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Kazakhstan: Wrestler Settles In America

Bellingham, Wash., 12 February 1998 (RFE/RL) --Ravil Muhamediev was 15 years old three years ago in Almaty, when his family's application for a visa to the United States was selected in the immigration service's annual lottery, leading him and his parents to settle in Bellingham, in the Pacific Coast state of Washington.

Little could Ravil have known then that he would today be one of Washington state's best high-school wrestlers in his weight class -- just as is his idolized 25-year-old brother, Renant, a member of the Kazakhstan national wrestling team.

Whether Ravil is the best wrestler among high-school boys of his weight class (64 kilograms) will be determined later this month, when Washington's finest young wrestlers compete in the annual state championship in the cavernous Tacoma Dome, about 130 kilometers south of Bellingham. He emerged as the state's second best last year, so Ravil's chance of winning this year is very good, says Jeff Michaelson, the youth's wrestling coach at Sehome High School (SEE-home ).

For the Kazakh youth's success, Coach Michaelson credits, in part, the wrestling skills that Ravil brought with him to Bellingham from Kazakhstan. Ravil's brother, who began wrestling in the Soviet era and hopes to compete in the 2000 Olympics, sends Ravil videotapes of his matches, which the youth says he studies with great care and admiration. But the younger Muhamediev's success also comes from his own hard work in adapting those skills to high-school wrestling conditions.

That's because American high-school wrestling is much different from the international "freestyle" wrestling that Ravil learned in Kazakhstan. At Sehome High School, he and Coach Michaelson tell our correspondent, wrestlers open their matches kneeling on the mat rather than standing as in "freestyle" wrestling and trying to take their opponents off their feet. The emphasis here is wrestling on the mat, trying to pin the rival on his back for a set period of time.

"Ravil," Michaelson says, "is very good on his feet, and he's getting much better on the mat."

The youth competes with a club team known as the Sons of Thunder during the summer months when schools are closed. And he is now in his third year of high-school wrestling, with one more year left to go. After that, he says, he hopes to go to university and continue wrestling. Right now, he says he favors the University of Oregon, about 500 kms to the south, though he doesn't know yet what he wants to concentrate his studies on.

Ravil's parents chose Bellingham (population 60,000) as their new home after consulting an American they had met in Almaty about where they might settle. The first choice was much larger Seattle to the south, but the American happened to have a friend in Bellingham who would help them get settled, and so it was decided.

The Muhamedievs are far from being the only residents from the former Soviet Union to settle in the area: An estimated 1,500 people have relocated in Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County from the former Soviet Union -- most from Russia and Ukraine.

Once in Bellingham, wrestling ability undoubtedly helped the younger Muhamediev find his way quickly in the new culture in which he has lived for the last three years. But there were, of course, many challenges to overcome, starting with language.

Although he says he knew no English before arriving, Ravil speaks the language today with considerable fluency and says English is his favorite class at Sehome High School. His coach, who also teaches English, confirms that Ravil is one of his best students, even competing with American-born classmates.

Ravil very much misses his brother Renant, his relatives and his friends in Almaty -- even the old neighborhood where he lived the first 15 years of his life.

"I'd like to go back and see my brother," Ravil says. "He gives me a lot of inspiration. He's a good brother to have. He tells me to keep wrestling good."

Last summer, Ravil discovered another part of the United States, when he competed in a national wrestling tournament, along with two other Bellingham wrestlers, in Fargo, North Dakota, which like Bellingham is near the Canadian border but about midway between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

That sparsely populated, high-plains region reminded him of Kazakhstan. "It was kind of like being back in my country," he explains. "It was humid, hot and flat -- and there were so many mosquitoes," he says with a laugh.

"But it was cool," he adds, falling effortlessly into teen vernacular, "to see different places."

It would seem that Ravil Muhamediev's adventure is just beginning. Is it beyond dreaming that he will next see his brother Renant at the 2000 Olympics?