Springfield, Mass., Wrestler Hopes To Win Haiti's First Olympic Medal In 88 Years Asnage Castelly will compete in freestyle wrestling in Rio. He is an American who convinced his birth country — Haiti — to let him compete in a sport that up to now wasn't really practiced there.

Springfield, Mass., Wrestler Hopes To Win Haiti's First Olympic Medal In 88 Years

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A community college wrestling coach from Massachusetts will compete in the Rio Olympics this summer. As Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH reports, the coach had to convince the nation of Haiti to let him be the first to represent them in a sport that doesn't really exist in that country.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Asnage Castelly left a mud house in the Haitian countryside when he was 9 years old. He didn't speak any English when he moved to New Jersey.

ASNAGE CASTELLY: So I was that kid raising my hand - oui, non. Everybody was like, what's wrong with this weird kid? I used to get picked on. That's where it comes back to fighting.

LEMOULT: He says his mom used to get upset about him getting in fights, but then one day, he saw Olympic wrestling on TV.

CASTELLY: Then I realized I could wrestle. It's controlled fighting. I won't get in trouble with my mother no more.

LEMOULT: It wasn't a sport he'd really seen in Haiti.

CASTELLY: I remember growing up - even now, you go - a bunch of young men would just grab each other, try to slam each other. We don't know the rules to it, but nobody ever got hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Go.

LEMOULT: Castelly grabs another wrestler around his chest and slams him to the ground. He's an assistant coach in this gym on the third floor of an unremarkable brick building in Springfield, Mass. He also coaches the team at Springfield Technical Community College, and he's in training himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).

LEMOULT: His coach, Anibal Nieves, wears a Haiti wrestling T-shirt. Nieves grew up in New York and was a two-time Olympian for the Puerto Rican team, so it made sense to him when Castelly said he wanted to wrestle for Haiti.

ANIBAL NIEVES: When Asnage, you know, asked me, I said, why not? A lot of people said, you're crazy. They laughed, just like they did at me.

LEMOULT: It's actually common now for Olympic athletes to compete for countries where they're not currently living. And while Castelly's definitely Haitian, he's also very American. In fact, he served a tour in Iraq as a Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army. Still, when it came to wrestling, he decided to pitch the idea to officials in the country where he was born.

CASTELLY: They're like, uh, we don't have wrestling. I'm like, what do you mean you don't have it? I write them over and over. Who are you? Why you keep on writing? We do not have wrestling.

LEMOULT: Finally, Castelly managed to convince them they should have wrestling and that he should do it for them. He competed for Haiti in freestyle wrestling championships as far away as Mongolia. He did well, but not enough to qualify for the Rio Olympics. But the sport's international governing body gets to grant a wild card spot in the Olympics. Early one morning in May, Castelly says he couldn't sleep.

CASTELLY: So I just checked my email, and it said, from United Wrestling, you have been selected for the wild card based on performance, blah, blah (ph). I'm like - I did a Scooby-Doo number. I didn't believe it. I'm like, let me double check.

LEMOULT: Sure enough, he'd be given a shot to go to Rio. And while that's a huge personal achievement for him, he's not done yet.

CASTELLY: You don't want to just be there - just say, oh, I was in the game. You want to be able continue making history. Before we even got the qualification, we were looking at the record - when was the last time somebody win from Haiti, won a medal? It was 1928.

LEMOULT: That's any Olympic medal. Castelly goes back and forth to Haiti all the time. His wife and son actually live there, and he's planning on moving there after the Olympics. He and his wife are working on introducing the sport to a couple of schools there this year.

CASTELLY: Now, what am I going to do to take the country to the next step? Go out, introduce to the school. Go out to the street. There's a bunch of kids who are doing nothing, getting in trouble, and to give them the opportunity, the same opportunity I received from wrestling. Hopefully, they'll be able to experience it, too.

LEMOULT: His goal is to have wrestling teams at schools nationwide in Haiti by 2020. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult.

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