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Former pudgy teen now bids for Olympic wrestling berth

ARLINGTON, Texas _ Wrestling coach Henry Harmoney was scouting physical-education classes for talent at Arlington High School when he came across . . . a future Olympian?

It's good to be lucky.

Tervel Dlagnev was a pudgy sophomore, barely getting by in his classes at Arlington (Texas) High School a decade ago. By the end of the day Sunday, he could be an Olympian.

Dlagnev, 26, goes into the U.S. Team Trials in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday as the top seed in the freestyle division at 264.5 pounds.

"It's like winning the lottery. I'll never win the lottery, because I've already won it," said Harmoney, the Colts coach since 1985. "Very few people make this level. He's reached the pinnacle of amateur wrestling. They talk about living the dream. Well, he's living the dream. He wasn't a guy they would have picked, but he's there.

"As a coach, you don't really know. You plant seeds, and once in a while they'll grow."

Dlagnev's family moved from Bulgaria when he was 4, and he became a U.S. citizen a few years later. Dlagnev was going through the motions in high school when Harmoney off-handedly asked one of the coaches about possible talent in the PE classes. Dlagnev's name came up.

Dlagnev was sold the minute Harmoney brought up the idea of wrestling, though Mom had to be convinced.

"I wasn't happy," said Dlagnev's mother, Igrena, who now lives in Benbrook. "I, in my mind, thought of all those huge guys I watched many years ago. I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, he will be (crushed).' I wanted him to slim down, so I wanted him to join some sport, but I never thought of wrestling.

"Then, I saw what he did. He lost weight. He raised his grades. I couldn't believe it. I am really grateful to that sport, because this sport makes him what he is."

Dlagnev began eating, sleeping and breathing wrestling. His grades prevented him from competing until his junior year, when he finished fourth in the 2002 state tournament. He was third as a senior a year later.

Harmoney, a Nebraska-Kearney graduate, helped get Dlagnev to his alma mater. Dlagnev went 10-8 as a freshman before breaking his foot and getting a medical redshirt.

Dlagnev gained 20 pounds before the next season and placed sixth in the NCAA Division II tournament in 2005 as a heavyweight. He was second in 2006, losing 1-0 to Nebraska-Omaha's Les Sigman in the final, before winning back-to-back Division II national titles and leading UNK to the first team championship in school history in 2008. Dlagnev's 167 career victories are a school record.

"What is amazing about his story is how rapid he did it," UNK coach Marc Bauer said. "All the kids start wrestling when they can walk, little-bitty kids. He didn't start until he was a sophomore in high school..... The thing that you find with those kids that start later in life is they're so much more driven and so much more passionate about learning and wanting to improve, because deep inside they know they didn't get the early start. They have to push themselves even a little bit harder to catch up. That's why he is where he is today."

Where Dlagnev wants to get is on the podium in London. He has beaten two-time Olympic champion Artur Taymazov of Uzbekistan. First, though, he has to get there. He was seeded second at the 2008 U.S. Trials and failed to place, calling it a "bad tournament."

Sigman, Dom Bradley and Steve Mocco, a 2008 Olympian, are among those who stand in Dlagnev's way.

"It'd be an extreme honor to make the Olympic team," said Dlagnev, who trains in Columbus, Ohio. "The Olympics are the highest level of the sport . . . Obviously, the focus is this domestic tournament. But I don't want to be just an Olympian. I want to be an Olympic champion."