It was 10 years ago when I landed at LAX with $10 in my pocket, a backpack and 4 words to my name.
November 3rd 1999, I had a backpack, 10 dollars and 4 words of English. That's how I started.
Those facts are enough to made me write this brief story of my life, the greatest gift I could ever receive.
Very simply, I want to tell you what my life was like, then what happened and what it is like now.
I am living my Dream and my goal here, because I'm so grateful, is to share with you the journey of how I got here and hopefully you might find something to take with you on your journey to your Ultimate Goal and living your dream.
I am the owner of a private fitness facility in Sherman Oaks, I am doing what I love, and I'm surrounded by people that I care and care about me too. According to many people, I'm living the American Dream, and I totally agree with that; this country gave me an opportunity and I took it. It gave me the opportunity to OWN who I am, and create the life that I wanted for myself. That is just what I have done. Now I want to tell you a little about my background:
I grew up in Romania, under communism. Most of you don't know what that REALLY means:
Communism meant waking up at 4am on Saturday and having 30 minutes for all 5 family members to take a shower before the hot water is shut off; Communism meant curfew at 10 PM, and when I say curfew, I mean the entire city's electricity being shut off. Lights out at 10PM. Not even street lights.
By the way, even when the electricity was on, nobody was throwing a party; we had a TV that took 30 minutes to warm up before we even saw any picture on the screen, we had to "pre heat" the TV, OKAY, when the lights and the TV were out, we didn't start playing hide and seek or talk about how life was; we went straight to bed.
We were afraid to talk about a better life or trying to change the situation, we were scared to even think about. We were afraid that someone might hear us and turn us to the Militia who would arrest and detain you, turning you into a political prisoner for God knows how long. People used to whisper under their blankets, trusting nobody, anybody (even your best friend) could've been an informant for the communist party. The only safe place to live the life you dreamed was between your ears and the Communist propaganda machine did their best to make sure that didn't happen either. We were brain washed to believe that the way life was in Romania was the only way.
Our minds are the most powerful tool, and just as in Romania we were brain washed to believe that this is as good as it gets, and we didn't deserve any better; I suggest to you that we can "brain wash" ourselves into realizing that we DO deserve better and we can be living our dreams 10 years or less from now.
Obtaining groceries under communism required a well-planned strategy; we didn't have Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Ralph's, we didn't have organic broccoli or organic chicken, we had stores with empty shelves.
Every family member had an assignment: for example,
Leo you're going to the bread line;
Cristi (my brother), you're going to the butter line;
Daniela (my sister), you're going to the milk line;
Mom and dad are going to chicken line, and let me explain what I mean when I say chicken. I mean Chicken feet, necks and heads, Not chicken breast; I didn't even know that chicken had breasts until I was 14 years old. 14 was a big year for me.
I was 14 years old when I first drank Coca Cola. I was 14 when I first ate peanuts. I owned my first pair of Jeans when I was 14, and when I say jeans,we didn't have Levi's or True Religion or any other brand, we had communist jeans, and everybody had the same pair… getting your own pair of jeans was like having a Romanian Bath Mitzvah.
Kindergarten meant drop offs on Mondays and pickups on Fridays, sleeping with another 20 kids in the same room, eating with another 20 kids and showering with 20 kids at the same time in the same room. I guess privacy wasn't one of the communism best assets.
Christmas under communism wasn't like it is here in the US, were 10 friends bring 10 presents each. Growing up, we were lucky if we got an orange and a piece of chocolate on Christmas day, and believe me, Communist chocolate? It's a little different that Godiva.
Those are just a few examples of living under communism.
When I was 6 years old, one way of releasing the frustration that I felt from growing up in such an oppressive environment was getting into lots of fights in the schoolyard. One of my neighbors saw that, and he took me to the wrestling room and introduced me to my greatest love, wrestling. After that I ended up taking the subway and bus on my own on my way to practice, twice a day for over 14 years. Wrestling, to me, was a way to fight against that life. It was a way to prove I was stronger than the communist mentality. I wanted to stand out; I wanted to become the best; I wanted to be different. Wrestling was the first place that I felt that I could do that. I felt it reflected who I am at my core.
There were no other opportunities to do that during my childhood. There were so few places to truly forge an identity. I felt trapped, but wrestling make me feel free.
Now remember, I was 6 at that time, and I remember being asked:
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Now let me ask you the same question.
What did you want to do when you grew up??
Most kids want to become doctors, some astronauts or pilots or lawyers.
When I was asked the same question, I answered:
"I wanna be unemployed"
I really did answer that.< Because I believed at the age of 6 that "Unemployed" meant FREE, free to travel and Freedom in general. MY DREAM AS A CHILD WAS TO ESCAPE ROMANIA AND BE MYSELF, I WANTED TO BE FREE!
I used to ask a friend:
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
And he used to say, probably like any other kid at that age: "not again with those questions". My friend being indifferent to the future, or even, never having asked himself that question was unacceptable to me. I realized that my friend, all my friends, my family and everybody around, were indifferent to that question because we were not allowed to ask ourselves, we were not allowed to dream. Indifference and not being allowed to dream was unacceptable.
Even as a child I knew that, I could never be defined or contained by being another worker for the Communist party. My intuition told me that the life I was born into was not the life I wanted, and I was never going to settle for less than who I WANTED TO BE. And I wanted to be a FREE MAN. It was in one of my kindergarten days when, being locked up five days a week under a strict surveillance from our supervisors, struggling with hunger and cold treatment from our staff, that I said to myself: "One day I would escape from here",
At that time I meant Kindergarten, however, later in life it turned into wanting to escape Romania.
Hmm, kindergarten. We used to have chores to do as activities, like peel potatoes, washing dishes, mop the floors. And they were called activities!!! We didn't have time outs when we misbehave as a child, we where smacked or even beaten up, and we could never complain, it was always our fault.
In Romania, under communism, you don’t have an identity, you are not an individual, you are one of the masses. As long as you stayed down and blended with the heard, everything was OK. If you tried to stand out somehow, by showing any skills you might have, either The Communist party owned you, or, if you tried to pull away from THEM, they would destroy you by imprisoning you and your family.
I knew that I couldn't live in a country that tells you what to do, controls you and not permits you to grow, get better and fulfill your dreams. Years passed and my passion for wrestling grew deeper and deeper. Communism fell down; my love for chicken breast came out of the closet and from bullying the kids in the schoolyard to actually starting developing a wrestling carrier.
I was 14 when I first competed in my first World Championships placing 4th in Istanbul, Turkey. Although Communism had fallen seemingly overnight when Reagan declared, Mr. Gorbaciov tear down that wall, you must understand that psychology and behavior took years or even a decade to change; therefore, being an athlete was still the best ticket in town for a young man like me.
Despite the fact that Romania was no longer under Communist rule, the country and its people still suffered without opportunities for growth, personal and occupational development or success. By the time I was 18 I had hundreds of matches all over the world and I had won several national championships and international tournaments. I was 6, 7, 8 and I KNEW EXACTLY what I DID NOT WANT from my future, (which was what everybody else was doing, working for the communist factories, doing the same thing at the same time). I start growing older and start searching for WHAT I WANT TO DO WITH MY FUTURE; and I start asking myself a question, which became the decision maker for the rest of my life.
I was 18 when first time I asked myself: Can I wrestle 10 years from now?
And I saw myself at the end of my wrestling career without many opportunities and options after that. Then I said, I need to look for something else outside Romania, there is nooo way I will still be here doing the same thing, and I actually understand, that I actively need to search and discover WHAT and WHERE I want to DO or BE 10 years from now.
Wrestling was very hard, lots of weight cuts (losing lots of weight really fast by dehydration), lots of training and suffering. I spent many years starving in order to make my weight class for different competitions and Sometimes I went without eating and drinking for days at the time; Sometimes I used to sleep with wet towels on me, to cool myself down being so heated due to dehydration; Basically, I used to go thru hell before every major competition and sometimes I wanted to get injured just to get out of it.
Those are just a few examples about my life as a professional wrestler at that level.
Is not like here, where athletes are so protected and motivated, we were under constant pressure and threat of being sent home if we didn't listen. If you did well, everybody loved and supported you, if you did poorly just once; you were tossed away like garbage.
I was 18 when I won the World Title, Gold medal to the World Championships and was named the Best Athlete of Romania in 1994. After winning the gold medal, I started training for the upcoming 2000 Olympic Games in Sidney, becoming one of the most valuable Olympic hopeful in the country.
Being aware that I needed eventually to leave the country didn't stop me from pursuing my immediate goal, which were the Olympic Games. Knowing that by accomplishing that, it would be easier to accomplish my Ultimate Goal which was at that time leaving Romania. Traveling all over the world, I was contemplating in defecting Romania and starting a new begging in every country I traveled.
After competing in an International tournament, which took place in Tel Aviv, my roommate and I decided to defect Romania and stay in Israel. We had a friend offering us a job manufacturing granite countertop, a hard labor job. Lots of pressure to stay and lots of pressure to come back; I needed to make a decision within a couple of hours: To stay and start from zero, or come back home and get back to my daily training routine.
It wasn't easy at all, however, when the time to leave the hotel came, within a few seconds I decided that Israel wasn't the country I wanted to stay; At that time, I decided if I had any doubts, even any small doubt, that would prevent me from dedicating everything to my goal, I will not commit to it. Realizing that I was feeling doubts meant that I was settling, and if I settled for Israel, I might as well have stayed in Romania for the rest of my life. If it wasn't what I truly wanted it was all the same, no matter where I was.
I've made a choice and stayed with it.
In Romania it often happened that the Romanian Wrestling Officials or any other official will destroy the athlete's passport after finding that him or her might leave the county and start a new beginning somewhere else. If you're not with us, you're against us, that was the typical Romanian official mentality. Wanting to leave Romania had harsh consequences. We were made to feel like criminals for wanting to leave the country to better ourselves I was a prisoner in my own country. It was a crime for wanting my life to be the way I wanted it to be. Even today, if you're applying for a US visa in Romania, you have a 90% chance of being denied.
Finally, in 1999, we had scheduled a trip to United States Olympic training center to train with US Olympic Wrestling team.
The Romanian wrestling team found some sponsors willing to pay all our expenses to travel to Colorado Springs.
The entire Romanian team got their US visas, but the sponsors didn't and the trip was cancelled, the sponsors refused to pay for our trip. The sponsors not being able to send us was crushing to me because I so deeply wanted to come to the United States.
I knew that the US was the country I wanted to be in.
Being part of the national wrestling team all our documents were in the custody of the government. We didn't keep our passports, they did. After several failed attempts and literally knocking down some doors I succeeded in getting my passport back from the Romanian Wrestling officials. They were making it so hard to get your papers back and so many obstacles that you wouldn't even think about leaving Romania and very few people even attempted to do so. Almost everybody told me that it was a very bad decision on my part to leave Romania, but I didn't care.
Immediately I resigned my job, being in the Romanian army wrestling team. When I resigned they tried to convince me to take a vacation instead of leaving for good, saying that I’ll be back, like others did in my case. They threw my file in a drawer and 6 months later, they sent the military police after me, harassing my family at home. They called me a deserter. It took me 3 years to be cleared and allowed to return to Romania without being arrested. After getting my passport, I sold some wrestling equipment, borrowed $300 from a close friend and bought myself a plane ticket to Los Angeles. I made the CHOICE to leave behind all my friends and family, and my Olympic dream. I decided to leave behind fame, respect and privileges that came with being a World Champion and move to a country that I had never been before, didn't speak the language and knowing just one person who luckily happened to live in Korea Town in Los Angeles… and not somewhere in the Midwest, I would’ve been a farm boy, milking cows right now. I did get lucky there.
Decision wasn't hard at all, despite what many people might think, it was my childhood dream coming true.
Before buying my plane ticket, I asked myself a critical question that set the foundation to my decision: WHAT IS THE WORST CASE SCENARIO THAT CAN HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I GET TO LA?
And believe it or not, I still ask myself the same question all the time before making any big decisions in my life. What's the worst case scenario??? The answer was: I’ll be sleeping in downtown LA on a newspaper, and I thought, hey listen, as long as its the Wall Street Journal I'll be fine.
After that, my decision was easy: I felt invincible; Commitment transformed my fear and dread into fuel.
Last night in Romania, I spent it with my friends saying goodbye and wishing me good luck. My goal was: at some point in the future I want to return to Romania as a visitor and donate money and wrestling equipment to my former wrestling team, which I have already accomplished… several times with the help of my friends and clients… The hard part was, me staying at the door, saying goodbye to my father, and telling him that I DON'T KNOW WHEN, or EVEN I was going to see him again. With tears in my eyes, I gave him a hug, closed the door behind me and left for the airport.
November 3rd 1999, I arrived to LAX.
I landed at LAX without knowing what to expect and ready for whatever US had to offer.
My first experience in United States was driving back from LAX to Korea Town and seeing a barbershop with a big sign outside saying "10 dollars haircuts". Knowing that's all I had in my pocket, and basically was the cost of a week of food in Romania at that time, I said to myself. "Ooops, I'm in trouble here, I would never afford a haircut in this country", and already picturing myself with a pony tail.
I felt like a newborn, learning a new language, tasting new foods and experience a totally different society and way of living. Starting with the first weeks, my brain switched to an action mode, looking for a different ways to make money. I never took this trip like was a vacation, I never allowed myself to rest and enjoy the surroundings.
After a few weeks in the US, I got a job as a dishwasher and washing toilets sometimes in a Romanian restaurant in Hollywood and I was very excited. I came from a World Champion and Olympic hopeful to a happy dishwasher in a restaurant in only a few weeks. I never felt too good to do the job; I never let my ego or anything else get between my goal and me. I knew it was going to be a hard journey, paved with different hard jobs and situations that I would never accept, only a couple of months before; but I was determined, I was willing to do whatever was necessary to reach my goal, I WAS COMMITTED. I became the best dish slash toilet washer in Hollywood.
My next goal was to become a waiter. The goal to become an Olympic Champion turned into the goal to become a waiter in only a few months.
Hold on, did you hear that??? From Olympic Champion to a waiter. I know, some of you might think. How can you be happy as a waiter Vs an Olympic Champion?
Well, I was always thinking 10 years from now, therefore I knew that I needed it to start somewhere, I was searching for my dream, searching for my NEW ULTIMATE GOAL. Being a World Champion was great, but that was THEN, and my focus was on THE NOW, I didn't have time to let pride and ego stand in my way. But honestly, I had to say to myself over and over again: Leo, you gotta do what you gotta do, it's ok, I can do this. World Champion washing dishes, wasn’t easy! I needed to stay focused in discovering my New Ultimate Goal.
I started setting goals for myself:
I needed to learn English:
Without hesitation, I started learning English by reading newspapers and studying the dictionary. After learning how to speak English I was promoted to the waiter position and I was happy.
I needed to learn how to drive a car:
I was 24 years old when I first drove a car, 24 years old.
I needed to became legal in this country:
I started working towards legalizing my status, being aware of the fact that it was absolutely necessary to become legal in order to move on and aspire to bigger goals.
Little by little, I started seeing RESULTS. Sounds familiar?. If it doesn't, please visit ResultsStudio.com The first years in the US I was making a living working as a waiter, moving to a better and better restaurants. While I was moving around from restaurant to restaurant, making good money, always asked myself the same question:
Can I be a waiter 10 years from now?
The answer was clear, NO! However, WAS I HAPPY at that time doing what I was doing? YES But that wasn’t the point; I was looking to the future.
We can easily be fooled by the current situation. Being comfortable at the present time doesn't necessarily means that THIS IS IT. I was still searching for the passion, still searching for my Ultimate Goal. From washing dishes and cleaning toilets, in only a couple of years I was serving president Bill Clinton and Sharon Stone, I was making Caesar salads for Ellen Degeneres and Sophia Loren. In only a few years I moved from working in the kitchen to serving tables to the most upscale restaurants in Los Angeles.
At the same time, I needed to have wrestling in my life, it was my passion. Wrestling is such an amazing toll; it gave me strength and kept me focused to accomplish other goals. During working in the restaurants, I was training, competing and promoting myself as a World Champion wrestler in the wrestling community; I started training in a garage in N. Hollywood, then competing in local championships.
In only a few years, I won several California State Championships, trained several US Olympians and was invited to the United States Olympic center in Colorado Springs to train the US wrestling team. During all this time, I was sleeping on the floor (and sometimes on the couch, if I was lucky) and sharing my apartment with different roommates. Any income that I had I spent it pursuing my dreams.
By having several goals at the same time, allowed me to takes small steps towards each one of them, preventing me from feeling overwhelmed and getting the satisfaction of achieving something on a daily basis. At that time, I was attending Cerritos College and everything was going in the right direction… up to the point. I got injured during training helping with the wrestling team.
I was out of commission, couldn’t walk and work and in desperate need of money. The school was already paying for my housing, books and tuition; they also offered to pay for my surgery and rehab. I felt that I couldn’t "waste" 6 months or more by doing nothing and just recovering after my surgery. In the middle of the night, in terrible pain, I loaded my car and drove away leaving behind a "Thank You" note to the wrestling coach and turning down the school offer. It was crazy, they offered to pay for everything, but I said: I need to get back to working.
I started back all over again, getting a job as landscaper digging ditches on ONE LEG, then later getting a job as a waiter in Panorama City and sleeping on the floor on my nieces room. I was basically homeless if it wasn’t for my sister.
This set back might be a deal breaker, sort of "screw it, I tried hard, just didn't make it", but I saw it simply as an obstacle, and my attitude was, "how fast can I get back on track?" Instead of feeling like a victim, or asking: "Why is this happening to me?" I took immediate action setting new goals and stayed focus.
During one of my wrestling seminars, I met Kelly who owned a Private Gym in Encino. He introduced me to Personal Training, I didn't even knew that such a thing exist, and later on he offered me a job at his facility. While working at Black Angus in Panorama City, I got a job as a Personal trainer, training ONE client at 5AM twice a week. From then, setting goal after goal, working hard and staying committed, I end up training 30 clients per week, later quitting my job as a waiter and dedicating full time as a trainer.
Once again I asked myself the same question: Can I see myself doing this 10 years from now? All of a sudden the answer was YES. I can train people 10 years from now. And there was my next Ultimate Goal: One day I want to have my own training facility. From digging ditches as a landscaper to waiting tables in Panorama City, from one client at 5AM to owning my own Gym, All THIS IN ONLY 3.5 YEARS. It took me ONLY over 3 years to get back to my feet.
And all this was possible by staying focused and setting small goals toward your ultimate goal. People call me successful, and I agree with that, you know why? My definition of success SUCCESS is: Not owning properties and expensive cars or having lots of money, SUCCESS means to discover you passion and pursue your dreams. I discovered my passion and I'm pursuing my dreams.
SUCCESS means to do something that you love. Success means never letting anything stop you and realizing when YOU are the real obstacle between you and your dreams. Never doubt yourself and NEVER set limitations on yourself, you will never know if you’re going to succeed if you don't try.
I came to the US with an open mind, searching for my next goal and dream, willing to give all I've got and whatever it takes to accomplish them.
I was up and I was down, but with a positive attitude, I never despaired and always looked for a solution.
I always stayed humble as I accomplished my dream and I am ALWAYS looking for a new goal.
I've learned that being positive and staying focus helped me achieve more and move on faster after every setback. I am and will always be grateful for the things I've accomplished and most important for the people who have supported me to get where I am TODAY.
Each person whose reading this story is sharing my dream, you are all characters in the story of my life. There is nothing in this life that is too big or overwhelming to stand in the way of what you really want, deep down in your heart. When you take away all the reasons and rationalizations that we used to keep us from what we really want, what you have left is the opportunity to live your DREAM.
I am an individual who brings a unique truth and experience to the table just like all of you; political system, social order, poverty or obstacles could not define me. Once I discovered my passion, each day has been a step closer to fulfilling it. I am alive, I do what I love with people that I love and although there were many years where all I heard was, "Do what you’re told and take what it given to you."
That never stopped me.
I'm here to tell you, it takes work, real work and commitment but ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
I am here to tell you, I am living my Ultimate Goal.
I am free.