Days before leaving to fly halfway across the world, Bryce Andonian wondered about the people, the food, and the language as he prepared to spend a week in Russia.
As it turned out, his initial trepidations were completely unfounded.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said.
Andonian’s opinion was probably altered somewhat as he competed for the U.S. wrestling team at the Junior World Championships held Aug. 16-22 in Ufa, Russia. Andonian, a rising junior on the Virginia Tech wrestling team, won a bronze medal in the 70-kilogram weight class, becoming just the second Virginia Tech wrestler ever to medal at the international event.
Andonian, who secured his spot on the U.S. team when he won the 70-kilogram class at the UWW Junior Nationals held in Coralville, Iowa, in early May, lost his first match in Russia, but he stormed through the consolation bracket. He won three consecutive matches, including an 18-8 technical fall of Stanislav Novac of Moldova, to claim the bronze medal.
“I was training for gold, but when I got back, that’s when basically everything hit me because it was such a great change with seeing everybody again and knowing that I was able to bring something back,” Andonian said. “It just made me grateful to bring [the bronze medal] back to my coaches, who gave time to me, at least bring something back and the fashion that I did it in by coming back after losing my first match and wrestling back. I think that’s what made my coaches prouder. I was able to come back and not be empty-handed, which was great because my coaches definitely sacrificed a lot for me this summer.”
Attempting to become Virginia Tech’s second Junior World Champion — Mekhi Lewis won a gold medal in 2018 — Andonian suffered a heartbreaking defeat in his opening match against Efan Mohammad Elahi of Iran. He led 7-5 with 1:30 remaining, but Elahi scored the final three points to hand Andonian an 8-7 defeat.
Perhaps some of the late-match letdown came about from a disjointed flight schedule from the U.S. to Russia. Various delays forced Andonian and Virginia Tech assistant coach Jared Frayer to leave a day later than planned.
Once they took off, they endured a rather lengthy journey. They flew from Roanoke, Virginia, to Washington, D.C., and then took an eight-hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany. A three-and-a-half-hour flight landed them in Moscow, and from there, a two-hour flight took them to Ufa.
Andonian refused to make any excuses. Although, he wished he had handled his first international competition differently.
“The first match, I did have a lot of nerves,” he said. “I’ve never really faced too many nerves before a wrestling match. I always feel excited, but this match, I definitely got a little too amped up.
“The next morning [after his loss], I woke up and I didn’t overthink it. I just said, ‘Let’s wrestle, and let’s do what I do.’ I went out there with less of an intense attitude. I said, ‘Let’s do what I do, and that’s wrestle.’ I was more nonchalant, but it definitely worked out for me.”
The following day, he pinned his first opponent in less than a minute. In his next match, Andonian beat Kazakhstan’s Asset Bauyrzhanov 9-6 to advance to the bronze medal match.
Andonian’s 38 points at the Junior World Championships were the most of any U.S. wrestler. Like Lewis before him, the Kirtland, Ohio, native became a household name on the American wrestling scene.
“I’m not really big on attention,” Andonian said. “But going back home, it was pretty cool because . . . I didn’t realize how much support I had. I never really looked around. I knew I had support with my coaches and my teammates, but Hokie Nation, I didn’t understand how amazing they were. I knew they were amazing, and I was grateful for the fans, but it was just amazing to see the support from people online and people texting me and people reaching out saying, ‘Congratulations.’ I was pretty grateful for that.”
Andonian and Frayer both took time to immerse themselves in the Russian culture while there. As expected, few people in Ufa spoke English, so that forced the two of them to find ways to communicate.
Andonian had a perception of the Russians before he left, but he came away with a totally different one following his journey to their homeland.
“I expected people from Russia to be all angry and stuff, but the people there were really kind, and being my first international tournament, it was my first time seeing so many different countries in one place,” Andonian said. “I realized how kind people are. Just because there was a language barrier, people were still able to communicate and talk to each other, and I thought that was cool.”
He also found the food to his liking, such as pizza.
“It was like a fire-cooked pizza in one of those stoves, and I hate to say it, but I think that was the best piece of pizza I’ve ever had,” Andonian said.
Andonian earned the respect of the Russian public in Ufa by the way he wrestled. Russian wrestlers have won more gold medals at the World Championships than any other country.
In America, wrestling is popular within its community and continues to make headway in terms of popularity among the public.
“In Russia, if you walked down the street, people would ask why we were there or would start a conversation with short English, and we’d say, ‘For wrestling,’” Andonian said. “You could just see their faces glow like, ‘Wow, you’re a wrestler.’ They just thought it was pretty cool. I just thought that was really cool to be appreciated to be in that sport.”
Once he returned, Andonian — a human development major who some day aspires to work in a career helping others — took a few days off before resuming his training for the upcoming season. The Hokies, who won the ACC’s dual meet title last year, enter this campaign with a talented lineup and high expectations, and he wants to do his part to help the team reach those.
He feels confident that he can do that after bringing home that bronze medal. He is a two-time ACC runner-up in his weight class — losing both times to a wrestler who went on to win the national title. Andonian feels that now is the time to be on top.
“It [the bronze medal] gave me a huge confidence coming back,” Andonian said. “I’m not sleeping on American wrestlers. Of course, I’m going to train my heart out, but it gave me good confidence knowing that I went through something that extreme, wrestling a whole different side of the world, and here I am.”
Andonian and the Hokies open the wrestling season in early November.