From Russia with love: Byrd wrestler eyes state title

From Russia with love: Byrd wrestler eyes state title


From Russia with love: Byrd wrestler eyes state title


Clay Celli's Russian necklace.

Clay Celli’s Russian necklace.

Clay Celli's wrestling medals.

Clay Celli’s wrestling medals.

Clay Celli is the 106 lb city wrestling champion. He was adopted from Russia by a local family at a young age.

Clay Celli is the 106 lb city wrestling champion. He was adopted from Russia by a local family at a young age.

Clay Celli is the 106-pound city wrestling champion. He was adopted from Russia by a local family at a young age.

Clay Celli is the 106-pound city wrestling champion. He was adopted from Russia by a local family at a young age.

It may sound trite, or like a passage from Captain Obvious, but when talking about her older son, Becky Celli says, “His story is his story.”

Clay Celli isn’t your everyday kid.

While millions of teenagers are glued to iPads, social media and YouTube, the 17-year-old Byrd senior feeds an infatuation with history through his unusual hobby of “reading encyclopedias.”

Apparently, encyclopedias still exist.

Celli’s interest may have been sparked by his background. He was born in Saratov, a major port city (population of more than 800,000) on the banks of the Volga River in Russia, adopted by a Shreveport family before he was 6 months old and remains one of the youngest Russian children adopted internationally.

Friday, the bite-sized athlete and reigning city champion, will enter the LHSAA state wrestling tournament as the No. 3 seed at 106 pounds. This despite the fact he was born with Syndactyly, a condition rare in humans where two or more digits are fused together.

The condition affected one foot and both hands and required multiples surgeries as a toddler.

Celli lettered in the 106-pound division as a 94-pound freshman and still doesn’t have to cut weight to compete. The former martial-arts practitioner (including Kung fu and Taekwondo) loves the individual aspect of wrestling.

“I love the intensity of it; it’s just you out there,” Celli said. “The outcome depends on you. You get to see what you’re really made of.”

LHSAA state wrestling tournament seeds

However, this weekend’s event also symbolizes Celli’s road to success. He’s displayed plenty of personal fortitude, but his road to Shreveport and the upper echelon of Louisiana wrestlers wasn’t possible alone.

After exhaustive research, Paul and Becky Celli were led to a Memphis adoption agency in the late 1990s. The fans of Elvis Presley figured it was a pretty good sign.

As the paperwork necessary for adoption was near completion, the Cellis prepared for the long wait that normally precedes adoption.

“But we got a call asking how serious we were,” Becky Celli said. “We heard, ‘We anticipate having a baby soon.’”

In August of 1998, the Cellis received a referral. In November, they headed to Russia to meet their son, Clay.

At the age of 3, Clay told his mother, “Thank you for coming to Russia to get me, because if you and dad hadn’t come to Russia, I wouldn’t have a family.”

A year prior, Becky Celli said, “He thanked us for taking him to Shriners (Hospital) to get his hand fixed. He’s an old soul.”

Clay Celli has two noticeably smaller fingers on his right hand and another on his left, but that hasn’t impeded his athletic endeavors.

“It’s a little bit harder with the grip sometimes, but at the same time I wouldn’t know any different,” Clay said. “It’s been that way my whole life. Not a huge hindrance; I think I’ve done pretty all right.”

An Eagle Scout, Clay Celli’s road to Byrd was supposed to lead to a spot on the lacrosse team. He struck up a relationship with late coach Karl Mitchell, whose daughter, Valentina, The Times’ reigning Best of Prep Female Lacrosse Player of the Year, is also Russian-born.

However, a friend suggested wrestling and, now, Celli will enter this week’s state competition as one of Byrd’s co-captains.

Clay Celli's wrestling medals.

Clay Celli’s wrestling medals.

Becky Celli admits it’s not difficult to find her family at wrestling meets.

“I’m the crazy mom in the stands; not just for my kids but for all of them,” she said. “I try not to get too emotionally invested.”

The mantra was tested during a tournament in which one of Clay’s opponents bit him and tried to break his finger off.

“Win, lose or draw, if you conduct yourself with dignity, that’s all that matters,” Becky said.

Another member of the Celli brigade, Clay’s younger brother, Luke, is a prominent figure at the meets.

In 2004, the Cellis returned to Russia to adopt Luke, who was 2 ½ at the time.

“We took Clay with us,” Becky said. “Clay spent his sixth birthday in the city where he was born.”

As you can imagine, Clay’s youth didn’t spoil the monumental journey to his homeland.

“It was amazing — one of my most favorite trips,” said Clay, who holds Russian and American citizenships. “It was nice to see where I was from – not just the country I came from, but the actual city, the orphanage, everything I was born in.”

To top things off, he got a baby brother.

“We didn’t want (Clay) to be an only child because we’re older parents. Sooner than his contemporaries, in most cases, he’s going to be without his parents. We wanted him to have family in his age group.”

Luke, another Saratov native, is your typical younger brother.

Clay used to spend nights locked in his room doing hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups. Luke has followed suit.

“He’s always going to be my brother,” Clay said.

The next step won’t sneak up on Clay Celli. The fan of Indiana Jones has plans to attend LSUS to obtain an undergraduate degree in history and may pursue a double minor in an engineering or IT field.

Celli will then aim for a masters degree while serving a career as a Marine Corps officer, to be followed by a second a career as a history teacher at the college level.

“The stuff that’s in that kid’s head is amazing,” Becky Celli said.

Clay Celli’s roots are never far from his brain.

“History has always fascinated me. I read a lot about Russian culture — a lot of news,” said Celli, who always boasts a Romanov crest necklace around his neck. “I like to know what’s going on.”

Clay Celli's Russian necklace.

Clay Celli’s Russian necklace.

A return trip will hit the calendar, some day.

“I’d like to go back, maybe on a mission trip or to go visit — my church does a lot of trips to Russia,” Clay said.

However, Clay has plenty of unfinished business with the Yellow Jackets.

He says he and his teammates are primed to prove quality wrestling exists north of Interstate 10.

“Byrd stands a good chance,” he said. “I know we’re going to have people on the podium this year. Everybody thinks you go down south and that’s where the (good wrestlers) are going to be, but we have a lot of good teams here.

“We’ll be home; won’t have to go all the way down to New Orleans. It will really help everyone up here.”

Focus on wrestlers, not critics at state tournament

Celli attributes his breakout season to experience.

“You have more aggression and learn different moves,” he said.

Clay Celli is well aware of his story, and that it’s unique. The driving force behind this weekend’s chapter at CenturyLink Center is just like the others.

“My parents,” he said. “They mean everything to me. They’re a big part of helping drive me in this sport.”

The goal this weekend, in true Russian style, is short and sweet.

“I plan to win it,” he said. “First place.”

Twitter: @RoyLangIII


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