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Meet the Soldier-Wrestlers Going to the Olympics

By Stephen Warns  

At the last Pan American Games, a competitive sports event amongst countries in North and South America, athletes showed off their skills before heading to the coveted 2024 Summer Olympics. This year, two U.S. Army Soldiers, Spc. Kamal Bey and Sgt. Ildar Hafizov are two veteran athletes whose passion for wrestling is taking them to their greatest athletic feat yet.

During the Greco-Roman wrestling portion of the Pan American Games, Bey gave himself a “C-level” performance. But “C-level” Bey was more than his foes could handle as the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) Soldier-Athlete won his first international gold medal and prepares for the season that will culminate when he joins the Olympics in Paris.

Bey dominated David Choc Huoc of the Independent Athletes Team 9-1 by technical superiority; edged Cuba’s Yosvanys Pena Flores 4-3 in the quarterfinals; earned another technical superiority win over Chile’s Eduardo Bernal 9-0; and pinned Brazil’s Joilson De Brito with one second left to win gold.

“Out here, I made a lot of mistakes,” Bey said. “At this point, all I can do is focus on myself and what I need to do to improve. This wasn’t A-level Kamal Bey wrestling. It’s not disrespect to my opponents. It’s honestly just how I feel and how I rate my performance. We’re going to get back into the gym and fix what needs to be fixed.”

Bey’s resilience never faltered throughout the Games. Against Pena Flores, he was down 3-1 going into the final three minutes, but he continued to press the action and force Pena Flores into making mistakes.

“I knew going in he was going to be a formidable opponent,” Bey said. “It was more staying calm and composed and thinking about the next move I was going to attempt. His whole thing was trying to slow me down. How to beat guys like that is not to let them slow me down and look for opportunities to score.”

Bey found two opportunities toward the end of the match with two pushouts to secure the victory. Against De Brito, Bey was down 5-0, but again, he kept his composure and stormed back to score 12 unanswered points before winning by fall.

“Everything went according to plan besides being down 5-0,” Bey said. “I knew I could get this guy tired and just wait him out. I was waiting for opportunities to score, and when they were there, I took them. There is no better way to finish out a tournament like this than with a pin. It’s definitely something worth celebrating. A dominant performance deserves a dominant end.”

Meanwhile, Sgt. Ildar Hafizov captured his first Pan American Games gold medal by beating Ecuador’s Jeremy Peralta 8-0 by technical superiority in the semifinals and holding off Cuba’s Kevin De Armas 7-5 in the championship. Hafizov jumped out to a 7-0 lead but held off a late charge by De Armas.

“I was expecting a fight, because everyone here who steps on the mat, they want to win,” Hafizov said. “I saw myself on the medal stand.”

While he was pleased to win a gold medal, Hafizov acknowledged he still has room to improve before he competes in Paris later this year.

“Specifically, I have to work on my tactics to see where I am in a match,” he said. “Just be on the attack and on the offense.”

Both athletes credited WCAP for their continuing development as Soldier-Athletes, allowing them to be all they can be.

“It continues to provide me opportunities to compete against high-level competition overseas and gives me a support system beyond what most athletes are receiving,” said Bey, who has been a Soldier-Athlete for three years. “Knowing that everything is taken care of has reduced a lot of pressure.”

Hafizov, a Soldier-Athlete for the past eight years, echoes that sentiment.

“Our coaching staff (Shon Lewis, Spenser Mango and Bruce Robinson) and our teammates are helping us to get better every day,” Hafizov said.

And Mango noticed their improvement during the Pan American Games.

“It was promising to see them go out there,” Mango said. “We worked on quite a few things in camp before the Games, and I saw them go out there and execute, make those corrections and come out on top. That always feels really good.”

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