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Tervel Dlagnev battles back from the brink to clinch Rio berth

Tervel Dlagnev beat Zach Rey 3-1 and 5-3 in the best-of-three 125kg championship round to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Tervel Dlagnev was disappointed when he finished fifth at the 2012 Olympics in London. But after he flew in for this weekend's U.S. wrestling trials on Thursday, he wasn't focusing on how to medal at this summer's Games in Rio. Instead, he sat in a sauna feeling so much pain, he wondered whether to call it quits on his career.

"I had a really, really weird, scary pain go down my back and into my legs," he said. "I didn't want to go through that again. At that point, I wasn't even thinking about performance. I was thinking about my future. About playing with my boys and being a dad and being a husband."

He asked his coach for advice and the reply was, "If at any point you get scared, hang it up." Dlagnev did not hang it up, though. Instead, he wrestled and won all his matches Saturday in the 275-pound freestyle class to qualify for his second Olympics.

Asked what advice he would teach his children from his matches Saturday, Dlagnev replied, "Trust in the Lord. I asked him not to blow out my back and I was very happy that it didn't happen. We'll see tomorrow."

Dlagnev was one of three wrestlers to qualify for Rio on Saturday, along with Ben Provisor at 187 pounds in Greco Roman and Elena Porizhkova at 138-3/4 pounds in women's. The five other wrestlers who won the U.S. trials in their weight classes Saturday -- Kelsey Campbell (women's 128 pounds), Tamyra Mensah (women's 152 pounds), Frank Molinaro (freestyle 143 pounds), Jesse Thielke (Greco-Roman 130 pounds), RaVaughn Perkins (Greco Roman 145-½ pounds) -- still need to qualify for Rio at international tournaments in either Mongolia or Turkey.

The three Rio qualifiers will get time to rest, which will come in handy for Dlagnev as well as for Provisor, who has his own injury issues.

Provisor wrestled at the London Games, but needed subsequent back surgery. He then had a sports hernia rupture in Russia that required surgery before sustaining a Grade III strain in one of his hamstrings. He returned from that and was No. 1 in the U.S.

"And then I busted my elbow in half," he said. "I tore my ligament on the bone and had to have surgery on that."

Nonetheless, he came back again to win Saturday and earn a spot in Rio. And unlike Dlagnev, Provisor said his body feels fine. "I'm good," Provisor said. "I'm at 100 percent now."

He also was likely feeling better than his wife, Leigh Jaynes Provisor, a 2015 U.S. champion who lost at Saturday's trials in the 139-pound class.

"I don't think it really affected me," Provisor said of his wife's loss. "We're both individual sport athletes. It definitely sucks that she didn't achieve her goals. Of course, I'm cheering for her to do her best, but she didn't make weight, so that was also a big thing. She needed to move up a weight class, so it's an unfortunate thing."

While Provisor is back to 100 percent, Dlagnev says his back has been aching for two years.

"When you feel pain every day in a sport that you love, it makes it hard to love it," he said. "It makes it hard to have fun. It's not getting better. It's pain management. It takes away from your focus. If I had gotten hurt a month ago, it would have been easier to deal with, but it's been so long since I've felt 100 percent, so it's been frustrating.

"But I couldn't have asked for a better wrestle today."

Dlagnev beat his first two opponents in single matches Saturday, then got past Zach Rey 3-1 and 5-3 in the best-of-three championship round. "My last match was exhausting," Dlagnev said. "I don't know if I had another match in me, so I'm glad it worked out.

"I've gone from 'I've got to win' to 'Let's see what I've got.' It's helped me to open up my wrestling and take risks. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I'm to the point in my career where I can't just hope I win and try to manipulate outcomes I can't control. I love this sport and I now have the mentality if I'm not the best, then I won't win. But I want to see. I want to see where I'm at."<.p>

Where he is at now is ready for Rio.