International wrestlers find home in North Hills program

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Saturday, January 20, 2024 | 11:01 AM


On the surface, two of North Hills’ top wrestlers don’t appear very similar. But their stories on the mat, and their stories in life, have the pair undeniably tied together.

Sophomore Burkhon Sobirjonov and senior Anna Tikhomirova are Eastern European-born, multi-sport student-athletes at North Hills. And while both perhaps didn’t grow up envisioning wrestling taking up a large amount of time in their winters, they’ve certainly both found a hunger to succeed in the sport.

“It’s been a pleasure to coach them because they have a different attitude towards athletic sports,” said North Hills head coach Jose Martinez. “They don’t believe in entitlement that a lot of American athletes believe in.”

Those mentalities began with similar but different cultural upbringings.

Sobirjonov came to the United States when he was two months old, the son of a Russian father and Uzbekistani mother. Tikhomirova arrived in the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia, just four years ago, shortly before enrolling at North Hills.

But both have found wrestling and, with everything they’ve done according to Martinez, there has been that hunt for success.

“They do not like losing, I can tell you that,” he said. “Some of my wrestlers get accustomed to losing. They figure that’s what’s going to happen next. These two? They don’t want to lose.”

With Sobirjonov, Martinez is humorously reminded of the Robert Redford and Paul Newman 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” where the two men are being relentlessly chased by tracker “Lord Baltimore.”

Martinez sees Sobirjonov, in the WPIAL wrestling world, as a young competitor coming at opponents like “Lord Baltimore.”

“He’s relentless,” Martinez said with a laugh. “He will not let go. He’s a hard worker. A very hard worker… Every time he goes on the mat, he wants to compete. He gives you everything he has. It’s amazing.”

Sobirjonov’s mat mentality, in his own words, is quite simple.

“I like pinning people,” he said, bluntly.

And he’s done plenty of that. Since winning only five matches as a freshman, the 6-foot-2 heavyweight has made a name for himself in the 285-pound class, going 16-8 to begin his sophomore season, including a memorable victory in the Chartiers-Houston Invitational, defeating a tough opponent in Mars’ Augustus Aubrecht.

“That was the first tournament I’ve ever placed in,” said Sobirjonov, who is also a member of the North Hills football team. “I was up by one point with three minutes left and just kept holding him down and won the match.”

While boys wrestling is a long-standing sport in Pennsylvania, sanctioned girls wrestling is still in its infancy. But Tikhomirova – like Sobirjonov – is making an early mark.

“She’s a sponge,” said Martinez, who feels that she will be able to make a deep run in the state postseason. “She absorbs everything and wants to improve on it. You can’t change her mind once she’s figured it out. She’s determined, very determined.”

To get to the mat, however, Tikhomirova’s journey is different from that of Sobirjonov, a former boxer and martial artist who quit those sports and found the sport ingrained in the athletic fabric of the region he moved to as a baby.

Tikhomirova, who competed last year at the 106-pound weight class, moved to the United States on July 1, 2019, departing her home in St. Petersburg. Since coming to the Pittsburgh region, she’s been plenty busy.

With a strong interest and passion for art, she founded the North Hills art club. She’s been an officer for American Field Service – a club that promotes an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, knowledge and friendship among students. She is also a member of the Future Business Leaders of America club and French club, among other interests.

She has done those extracurriculars while also becoming a top player for the North Hills girls tennis team, with which she has been a captain the last two years.

“Athletics have been around through my life,” she said. “And, last year, (Martinez) came up to me on the tennis court as I was practicing for the WPIALs. He convinced me to join the wrestling team because I want to join either the Air Force Academy or Naval Academy. I was there first for the physical training. And then, a couple of weeks later, I got all familiar with everything.”

Tikhomirova admits that, at first, she didn’t understand the sport. But that didn’t slow her down. She picked up three victories in her junior season, reaching the West Regional last March. That helped develop what’s been a growing interest in the sport, and an outlet for an inherent physical nature that she didn’t exactly find on the tennis courts.

“(Wrestling) is so much better than tennis for me, I would say, because of my character and how I was raised,” she said. “I was always fighting somebody when I was a kid in Russia. I always had a fight in myself.”

She wants to continue that fight in the sky following high school, with a desire to become a fighter pilot in the United States military before potentially a career as a commercial airline pilot.

“I like the planes, the F-18s,” she said. “I like the feeling of freedom in the sky.”

But, for the time being, she’ll go after opponents on the ground, channeling that aggression into the coming girls wrestling season, hoping to win matches and win over others to participate in the blossoming sport.

“I think there’s a really nice future for girls wrestling,” Tikhomirova said. “I’ve been looking at other schools who just started their girls wrestling teams this year. They’re having troubles with the boys and girls’ schedules at the same time, because there’s only one room. And there’s also some problems getting coaches and everything.”

And with that mentality, plus the personal goals and accomplishments of both Tikhomirova and Sobirjonov, North Hills wrestling is becoming more and more attractive to people from all walks of life – and all corners of the world.

“We have to involve more people in the middle school and elementary school for the youth program,” Tikhomirova said. “That will help work out the future, and we may be able to have some good wrestlers for the boys teams and the girls teams.”

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