouffe got the chance to follow him around for a day, to see what it was like for someone trying to reach those heights. Here’s the story.
Already I’m worried that there’s going to be a fight, and it’s only seconds after I’ve stepped inside the gym at Vanier College for my day with the champ.
The wrestlers are well into their warm-up soccer game and Tyler’s laying into one of his own teammates.
In terms a little more harsh than can be printed, Tyler essentially tells fellow CIS national champion David Zilberman that he “would have preferred if you had exuded more effort to retrieve my pass in the corner.”
David yells back that “Tyler’s got unreal expectations.”
David later estimates that he spends about 90 per cent of the time legitimately pissed off at his teammate. I guess I wouldn’t be in the best mood either if I was waking up at 6:15 a.m. every weekday for 7:30 training.
“What you saw today was nothing,” both wrestlers tell me of their fairly constant profanity-ladden criticism of each other. When it really gets heated is the days when they spend the 45-minute warm-up playing “basketbrawl” (like basketball except that you can wrap your opponent with your arms and not let go).
But it doesn’t take long before the eight guys at this morning’s training session are joking around about everything and anything as they go about on their circuits. Injury prevention as well as general fitness, I’m told, is a big reason why they embark on a series of shoulder weights, neck rolls, rope climbs and a variety of gymnastic manoeuvres. They also pair off and work on technique for various common scenarios that could occur during a match.
Next up is a trip to the weight room where I come across Tyler’s coach, Victor Zilberman. Victor has directed the Concordia program since 1977. He works full-time as a phys ed teacher at Vanier College—the training location for his athletes since Con U doesn’t have its own wrestling facilities, let alone the time or space to host the program with Loyola gym’s other commitments.
Victor isn’t quite your typical coach. For starters, not every mentor is in the weight room lifting the same amount of iron as his athletes. At 60 years old, the former Soviet Union national champ remains a physical specimen.
“It’s amazing to be around someone who has such a depth of knowledge and a passion for the sport too,” Tyler says of the guru who has guided him since he moved from Ottawa five years ago to wrestle and study at Concordia.
Although he praises his junior high/high school coach—Lee Mackay, a former international referee—for what he learned from him, Victor took him to a whole new level. Tyler remembers when he would download clips of the world’s top wrestlers from the Internet when he was younger. Sometimes, his coach would have never seen a particular manoeuvre and ask him to show it to the other wrestlers.
“I’m thinking, ‘What? I’m only 16—shouldn’t you be the one coaching me?” he jokes.
While Victor rides the stationary bike, Tyler goes about his business of bench-presses and lateral pull-backs, as well as helping out some girls from Vanier who aren’t sure how to use the equipment. He chats with Victor briefly on his way out to the showers in what he calls the Montreal Wrestling Club’s “hybrid-language”—a combination of English, French and Russian.
It’s about 10 a.m. now and time for a real breakfast, the fuel from his cereal, fruit, muffin and coffee from earlier having worn off. We’re lucky enough to get a ride from Ali Pourjalal, a 38-year-old wrestler who lives fairly close to Tyler near Berri-UQAM. This means Tyler will limit today’s metro trips to four, down from its usual six-plus.
Ali and Tyler joke about the jewelery business Ali’s parents run on St-Denis, and how Ali won’t accept Tyler’s gas money just so that he’s “forever endebted” and can be called on to help out at long jewelery conventions when needed.
We get out of Ali’s aged Volkswagon Jetta a couple blocks away from Chez Cora’s—Tyler’s regular breakfast hang-out (largely for the reason that they offer a free smoothie if you flash your student card.)
He continues to tell me about when he visits Ali’s parents’ shop and about Ali’s father, who used to wrestle in his native Iran but has now developed a bit more stocky figure in his seventies. Whenever Tyler enters the shop, he acts surprised when the old man jumps out of his chair and attacks him (even though he does it every time he walks in, irrelevant of whether or not there are customers present).
Tyler can’t let Ali’s father get the best of him though, partly “because that’s what wrestlers do” and perhaps moreso because he doesn’t want to end up flying through one of the jewelery display cases.
Once Ali’s mother has made enough of a scene by waving her arms around and screaming out, “Your heart, your heart!” while imploring her husband to stop his onslaught, Ali’s dad will retreat to his chair, catch his breath, and then insist on feeding Tyler. Tyler’s learned to pass on that, since Ali’s welcoming parents would cook him an entire lamb and then watch him alone eat it.
Tyler keeps the meat to a minimum in his breakfast order today, choosing crepes and fruit instead. It’s not uncommon for Tyler to go out with others for breakfast or lunch—his friend Jason is our guest today—since it’s one of the few times he can find to briefly hang out. It becomes very tough to orchestrate a social life with his schedule, he says, noting his priorities in order of importance go something like training, eating, napping and studying each day.
We’re off to Starbucks next as Tyler decides to forego his semi-usual 45-minute midday nap. He chooses a café latté instead, his second of a regular three coffees on the day. Normally he would be swimming as part of his training at this time, but with three weekend tournaments in a row, cutting out those two sessions a week is his idea of pacing.
Later this evening, Tyler has an class titled, “linear and non-linear dynamical systems” for which he’s now studying, the last required course for his major in pure and applied mathematics. Thankfully my mind is spared from enduring that class since it conflicts with tonight’s wrestling practice. Tyler says his professors are generally pretty understanding about his training commitments, and since “I’m lucky enough to have math come naturally to me,” he’s able to do fine on his assignments through self-teaching.
Actually, “fine” doesn’t quite do it justice. Two years ago, Tyler was named a Top-8 Academic All-Canadian while he maintained a 4.08 (out of 4.3) GPA in a program that isn’t exactly recognized for dishing out easy marks. He’s also completing a minor in philosophy.
Tyler pauses and is silent for a long period with a sort of smirkish smile on his face as he tries to find a way to describe exactly what it is he studies to someone who hasn’t done any non-sports stat-related math since Grade 12.
“Have you taken calculus?” he asks, as I shake my head and tell him about how I dropped it after three days since it wasn’t required of me to get into journalism school. “[What I study] is sort of on the interphase between abstract algebra and topology,” he says, continuing to explain it in as simple terms as possible while I stare ahead blankly and claim to kind of understand.
Even though I may have got out of math class, that doesn’t mean Tyler isn’t going to show me some of the texts he has to read. Hey, I actually got 80s in high school math and since I’m not a coffee person but just had one, my brain is totally wired at the moment and ready to take this on—I can surely make some sense out of this stuff, I figure.
“This course was first designed as an opportunity to familiarize students with some standard lattice theory,” the text begins, “motivated by a desire to introduce the theory of frames, which has received a considerable amount of attention in certain quarters over the last twenty years.”
I leaf through a few more pages, and after re-reading a paragraph three or four times and still not understanding more than the first word (the), I hand the text back to Tyler and quietly say thanks.
As he wraps up his studying and I finish checking some of last night’s hockey scores, I take a few minutes to do a more formal interview with the champ. We talk a bit about school and how he manages to excel at that even though so much of his hours are devoted to being a top-level international athlete.
Tyler says his once-stellar GPA has dropped a bit in the past two years (now sitting around a paltry 3.8) since his focus shifted away from getting grad work-worthy grades.
“I used to really love math,” he says. “But I’m always tired from wrestling, so it’s tough for me to really get engaged in what I’m learning.”
Even though he averages about six hours sleep these days while he works on his honours project, Tyler says being a committed student still helps out his wrestling.
“As an athlete, having that sort of structure in your life is really helpful—having the ability to reason, to analyze. Especially in a sport like wrestling where it’s such a dynamic sport and there are so many facets—technical, tactical, strategic,” he says. “These types of things you have to analyze on your own—you can’t always rely on your coach, and being a student is really important for me to have that focus.”
Nevertheless, Tyler admits he’s tired every single morning and will sleep in until the last possible moment. He’s got three alarms is his room: one next to his bed, one across the room that plays music at fairly low volume and then a really loud, annoying one that goes off last when he really has to wake up.
How about on the mats? Tyler has certainly already proven himself to be at a totally different level than his competitors in the CIS, so what kind of goals does he have for this year’s nationals? Chance No. 2 to win every period 6-0.
“Now that I know I can win, I have to dominate,” Tyler says. “I have to put on a show; I have to be a marquee wrestler.”
A silver from his rookie year followed by four-straight golds wouldn’t make for too bad a CIS career, but of course, Tyler’s set higher standards for himself. And that means he’s aiming for Beijing.
“The Olympic trials are in almost exactly a year and they are in the forefront of my mind—that’s what I think of every time I’m training,” he says.
From there, Tyler would still have to meet international standards to qualify—either with a solid placing at the World Championships, or a top result at the Pan-Am Games or several designated European events.
“I can win those tournaments. I can compete against international wrestlers, so now it’s just about consistency and continuing to improve to get to that Olympic level,” he says.
We pack up quickly and head for the metro, making a stop at Concordia where Tyler manages to negotiate a $40 reduction in his year-old library fine. He had been getting a friend to borrow books for him from McGill, but Con U was the only library that had the one he now needed. Oops, was that part off the record?
After picking up a big-chicken sandwich to go from Java U, it was back into the metro and off to Joliqueur, a stop on the green line most people probably don’t know exists. From there, it’s a fairly long walk to Beurling Academy, where Tyler coaches a group of about 15 youngsters ranging in age from 12 to 16.
The school never had a wrestling program before this year, and Tyler picked up the coaching reins a couple months ago after the other schools had already competed in a few tournaments. He’s taken his rookies to a few area tournaments, traveling to places like John Rennie High School in the West Island by city bus. The newbies haven’t fared particularly well, but some have won a couple matches here and there, and he’s found a group that is having fun with the sport.
“I signed up for wrestling because I wanted to find a sport that didn’t have a lot of running, but I could still be good at,” says Devon Walcott, who is in Grade 7.
When we show up around 3:50, the teens are already warming up by jumping and flipping off the vault into the blue crash pads. The flying elbow-drop seems to be one of the favourite warm-up manoeuvres.
Tyler takes them through some stretching activities as well as some forward and backward rolls—which aren’t particularly successful. A couple of his older students are a bit more serious, but there are plenty of smiles and laughs throughout.
The most laughter from the group came about two weeks earlier when Tyler’s wrestlers stood shoulder-to-shoulder and said they had a surprise for him that they found in the metro. When they split apart, they revealed a close-to-life-size poster of Tyler with what he calls an “extremely embarrassing” smile on his face posing for Concordia’s real education for the real world ads.
Whether he’s still a little bitter about that occurrence or not, Tyler doesn’t exactly take it easy on his youngsters—most of the kids are tired after he puts them through technique drills, position training with resistence and then mini-matches at the end. To my surprise, the kids are using the moves he taught them—it doesn’t become an all-out free-for-all, which is about all I remember from wrestling week of high school gym class.
They end the practice with a relay race after lots of cheering and laughing. Tyler’s into it throughout, shouting encouragement and advice at every turn.
“He’s a nice coach,” Grade 11 student Alex Brisebois tells me. “But he needs to stop yelling out pointers during the matches at the tournaments—the refs get really angry at him.”
Alex is just kidding, although Tyler admits he does get pretty excited for them. That excitement is a big part of what he hopes the kids get out of it, he explains as we walk back to the metro and on to his practice at the Snowdown YMHA.
“Wrestling is such a huge part of my life. I am so involved with it and so immersed in the sport that sometimes I lose track of how excited and happy the sport makes me,” he says. “When I watch how they enjoy the sport—the simple pleasure they get out of it—it really reminds me of how powerful play is and how happy and content competing in the sport can make you.”
Tyler’s a bit quiet on the metro ride on the way to practice and admits he’s feeling a bit tired. A Tim Horton’s run solves that problem though, and he’s ready to go for the most important part of his training for the day.
There’s a slew of World Championships medalists around the Montreal Wrestling Club, as well as Georges St. Pierre of Ultimate Fighting Championship fame.
As the wrestlers gradually filter in, I sit down with Victor Zilberman to chat a bit about one of his stars. Victor is always demanding more out of athletes, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he isn’t going to spend our whole interview lauding Tyler for his achievements.
“He has problems with the mornings. For his level, I would like a better level of commitment,” is the first thing Victor tells me. It doesn’t take long before he’s calling Tyler “the pride of the program,” however he still tempers his praise.
“Anybody else would be happy because of his abilities,” Victor says. “He’s a gentleman, an all-around person, and at the varsity level he’s okay, but I think he should reach for the Olympics. […] As a coach, you just want him to go so much further.”
Victor passes me notes from Tyler’s most recent matches, outlining several details that can be improved upon. “He doesn’t stay with the proper attitudes for the smaller tournaments,” Victor says. “He lost in Guelph to a person who he should have beat—he beat him at the senior nationals—because he wasn’t sufficiently there mentally.”
Tyler doesn’t feel any sort of bitterness towards Victor’s approach and demands and says that he knew from the first time he met Victor that working with him would be the best way for him to excel. “You come in as a good athlete and Victor will make you great,” Tyler says.
To describe it most simply, Victor’s coaching style varies from most others in Canada because of its individualized approach. While other coaches might bring their wrestlers into a room and go 100 per cent all of the time, Victor’s athletes are respected for their amazing technical abilities; other schools envy the purity and beauty of the way they wrestle.
As I talk to Victor, he has his athletes working on different types of skills with different partners. To work on getting an opponent flipped over from the ground, Tyler is paired with Patrick Okpalugo, who also plays for the Stingers football team.
“Tyler’s the roughest guy on the ground,” says Patrick, who outweighs Tyler by about 70 pounds. “He’s not nearly as big as me, but he’s still tough.”
Tyler works for over two hours, often upwards of three, on various techniques, trying to perfect each one. As he takes a quick breather, I ask him how he feels at the end of the day when it’s all over.
“Happy,” he answers after taking a gulp from the orange juice carton he brought along.
When Tyler finally gets home after practice, which is usually after 10, that’s when he has his dinner. He can’t usually fall asleep right away and is up until midnight. Then, the alarm clock rings six hours later and it’s time to start it all over again.
A day in the life of the champ.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.