WIN ARTICLE #136 My First Soviet Experience


My First Soviet Experience
By: Ben Peterson

For many years the US Wrestling Team has traveled during the winter to the toughest invitational tournaments in the world. This means they have repeatedly gone into the Russian and former Soviet regions. There are many experiences besides wrestling that our wrestlers and coaches will never forget. I experienced such a trip in January, 1973. This was during the cold war and just the third time the US had sent a team into the Soviet Union.

Flight and Attire Memories

Our trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, of the old Soviet Union had a layover in London after the overnight flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The sun was up, but it was very early to our tired bodies and minds.

When young athletes get tired or hungry they tend to get sarcastic, edgy, or just plain hard to deal with. The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) had given each of us a blue blazer for the trip. It would be our uniform for travel, special meals, and touring. Our Team Manager and his wife was ready to sew an AAU patch to the jacket lapel while we waited for our connecting flight. The patch included “USA” as well.

I wanted a simple USA patch. Well, that was the only patch. In my tired selfish way I retorted that at least it be stitched on temporarily as it would come off when I got home. The Manager and his wife graciously took my abuse and managed us wrestlers well through the rest of the trip. To be honest, I have regretted that attitude ever since. How petty! I had forgotten how precious it is to represent the US National Team and that there are obligations and responsibilities that come along with special honors. I was representing the organization that sent me as well as our country.

Fans & Arena

Tbilisi is a long way south of Moscow so it is not bitter cold, but it was cold enough. And I knew I was in a foreign country. Most of the fans had black winter coats and the big furry Russian hats. They never took their coats off but held their hats in their hands. The few ladies in the crowd brought a noticeable contrast with their colored scarves. The fans knew wrestling and at times cheered for whoever was most aggressive and created the most action.

The wrestling arena was big and cold. We warmed up in our full winter jackets and did not take them off until we stepped on the mat. My jacket was my red Iowa State letter jacket with a big gold “I” on the chest. I have always wondered if it brought any extra thoughts to the Soviets or Georgians because of “red” being a significant color for their empire. Their army was the “Red Army” and their flag was red with a gold hammer and sickle. That probably was not the best attire for me to wear!


This trip introduced me to the “squatty potty.” This contraption was a porcelain unit grated into the floor with two foot prints to stand on and a hole in-between your feet in the floor. Often there was no paper so in future trips we were reminded to bring a roll from home. Newspaper was common in public restrooms.

Between the matches I needed to use the restroom. With lines in the locker room, two of us looked for the fans’ restrooms. We were directed to the opposite corner of the arena and then down a stairway to a basement room. I remember debating briefly with my teammate. The stair

looked long and it did not smell very good, but the body was calling. Turning the corner at the bottom of the stairs we found ourselves in a long room with 20+ squatty potties along the wall with no privacy panels between them. We looked at it, did what we needed to, and got out.

Not the most pleasant experience, but I thank God for the health standards of America every time I remember that early trip to the Soviet Union.

Circus Arena

In the Armenian region we got to watch a circus. In many European and Asian cities there are permanent one-ring circus arenas. So when the circus comes to town they have a place to put on their show. With an evening free, several of us decided to go. There were animals and horse riders doing various stunts, and then there were contortionists who bent their bodies in some very grotesque ways. By the end of their show, I was looking away and told the others it made me shudder to even think of twisting the human body like that. I have worked to stay flexible in the wrestling business but not like that. I can’t bend my feet behind my back to put things on and off my head.

Well, we would also wrestle a dual in a circus arena. I will never forget it. It was a full house and a fun atmosphere. People were very close to the mat all around it. The mat was a horsehair mat with a plastic tarp over it. Most of the European wrestling rooms had 4” thick horsehair mats with a plastic cover. They could also do Greco on them because they were thicker. They put one of those mats on the dirt floor in the ring. Its four corners went up on the circus ring ledge making it hard to level the mat and secure the cover and keep it tight. There were often waves in the mat.


Arriving and leaving the Moscow airport we naturally wanted to take pictures of ourselves and the plane. We were forbidden to do so with the statement, “You can’t just take pictures any place.” We asked, “Why not? We can in America.” They did not like hearing that. But their answer for not being able to take a picture in the airport was, “The airport was also their military base.”

We wanted to use a cassette tape player to record explanations of things we were seeing. And we wanted to take a walk around the city’s old walls that were well over a thousand years old. The assistant interpreter was sent to follow us because the head interpreter insisted that it was a camera and, “You can’t just take pictures anywhere!” The assistant followed us on our evening walk around the city well after dark that night.

Today our teams continue to experience incredible diversity around the world. They see much and have much to talk about upon their return. Just ask them. You will learn a bunch and appreciate America even more!

Find other articles and the book called “ROAD TO GOLD” by Ben at: Today Ben & John Peterson run Camp of Champs Wrestling Camps. Contact them at: PO Box 222 Watertown, WI 53094 920-918-0542

Asics The Competitor USA Wrestling
USA Wrestling
National Wrestling Hall of Fame
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