Mongolia's 'unbreakable flower' wrestles for Rio gold

ULAANBAATAR, July 5 (Reuters) - Battsetseg Soronzonbold became a national hero in her native Mongolia after winning wrestling bronze at the London Olympics and is determined to turn the medal into gold in Rio next month.

Born in a country with a long tradition of wrestling, the 26-year-old Battsetseg, whose name means "unbreakable flower," is currently training twice a day with about a dozen young men and women in a camp some 45 minutes drive from Ulaanbaatar.

The popularity of wrestling in the country of under three million people, sandwiched between Russia and China, is only paralleled by their love for horses, meat and an alcoholic mare's milk concoction called airag.

"From ancient times we have been a wrestling country," coach Sukhbataar said. "Mongolian women are like warriors - really strong - that's why traditionally it's easy for them to become successful wrestlers."

Grappling and hand-to-hand combat were ways for soldiers to keep strong when the Mongol horde led by 13th century conqueror Genghis Khan marched across Asia and reached the edges of Medieval Europe.

Mongolia these days has fans of K-pop and Hollywood superhero movies but wrestling is still revered.

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Battsetseg got hooked on the sport while in a hospital bed recovering from tonsil surgery.

"When I was watching TV, I saw these nice women wrestling, then I said to my teacher this is really nice," said Battsetseg.

"Because of that I decided to begin wrestling."

And the fact that being a female wrestler does not carry the same stigma in Mongolia as it might in other parts of the world, helped.

"Well you know people used to imagine (female) wrestlers as being big and chubby," said Battsetseg.

"Now things are very open, people are watching TV and they watch us, people say that we are nice girls, they don't say that we are like men."

A world champion in the under-59 kg class in 2010 and a household name after her London bronze at under 63 kg, Battsetseg thinks anything less than gold in Rio will be a disappointment.

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After that she hopes to marry the boyfriend with whom she sometimes tests out her moves.

"We practice the techniques," she said. "But because he's bigger than me I shouldn't practice too much with him."