Where Turtogtokh Luvsandorj comes from, wrestling goes back a long way.
And we're not talking the 1980s heyday of Hulk Hogan, either.
Luvsandorj, a sophomore at The Citadel who will participate in the NCAA championships starting today in Philadelphia, is from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the capital city of the Asian country that lies between Russia and China.
And wrestling is deeply ingrained in Mongolian culture, tracing all the way back to cave paintings, of grappling men surrounded by crowds, from 7000 B.C. In the 13th century, Genghis Kahn used wrestling to keep his soldiers combat-ready. Wrestling is one of Mongolian culture's "Three Manly Skills," along with horsemanship and archery.
"It's in our blood," said Luvsandorj, who is ranked No. 15 in the nation at 165 pounds.
Luvsandorj is one of a growing number of Mongolian wrestlers who are putting their heritage to good use at colleges in the U.S.
Ganbayar Sanjaa, a junior at American University, is also from Ulaanbaatar and qualified for the NCAAs at 149 pounds, where he is ranked No. 8. Minga Batsukh, a senior at St. John's University in Minnesota, just won the Division III national title at 149 pounds, his third national championship. He also is from Ulaanbaatar, and like Luvsandorj, attended St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J.
"Little by little, there are more Mongolian wrestlers coming to the States," said Citadel coach Rob Hjerling. "In talking to Turtog, it's expensive to train there, and finances and resources can be an issue. If we can get them over here to train the way we train, they can take that experience back with them, and it would be a win-win for us and for the Mongolians. There are a lot of talented wrestlers there."
Luvsandorj grew up in Ulaanbaatar, where his father and an older cousin introduced him to Khapsagay, the folk wrestling style of Mongolia. And having a twin brother, Turbat, gave him a constant training partner.
When he was 15, Luvsandorj and his brother left Mongolia for St. Benedict's. The head coach of the Mongolian team had taken his squad to the U.S. to compete and met the coach at St. Benedict's when the team practiced there. A pipeline was quickly constructed, with Batsukh the first Mongolian wrestler to make the journey, followed by the Luvsandorj brothers and others.
It was difficult for Turtog at first, especially in the classroom at the all-male Catholic school. He knew little English and struggled even in the English as a Second Language classes. But on the mat, he quickly learned the U.S. style and compiled a 130-23 career record, earning high school All-American honors. Turtog wanted to wrestle at a U.S. college and keep his student visa, but Turbat decided to return home to Mongolia to wrestle for the national team.
By August 2010, Turtog was living in Brooklyn with little money, no college scholarship and his visa about to run out. Turtog had not been interested in The Citadel in the spring, but by August "he was all ears," Hjerling said. Hjerling offered Turtog a scholarship on a Friday, and a week later Luvsandorj was getting his head shaved to prepare for his knob year at the military school.
Hjerling's gamble paid immediate dividends. Turtog went 26-12 as a freshman, won the Southern Conference title at 157 pounds and qualified for the NCAA championships along with the Bulldogs' Oddie Delaney.
This season, Luvsandorj moved up to 165 pounds and compiled a stellar 38-8 record. He was ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation earlier in the season, the highest a Citadel wrestler has ever been ranked. He was named SoCon wrestler of the year, but lost a 4-3 overtime decision to Appalachian State's Kyle Blevins in the final of the SoCon championships.
That loss might have cost Luvsandorj one of the 12 seeds at the NCAA championships. But with an 8-1 record against ranked competition this season, he has a realistic shot at a top-eight finish, which would make him just the second All-American in Citadel history.
"My goal is to win the whole thing," said Luvsandorj, who wrestles today against No. 7 seed Shane Onufer of Wyoming.
He has aspirations beyond this weekend, as well. Luvsandorj plans to return home to Mongolia this summer in an effort to make the national team and compete in the Asian Games and eventually the World Games and Olympics.
"Turtog was good when he got to The Citadel, and he's definitely better now than he was last year," Hjerling said. "He studies himself, he studies his opponents, watches video constantly. He's passionate about the sport."
As he should be. It's in his blood.