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From Russian orphan to American wrestling star

"Every picture tells a story, don't it?"
-- Rod Stewart

Alex Lloyd gets his hand raised after winning the state championship as a sophomore at 145 pounds this past February (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
Sorry Rod. It only tells part of it. Many times in life I find myself thinking I know what's going on only to say later, "Who knew?" Once I asked a young gentleman if the woman next to him was his mother only to find out later it was his wife. Oops! There is always something deeper going on than what we see.

There is a young man wrestling for Shakopee (Minn.) High School where the picture doesn't tell the story. If you know much about the high school wrestling scene in Minnesota, you know Alex Lloyd is a one of the stars. I have him listed as one of the top 10 overall wrestlers in Minnesota in a previous column. He belongs. He's the reigning Cadet National (Fargo) Greco-Roman champion. Of the three styles, it's his weakest. The kid is talented. That part is not debatable. What's not told is ten years ago Alex couldn't speak a word of English. It's not that he was having trouble with it. He had never heard a word of it. Alex was spending that part of his life in a Russian orphanage.

I first heard about this a few seasons ago while Alex was in eighth grade. I was talking to former Gopher and NCAA champion Jared Lawrence at his PINnacle Wrestling Club. I asked him who the future stars are in Minnesota. He told me about Brent Jones, Aaron Cashman, Patrick Kennedy and Alex Lloyd. He said, "Now there's a story for you." He pointed to Lloyd, who was in a little war with Mitch McKee on the far mat. A few months later, Alex Lloyd and Mitch McKee would meet in the semifinals of the state tournament. McKee won that matchup and Lloyd would take home the bronze medal. Later that summer I watched Alex go on a nice tear and become an All-American in Fargo.

Alex Lloyd defeated Iowa State signee Kanen Storr to win a title at the InterMat JJ Classic (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)
I had the pleasure of meeting his father Bill Lloyd at the InterMat JJ Classic a month later. I asked him a little about the Russian background and out comes this short and wild story. He got choked up and couldn't finish. This week Bill and his wife Karen, along with Alex told the long version.

Bill and Karen Lloyd had produced a son Jackson 17 years ago. The pregnancy was especially difficult for Karen, and their newborn boy came into the world much earlier than most kids. He arrived ten weeks ahead of schedule and spent a long period of time at the hospital in an incubator. When little Jackson was 4, he started begging his parents for a brother, and he didn't stop asking. The parents knew they wouldn't be able to go through another grueling pregnancy, and through their church, they heard of "Reaching Arms International." Another family was looking to adopt, and the Lloyds thought this would be the right strategy.

As you might suspect, the parents were put through a rigorous background check that included fingerprinting, criminal background checks and mandatory parenting classes. In the end, they were determined as a fit and loving couple. They would be eligible for one child. This led them to a young African boy named Ronny. They started receiving pictures and naturally became overly excited about this little fella. This adoption fell through as fast as it started. Though heartbroken, they kept on. They stayed with the same agency and were soon told they were eligible for a child from Russia … except it came with a strong caveat. They would have to take two boys. These two kids would turn out to be brothers Alex (6) and Jacob (3).

These two little guys were being raised along with roughly 100 other young kids in an orphanage based in a village in Bryansk. Kids end up in these rough conditions usually as a result of forcible removal from their home. Alex has a clear memory of two men showing up, and for reasons he couldn't comprehend, would leave with them. He hasn't seen his mom since. She was a single mother with a drinking problem.

Bill and Karen took their first trip to Moscow followed by a six-hour train ride to meet their new little boys. They were told to bring an envelope with $100 bills. In spite of not being able to communicate with words, they bonded quickly. They tossed a football in the yard and fell in love fast. This trip to and from Russia lasted six days.

Next came the agonizing and painful long wait. Eight months later Bill and Karen would take that return trip and this time weren't leaving without those boys. Alex (Denis Alexandrovic) was there, but Jacob (Yury) was nowhere to be found. He was in a sanitor (Russian name for hospital) for malnourishment and Tuberculosis. Karen couldn't stay for this unexpected news as this delay was playing out. She would have to take a flight back alone to care for their son and could only hope things would turn out well. Bill rented an apartment and spent his days picking up Alex on a bicycle and visiting his younger brother.

Once Jacob was healthy, the trip to the United States began. It started with the long train ride to Moscow. These two little guys had never heard of or seen an airplane. At the airport, they were introduced to automatic doors and escalators. There wasn't an interpreter, and Bill had his hands full with these two little guys. They were bouncing all over the place like the man in the yellow hat looking after Curious George. Except there were two!

When they arrived in the U.S. there was a large group at the airport ready to greet these two new little Minnesotans. At first it was really hard. Alex and Jacob were used to fighting for and hoarding food like squirrels. Once Karen saw Alex eating an orange like an apple with the peeling still on. He wasn't aware an orange needed peeling before eating. They also had never celebrated a birthday and had no idea what it meant. Their first Christmas was like going to Disneyworld for the first time. Everyone communicated with hand signals and the boys only knew Russian.

Alex Lloyd celebrates after winning a Cadet National Greco-Roman title in Fargo (Photo/Jeff Beshey, The Guillotine)
Alex entered first grade a year older than his classmates and, fortunately, there was a small group of Russians in Shakopee the Lloyds could rely on as liaisons and interpreters. But that language issue would soon come to an end. At first the boys were not allowed to speak Russian at the dinner table. Then, and from then on, they started to learn English. If you ask Alex to talk Russian today, he won't be able to. It's completely gone from his memory. Nine years ago it was all he knew. Today he speaks English as well as any 16-year-old teenager without any sign of an accent.

While attending a wedding, The Lloyds noticed Alex dancing like crazy. He was doing cartwheels and flips, and it became evident this little guy was an athlete. They enrolled him in gymnastics. This helped burn off some of that boundless energy and shortly after that he found youth wrestling.

Bill had a background in the sport and was happy to see both boys take right to it. It helped that Alex has a personality that attracts other kids. He soon made lifelong friends with wrestling families in Shakopee like the Crowes, Jones,' Websters and the list keeps growing. Mark Neu was coaching the young guys back then and was immediately smitten by Alex. He was a freak athlete and had that spunky and mischievous personality some little boys have.

Neu remembers Alex with an amazing amount of energy and a never-ending gas tank. If there was a problem, it was just keeping him focused. The language barrier did not cause problems in the wrestling room. He was able to quickly pick-up the sport through example, and he found his passion. Alex was a natural and Neu has never had a wrestler like him in all his 27 years coaching. Lloyd has no fear, and it was proven as a seventh-grader when he faced No. 1-ranked sophomore Austin Anderly and won 7-6. He would finish fifth in the state that year.

Alex Lloyd was a Northern Plains double champion this past spring (Photo/David Peterson)
The following season was the third-place finish behind good friend Mitch McKee. Just to prove the kid is not perfect, we all found out he missed weight at the state tournament as a freshman and couldn't compete. He talks about this with deep shame and regret. He was connected to a young girl at the time and didn't discipline himself like he normally would. It's his cross to bear, and I'm sure he'll be able to tell this story without guilt someday. This past season, as a sophomore, he won a state championship, finishing the season with a 42-1 record.

Alex Lloyd has plenty of goals. Like a lot of Minnesota wrestlers, he dreams of being a national champion and maybe wrestling for the University of Minnesota or another prestigious collegiate program. But for now, he's a nice and very friendly young man from Russia, who happens to be one of our future stars.

This story was originally published in The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.

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