It would be easy for Tervel Dlagnev to get the big head. After all, he holds the coveted title of Olympian after making both the London- and Rio-bound teams. But his relationship with God keeps that in check.
“There would be no way I wouldn’t turn wrestling into an idol without God. He’s kept me grounded. You’re always trying to climb onto the higher pedestal, and He’s blessed me with a ton of truth,” Tervel says. “If I remove Him from the highest place in my life, everything else will suffer. Jesus is my life, and it’s been cool to experience Him through this sport I have a passion for.”
Wrestling has been a part of Tervel’s life since high school, when the wrestling coach at Arlington (Texas) High School saw the sophomore working out in gym classes to get in better shape. Not much of an athlete before that point, suddenly Tervel was working out and competing with the team. He took fourth in the state tournament in only his second year in the sport, then placed third the following year.
He continued the sport in college, wrestling at the University of Nebraska – Kearney and capturing the NCAA Division II championship in 2007 and 2008 and leading his team to the national title in 2008. During his sophomore year, he met World Team member Tolly Thompson, who invited Tervel to train with him in Colorado. That started his introduction to international competition and the dream of one day representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games.
Besides being a place he excelled, the wrestling mat would be a place that Tervel would encounter God in a personal way. While still in high school, some believers on his team encouraged him to better behavior. As a senior, one teammate finally explained what it means to be a Christian, and Tervel was intrigued.
“I did not grow up in church, but my parents tried to teach us good morals. They were from Bulgaria and had really been burned by the communist experience. So in my younger years, I was an outspoken atheist,” he recalls. “I used to get in trouble and cuss a lot, and a few of the guys on my team took me aside to encourage me. I tried to become a better person. When my friend shared the gospel, it resonated with me.”
Once he got to college, Tervel found himself in the midst of mature believers who poured into his life and took him to Bible studies. He got involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes and attended a wrestling team Bible study led by the Navigators. He surrendered his life to Christ as a freshman and began growing spiritually.
“God was revealing Himself to me. I have always been very intellectual and He was working through the thoughts I was having that weren’t in line with my emotions,” he says. “Through that and wrestling, which is a very personal sport, I came to learn more about myself and be humbled by the revelation that I was a sinner. The Bible could describe me better than I could myself.”
With the possibility that his wrestling career could continue, Tervel moved after graduating from Nebraska to train at the University of Northern Iowa and coach a club team. He later moved to Ohio to train with a group at Ohio State. Though he was unsure how to pursue the next level of competition, he felt his success against top wrestlers while in Colorado was an indicator he might have what it takes to move ahead.
He was right. He won the World Team Trials in 2009 and earned a bronze medal at the World Championships. He competed in several other international tournaments throughout 2009-11, grabbing wins at the Pan American Games and the U.S. Open among other high finishes. When he made it to the Olympic Trials in Iowa in 2012, the streak continued.
“It’s been a cool process, and I’m excited to see where God is going to lead me. I’ve felt His presence through all of this, and I’ve asked Him to reveal Himself to me and He has been,” Tervel reflects. “The first time you win a big match, it can be surreal; but all of this has been surreal. He’s had His hand in this whole process. I just want to give Him all the glory.”
"The first time you win a big match, it can be surreal; but all of this has been surreal. He’s had His hand in this whole process. I just want to give Him all the glory.”
In training for London in 2012, Tervel’s plan was simple: give 100 percent of his effort and trust God with the outcome. He trained five days a week, spending mornings in practice or conditioning and afternoons in practice matches. The spiritual training was just as vital: he prayed throughout the day, reading the Bible and “focusing on the truth that God has for me,” as well as surrounding himself with encouragers. That wasn’t a problem in London, since he had about 20 family members cheering him on, including his wife, Kirsten.
His faith, however, is what has sustained him through the Games and what will ultimately sustain him through the rest of life.
“My faith and my whole life interact. You can’t take it out of any part of my life, but I think you see my faith play out most in my sport,” he says. “The realization that I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without God has been freeing. I don’t have anything to live up to. This is something He’s given me to enjoy and experience, and I want to honor Him through it.”
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