Both of The Citadel’s extraordinary Mongolian wrestlers miss homemade soup rich with vegetables and mutton as prepared in their native capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Experience shows in their search for Lowcountry solutions.
The Citadel’s Turtogtokh Luvsandorj, a redshirting senior, and Undrakhbayar Khishighyam, a redshirt freshman, are two of the nation’s top college wrestlersHometown: Both are from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia For short: Turtog and UgiNational rankings: Ugi is ranked No. 8 in the NCAA Coaches Poll at 141 pounds; Turtog was ranked as high as No. 8 last year at 174 pounds Goals: Both hope to wrestle for Mongolia in the 2016 OlympicsNext match: The Bulldogs face Gardner-Webb on Sunday at 1 p.m. at McAlister Field House
While redshirt freshman Undrakhbayar “Ugi” Khishighyam often settles for any chicken dish he can find at the mess hall, senior Turtogtokh “Turtog” Luvsandorj has carefully canvassed the Charleston peninsula.
“I love American food, especially Italian foods,” he said. “Meatballs. Pasta. I like Mama Kim’s (Korean and Japanese Grill). My favorite is the Eye Opener at Moe’s Crosstown Tavern, an egg on a hamburger.”
Different tastes, unique personalities. But the two cadets are similarly dominant on the mat.
They share Olympic dreams.
Ugi is No. 8 nationally at 141 pounds in the NCAA coaches rankings. He is 32-3 going into The Citadel’s home match Sunday against Gardner-Webb.
Turtog, redshirting this season with one more year of athletic eligibility, was ranked as high as No. 8 last year at 174 pounds. He’ll compete next year as a fifth-year senior.
Citadel head coach Rob Hjerling found Turtog adjusting to American life at New Jersey’s St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. Back in Ulaanbaatar, Ugi heard about The Citadel from Turtog’s brother. Win-win for the Bulldogs.
“My season is going well, and I feel my best is still coming,” Ugi said. “The Southern Conference Championships, the NCAAs … There is still a lot to look forward to.”
Including the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Turtog and Ugi hope to represent Mongolia in their nation’s most popular sport.
Beyond Genghis Khan
The Citadel’s competitive roots trace as far as 1846 and the school’s preparation for the Mexican War. Turtog and Ugi go way back.
Wrestling was one of the ways Genghis Khan trained his 13th century Mongol invaders for battle. Evidence of the sport in modern-day Mongolia dates several hundred years earlier.
“We learn wrestling from our fathers and grandfathers,” Turtog said. “You wrestle in school, and everyone talks about it all the time. I really appreciate the sport and all the coaches I’ve had.”
Wrestling, archery and horsemanship are Mongolia’s “Three Manly Skills” and on display every July at the traditional Nadaam festival. It’s the largest sporting event in Mongolia, held at Ulaanbaatar’s National Sports Stadium as a tribute to a 1921 declaration of independence from China.
Turtog and Ugi have participated.
“Oh, yes,” Ugi said. “I’ve been riding since I was 7.”
“I’m OK. But I’m a wrestler,” Turtog said.
Along with language, culture and food, wrestling styles also posed an adjustment problem in the U.S.
Mongolia has several kinds of wrestling. At the Nadaam festival, the loser in untimed matches is the first guy knocked off his feet.
Collegiate style wrestling is about rolling around on the mat in search of a pin.
“The first time I started practice at The Citadel, I thought, ‘This is pretty different,’ ” Ugi said. “It might look similar to what we do in Mongolia, but there are so many different rules. I can’t lock my hands around someone. At first, I made a lot of mistakes locking my hands. But I’m getting better.”
Effort is a universal language.
Turtog two years ago won The Citadel wrestling program’s coveted “Workhorse Award” and was named co-MVP along with Odie Delaney. The “naturally” energetic Ugi, Hjerling said, “goes hard from beginning to end.”
“That’s why he’s won a lot of matches in the third period,” Hjerling said. “Late in the third period.”
Ugi spoke only Mongolian until taking a crash course in English by watching American movies two months before enrolling at The Citadel. Much to Turtog’s delight.
“It’s kind of boring at times with no one here speaking my language,” Turtog said. “I was glad he came.”
“We’re not going to turn anyone away that’s going to fit in with our program and help us,” said Hjerling, in his 14th season at The Citadel. “I’m open to having one or more Mongolians, or anyone from any country or state that can help our program. As long as something is working, I’m not going to turn my back on it.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff