KENT: Dustin Kilgore believes his fishing buddy in Cuba was around 40 years old. He told his dad the man had very few teeth and might not have owned any clothes except the T-shirt and shorts he always wore.
They went out late at night, when bait fish glide through the ocean’s shallows and big fish follow; Kilgore, a 23-year-old NCAA champion from Kent State, and a couple of fellow wrestlers and the nearly toothless man. The man was very knowledgeable about the waters because he struggled to put food on the table. If he had a table.
Invited to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs after winning KSU’s first NCAA wrestling title in 2011, Kilgore took a year off from college to get ready for the 2012 Olympic Trials and compete around the world. Spending a little over a week in Cuba for a tournament, much of that feeling like a vacation because he was merely practicing against the Cuban team, Kilgore indulged his passion for fishing on the balmy beaches.
He also did what he always does — make friends and help people.
Kilgore snuck out food from his hotel, mainly fruit and seafood, because the man and the two friends who showed up occasionally had so little. On the last night, he gave them his fishing rod and tackle.
“He was kind of like a mini-ambassador,” said his father, Kevin Kilgore.
But the image that will stick with the Berea native was the man’s reaction when Kilgore discovered a fish about two feet long in one of the tide pools.
“He grabbed it out and held it up, so thankful,” Kilgore said.
Kilgore’s year away also included competitions in London, Azerbaijan (north of Iran), Finland, Poland and the Ukraine. The trip to Azerbaijan, Poland and the Ukraine lasted about a month, the others single jaunts.
“Cuba was fun because it’s in the Caribbean, and I won the tournament,” Kilgore said last week after a KSU practice. “But there was something I liked about all of them.”
He explored the cities, happy to have a translator about his age in Azerbaijan so he could take in the sights and sounds of the historical capital of Baku, on the Caspian Sea.
“He was a really upbeat, happy kid; he loved hanging out with us,” Kilgore said. “We took him everywhere. That was neat to see completely different cultures interacting.”
Kilgore saw the mosques in Azerbajian. In London he visited the London Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the Eye, things he had only seen on television, and vowed to return.
In the Ukraine he stayed at the Olympic training center outside Kiev. At night the wrestlers caught a bus and headed downtown. Kilgore loved the nice people and beautiful scenery, with the Dnieper River flowing through.
He found Finland to be the least friendly, with people on the streets failing to respond when he said hello.
“I’ve got a friend from Finland, and he said that’s normal,” Kilgore said.
There was a language barrier, especially in Azerbaijan, but Kilgore made good use of the four years and three semesters of Spanish he took in middle school, high school and college. Sometimes he got by with hand signals.
The other wrestlers might have found the food choices challenging, but that was not the case with Kilgore.
“I’m like a garbage disposal; I’ll put it all down,” he said.
Because he was wrestling at 211 pounds (96 kilos), he found himself a bit undersized for international competition and could eat whatever he wanted.
His favorite was in Azerbaijan, where the cooking is similar to Greek.
“They had a lot of fish and cheeses and yogurt, bread and vegetables. They eat a lot of sturgeon,” he said. “Cuba was excellent, squid, fish, shrimp, a lot of rice. Poland had a lot of sausages. London, their breakfast food, a spongy, circular bread, was delicious. They eat a lot of beans with their breakfast.”
He savored the English bacon.
“I’m trying not to eat it before I wrestle, it’s a little too greasy for me, but I can’t help it, it’s too good,” Kilgore said.
He also enjoyed fishing for pike and something similar to our walleye in Finland.
Kevin Kilgore, a carpenter, won’t be surprised if his son eventually moves to Colorado because of his love of the outdoors.
“He’s a freedom, open-air kind of guy,” Kevin Kilgore said last week by phone. “He’s gotten some invites for mule deer hunting, possible elk down the road, coyote. Plus trout fishing and all Colorado has to offer in its pristine streams and lakes and rivers. I’m envious of my son.”
Along the way, Kilgore posted photos on his Facebook page so his more than 2,000 friends could follow.
“He’s outgoing, he’s friendly, he just attracts people. He’s got a big circle because of that,” Kevin Kilgore said.
Now Kilgore is back at Kent State, hoping to win a second NCAA title before he graduates in May with a degree in justice studies. In 2011, he became just the third Golden Flash to reach a national final, joining Mike Slepecky (1941) and Walter Porowski (1942).
After spending a year wrestling freestyle, he’s adjusting back to the collegiate folkstyle. Kent State coach Jim Andrassy said Kilgore is stronger than he’s ever been, putting on about 15 pounds of muscle. Kilgore will continue to wrestle at 197 pounds for KSU.
“He’s a favorite to win it,” Andrassy said of the NCAA title. “It’s a long season, he’s got a lot to do. He’s very focused on being a two-time national champ and an Olympian.”
Kilgore said he should be at his wrestling peak for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He said he might even have a chance in 2020 if his body holds up.
After he graduates, he’ll return to the Olympic Training Center and resume his international schedule. But he tries not to look too far ahead, even as the world beckons.
“It’s in me to keep wrestling and not stop,” Kilgore said. “I’ve always wanted to travel. I love experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. I’m looking forward to doing it for the next four years and even longer.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.