Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing in at 130 pounds (during wrestling season that is) he does not look like your typical Division I athlete, especially not one ranked 10th in the country. But eventually he sheds the large black headphones draped casually around his neck, the surfer jacket, and longboard that camouflages him in a mass of Cal Poly students in favor of more slimming attire.
Dressed in a green singlet, alone save for his opponent on the dimly light mat, Filip Novachkov transforms into a different animal. In the circle he is tenacious, methodically picking away at his prey before going in for the kill with a flurry of action.
“It’s a controlled violence, it’s a sport where you have to think and balance your violence at the same time,” Novachkov said.
His form and technique, which current teammate Barrett Abel characterizes as high risk, high reward, were forged in the fires of Bulgarian wrestling leagues where Novachkov competed until his family moved to Sunnyvale, Calif. nearly seven years ago.
The risk associated with Novachkov’s style come from the fact that wrestling in the United States, folk style, differs from the rest of the world which uses freestyle, a type of wrestling that awards dangerous throws and “explosive action.”
As Novachkov was transitioning to a new form of wrestling, he also learned how to speak English and adapt to American culture.
“Being put on a team with a bunch of high school kids, you definitely get to communicate more,” Novachkov said. “We used to have this little Bulgarian kid follow us around and translate pretty much everything for us at school and to our coaches, saying ‘Oh yeah, they want to learn this move, they want to learn that.’ He would talk for us.”
Novachkov said “us” because of another attribute that makes him unique among Cal Poly wrestlers: he is not the only Novachkov on the team. His little brother Boris joined the Mustangs’ squad a year after him and has climbed the national rankings, now resting in second.
Not only are the two brothers fierce competitors, but they are also each other’s greatest wrestling partner.
“I want to be better than my brother and I want to do better,” Novachkov said. “The intensity is way higher when I wrestle my brother than when I wrestle anybody else.”
Co-head coach and former two-time NCAA champion at the University of Iowa, Mark Perry, has seen that battle repeat itself in the two years he has been around the team.
“It’s probably like any brothers in competition and life in general,” Perry said. “It’s a fight, it’s a war. They don’t like losing to each other, so it’s good for them. A lot of times it gets dirty and they start fighting each other, but that’s what wrestling is about. The more those guys wrestle each other the better it is for them.”
And getting better is exactly what Novachkov has done.
He has improved his win total each year he has been a Mustang and has also advanced further into the postseason each year, boasting a 77-33 record as a Mustang including a silver medal from the 2010 Pac-10 championships.
However, silver medals at conference championships are not the most prized possessions to Novachkov — he wants to win it all.
“I take one match at a time, I still want to learn as much as possible, but in the back of my mind I know that if I’ve lost or had a bad experience, my ultimate goal is to win nationals and to win the Pac-10,” Novachkov said.
Fortunately for Novachkov, a job opening in northern California related to his major awaits him, but an itch remains in the back of his mind, leaving him up in the air about his future.
“(Going to the Olympics) is definitely one of my goals. I don’t know how that’s going to go because of time management and what I want to do after college,” he said. “But I’ll still train after college and I’ll still compete.”
No matter what happens, Cal Poly will not have seen the last of Novachkov come season’s end. He plans on making frequent trips to San Luis Obispo next season to work with and cheer on his brother, who should make another run for the title.
“I definitely want to come back and drive my brother more,” he said.
Winning, and the pursuit of it, seems to always be at the forefront of Novachkov’s mind and on the collective conscious of the Mustang wrestling team. He even said that getting used to folk style his sophomore year hurt his ability to compete to his fullest ability. He “only” took fourth place in the state meet.
“I like winning for sure,” he said in his typical understated tone. “I like the feeling of having my hand raised at the end of the match.”
Novachkov not only preaches winning, but puts in the extra work to achieve it. While other Mustang wrestlers were away at a tournament and Cal Poly students returned home over winter break, the Novachkovs hunkered down with coaches in San Luis Obispo to refine their technique and plot a title run.
But only one wrestler can have his hand raised for the final time at the end of the season, and the rest head home in heartbreak.
Perry, who is not too fond of losing himself, said, “It’s a lot about pride, it’s a lot about work. So it can almost be harder for wrestlers to lose, because this is the end.”
And the cold-hearted truth remains; it will be the end for Novachkov in just two months. Whenever it may be, Novachkov hopes it ends in Philadelphia at the NCAA Championships, he will walk away from the collegiate mat for the final time.
“It’s my last shot, this is it,” Novachkov said. “I have two months of college wrestling left. I’m going to put everything I got into it and no matter who I hit, I’ll still wrestle as hard as possible.”