Pla Plot Soe shows off one of his wrestling medals while sitting next to his father, Kyaw Gaw.

Trev McDiffett

When the 2019 NSAA State Wrestling Championships played host in February to the state’s top wrestlers, 896 competitors from all over Nebraska shot, rolled and squeezed on the mats of the CHI Health Center in Omaha.

For Lincoln High’s 120-pound state qualifier, Pla Plot Soe, who was born in a refugee camp, it was especially gratifying to compete in the event.

“My culture loves sports. What we start, we finish,” he said Pla, who is Karen. “Back in Thailand it’s hard. We don’t have opportunities like we do in America. So when we come here we have to make the most out of it. We do this for our family back home.”

Pla was born in the Mae La refugee camp near Bangkok, the largest of nine refugee camps in Thailand, where more than 40,000 people live, according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.) The camp didn’t have electricity but provided families with rations two times a month.

“We did not have work,” said Pla’s father, Kyaw Gaw. “We just stayed inside the camp that was surrounded by the walls.”

While living in the camp, Pla and his friends didn’t have equipment to play some of his favorite sports, like soccer. But they still found ways to be active by playing games such as tag and hide-n’-seek.

Pla, brother Be Me, sister Rebecca and his parents Kyaw Gaw and Silver Moo, came to the U.S., along with other family members, in 2007.

One of Pla’s biggest challenges when he first arrived was getting used to English and getting to know different people from different places.

“When I was a refugee [everyone] was the same color and same race,” he said. “It was more diverse here.”

Pla picked up English through his ELL classes at Holmes Elementary School, but one of the ways he said he learned the quickest was through sports. In wrestling, he learned terminology like “shots” and “takedown.” While playing soccer, he learned phrases to indicate to his teammates that he was open.

“My teammates made me better and better [at English],” Pla said.

When Pla was in sixth grade at Park Middle School, he was approached by wrestling coach and math teacher Jason Wunderlich about trying out for wrestling.  Wunderlich saw him as a kid who was always willing to put in the extra effort and worked well with others — two qualities that are essential for wrestlers.

“I started living the sport,” Pla said.

Wunderlich said Karen wrestlers “are OK with the idea of being tough.” Pla’s technique plays into that mentality.

One of the aspects of Pla’s approach is always being aggressive in his takedown attempts.

“I always shoot for the takedown first,” Pla said, smiling.

Pla finished his junior year season with a record of 23-14 and qualified for the State Tournament by placing second at districts.

His goal for next season is to return to the state tournament and medal.