By Rick Baraff | Photos by Hemail Zaveri
If Sorin Balaianu’s life was a movie, he might stand on top of the Olympic podium in 1976 with a gold medal around his neck, claiming victory for his beloved homeland of Romania, and becoming a national hero.
Unfortunately, that version didn’t happen because in real life, Romania was under the repressive communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, where even the most vaunted citizens such as athletes like Sorin were not immune to a highly regulated and difficult life. So before he got his shot at the podium, Sorin defected to Turkey in 1975.
“I started traveling with wrestling, and in 1973, I came to the World Championships in Miami Beach. I thought about defecting [there]; however, my desire to go back to Romania and tell my friends about what I saw in America was stronger than my desire to defect. When I got back, I got most of my close friends together and told them about the shopping and the freedoms here. There were supermarkets full of fresh food and consumer goods hanging everywhere. They couldn’t even dream about those things, and nobody believed me at that time. Now, the weird thing is that Romanian kids don’t remember how bad it was. In one generation, it all changed.”
Sorin took a few years to organize a plan to defect and waited until he was 21 so that the repercussions on his parents wouldn’t be as severe. After defecting, he spent five months in a Catholic Charities-sponsored refugee camp in Turkey before ending up in Italy.
“I wrestled for the Police Team and ended up as Italian National Champion at 198 pounds,” recounts Sorin. Despite the fact that wrestling was his ticket out of Romania, “wrestling was not my first love. Like most Europeans, soccer was my great passion. I started wrestling at the age of 14, and after a year, I had a winning streak that ran for three and a half years.”
From Italy, Catholic Charities sponsored Sorin’s move to the U.S. where—with $5.65 in his pocket and speaking very little English—he wrestled for the New York Athletic Club before being recruited to attend Hofstra University. He became three-time East Coast champion and four-time All-American. Sorin was then offered an internship at Merrill-Lynch because his personality, intelligence, and multilingual skills shined as equally bright as his ability to pin opponents to the mat.
In the 1980s, Sorin came to California and worked in Lake Tahoe real estate for four years, then three in Carmel before a 14-year stint at the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara in Carlsbad, where he was recognized as one of the top three sales reps in 2008. On the side, Sorin couldn’t ignore his passion for soccer and created the International Federation of Foot Tennis, promoting a soccer-style sport played on a tennis court. In 1994, when the soccer World Cup was held in the U.S., Sorin’s vision blossomed into an expo of soccer skills for kids in Los Angeles. He eventually saw his idea take off in Europe.
Two years ago, Sorin moved to San Francisco, where he joined the Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square as the Senior Sales Manager for the Private Residence Club. He calls San Francisco “the idea capital of the world,” and loves being surrounded by innovative young people who are not afraid to try new things. Sorin is now celebrating 40 years in America. In his free time, he volunteers as a wrestling coach at Bay Area high schools and enjoys exploring all the cultural richness and great restaurants of his latest—and favorite hometown.