Evolving A Legacy: David Zilberman Finds Solace on And off the Mat

David Zilberman Honours a family legacy, And Creates His Own

  • David Zilberman finds comfort in the familiar confines of the training room, and in the world of philosophy. Courtesy: Liam Mahoney

For those who haven’t been in a wrestling training room, it’s an unmitigated mess.

Some athletes are being hurled through the air like human fastballs, others are relaxing while the rest are jockeying for position trying to one up their sparring partner. It’s easy for an outsider to get lost in the sweaty madness but in the
chaos stands a calm and stoic figure. He is one of the rudders to this seemingly out of control picture. His name is David Zilberman and he is the assistant coach for Concordia University’s wrestling team.

When Zilberman speaks, it almost seems like he is being rude at first. When sitting down he looks straight ahead and rarely looks back at you. The tone of his speech rarely changes and at times seems devoid of any emotion. In reality, he is intensely focusing on every word that he’s saying, seemingly taking into account every word of his answers.

To Montrealers across generations the last name Zilberman means something.

David’s father, Victor, has been Concordia’s head wrestling coach for four decades and served on four Olympic wrestling teams. With that comes a reputation of being an intensely competitive, hard-nosed and tough person. Even students who had him as a teacher more than three decades ago can still recall how he pushed for absolute excellence no matter who you were.

Eddie Rotondo, a 52-year-old postal worker, still remembers a specific incident where Victor tried to force his class into competing in a wrestling tournament when he had no power to do so. “The next class he was curious to know who complained. Nobody said a word,” Rotondo says with a chuckle.

Growing up under a man like that can be a unique experience for a child.

“It was tough, really tough,” recalls David. “Everything was with the focus of developing and getting better at what I was doing.”

Whether it be an athletic endeavor like playing hockey or something artistic like learning the piano, every aspect of David’s youth was structured. There wasn’t as much room for things like fun and leisure as there may have been for other children.

Despite his family legacy, wrestling wasn’t always in the cards for Zilberman. The first sports he played included baseball and hockey, with nary a solo sport in sight. While he was playing house league hockey like many Canadian children do, Zilberman felt something was missing.

“Nothing was happening. I wasn’t growing, so my father finally said: ‘Hey why don’t you come and wrestle?’ I went to give it a shot and slowly started to like it.”

He gave the sport a chance, and is happy to have done so.

During his time as a competitor, Zilberman racked up achievements such as winning the silver medal at the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships in 2005 and winning gold at the Senior Canadian National Championships in 2007. It all came to a head in 2008 when at the age of 25, Zilberman made it to the Beijing Summer Olympics, finishing 14th in his division.

This however, would be the first and only Olympic games for him. Just one year later in 2009, Zilberman would wrestle his final competitive match—not that it was his decision.

“I struggled with a back injury pretty much my entire wrestling career,” Zilberman reflects. “Just trying to wrestle with that injury was physically and mentally exhausting. I don’t know what it felt like to compete with a healthy back.”

Wrestlers aren’t the kind of people to give up easily though. Throughout his career, Zilberman did everything in his power to work around it. “I was doing treatments. I had my training revolve around my injury so I adjusted my style, adjusted the techniques I do and I even adjusted how I slept,” Zilberman remembers.

“Everything revolved around that,” he said.

Even though his mind wanted to go on, his body forced him into a new chapter of his life. The next phase went from being the athlete on the mats to the authority figure off of them. With a teaching degree plus a degree in leisure and recreation, Zilberman landed himself a job teaching physical education at Vanier College.

Stepping into the educational realm, Zilberman shifted his focus from someone who crashed foes into canvases to a man who must teach others to do that and more.

“The athletes here [on the wrestling team] are training two or three times a day. The kids in CEGEP are exercising once or twice a week at most,” Zilberman says. “At that point, they have different needs, different abilities and a different understanding of what exercise can do for a person.”

Students of his gym classes are grateful for separate approaches. Matthew Grande is an 18-year-old student who took Zilberman’s weight training class in his first year at Vanier. A soccer player as a kid, Grande was impressed by Zilberman’s compassion for his students.

“We had class on Monday and he would spend the first 10-15 minutes asking us how our weekends went and if anything interesting happened,” Grande says.

Zilberman’s relaxed demeanor endeared him to nearly everyone in the class and left an impression on Grande: “He’d walk around the class as we worked out and then if anyone had any questions we could ask him. It made for a really cool atmosphere.”

“He doesn’t put valour in wins and losses. He focuses on personal growth as an athlete and aiming for long-term goals over short-term ones,” said Kyle Price, a member of Concordia’s wrestling team. He’s been with a few wrestling clubs over the years but the Ontario native likes the atmosphere on the team more than any other.

Here comes a plot twist: major assumption by most unfamiliar with combat sports is that the lot of them can be aggressive jock-type characters. You can think of any angry high school football coach denying his players water as an example. Zilberman smashes this stereotype with his favourite subject outside of wrestling.

“The funny thing is that if you’re going to be a competitor striving to be the best in the world, you have to engage in deep critical thinking,” Zilberman says. “If you’re not reflecting and analyzing what you’re doing the chances of reaching the highest levels are minimal.”

Zilberman isn’t just saying that. Scrolling through his Twitter feed you will constantly see links to psychology websites, neuroscience articles and philosophical quotes. Not exactly what you would think to find on a wrestling coach’s social media profile.
Zilberman says that this interest comes from his youth and questioning authority figures on why they made him practice a certain way or why they told him not to do something. The fact that he is now an authority figure himself isn’t lost on him. “The thing is; I don’t stop questioning things,” Zilberman says.

“People think that once you finish school you’re done learning and there’s nothing further from the truth,” he said. “You don’t just do things because you’re in a position of authority, anybody who claims to have all the answers is full of shit.”

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