Sports is a universal language for Ilyes Taleb.
Born in Bruges, France, a small town that neighbors Bordeaux 19 years ago, Taleb was presented an opportunity to journey abroad last year. His options were vast, including traveling to Australia and even South Africa, but he wasn’t sold on the idea of leaving his family with those choices.
Instead, it was discovering the game of football (not soccer) a couple years ago that brought Taleb to the conclusion of wanting to come to Churchill County High School for his final year in high school.
“I discovered football and watching those movies, especially ‘Remember The Titans,’ showed me the great part of this sport,” said Taleb, who also enjoyed watching “Friday Night Lights” and being involved with “extreme” school spirit, team bonding and improving on a daily basis.
Since arriving in Fallon on Sept. 21, 2016, almost two weeks removed from leaving his family in France, Taleb, the youngest of four has become a campus favorite.
The soft-spoken, smart-dressing French teenager joined Trevor de Braga’s wrestling program and then took up track for Steve Heck in the spring. And he was one of the first to sign up for Night of Fights, the wrestling program’s fundraiser that saw Taleb — or the French Stallion — win the crowd over in the opening bout.
But it’s been more than sports as Taleb wanted to learn more about the country and Fallon’s culture. He discovered a new sense of independence that he will carry with him back to France next month as he looks for more opportunities to travel abroad. His future plans include becoming an international attorney for the United Nations.
With his experience living in the United States, Taleb feels more comfortable on his own.
“I’d be anxious living alone on my own a year ago,” he said. “Today? I’m not even slightly scared to this idea and plan to travel the world on my own with many exchange years in college, alone.”
An advertisement on Fallon 411 last year changed the lives of Kathy and Bill Cantebury.
Toward the end of July, 55 students still needed a place to stay abroad for the upcoming school year. Much like adopting a child, there are strict requirements in place for housing a foreign exchange student, including a house check and many questions. At first, Bill Cantebury didn’t want to participate in the program and then the couple decided to try one semester.
What changed their minds when reading about Taleb was his love for old movies and that he was also 18 at the time, which meant he would time out with the program. They knew the right decision was made when Taleb arrived in Fallon last September, properly dressed for the occasion.
“He was a very neat, particular dresser and he stayed that way,” Cantebury said. “He’s not Americanized as far as his dress code. He does stand out. The kids you see in the United States are more comfortable and relaxed in their clothes. They’re not dressed to impress, which is the impression you get.”
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS
Taleb didn’t take a day off competing in sports or learning in the classroom. The same could be said about his sense of fashion.
Taleb would arrive on campus every morning with a striking outfit that drew attention from the girls and made the boys envious. His style was as smooth as his thick accent. Credit his sister, who studied fashion and worked in the industry, for making Taleb a sophisticated dresser.
“She taught me a lot,” Taleb said. “I noticed that people in France are probably the most judgmental when it comes to appearance and what you wear, so there are no such things as going to Walmart in pajamas. We would dress correct even to go grocery shopping.”
Taleb’s approach is actually simple. It’s all about size, quality and plenty of color choices, which can help turn a bad outfit into something stellar.
“The sizing makes it all and even the ugliest outfit you can imagine can actually look good if it fits you perfectly,” he said. “Everything goes into my wardrobe. I have almost every color, even pink. But one that I don’t like much is plain black. It is a sad color in my opinion so I don’t wear it often, unless it’s formal.”
His favorite color to wear is white, but it boils down to finding what fits right. Think of it as a puzzle and each shape has its own destination. When one piece doesn’t fit, the entire puzzle is compromised.
“Fashion is just a mind game of shapes and you have to dress according to your body type,” Taleb said. “For example, I can wear the prettiest, fanciest most expensive shirt in the world. It will look bad if it doesn’t go with my body shape. It’s just a mind game with a few rules; you have to experiment every day and get better at it. It’s very simple and I don’t understand why society makes it so complicated. If you don’t think this shirt doesn’t match this pant, just wear it for a day. You’re not in France. People won’t crucify you for that.”
If there’s one thing that Taleb doesn’t fancy, it’s the kind of fabric. Unless it’s for sports, Taleb despises synthetic material, or spandex.
“A very important part is the fabrics,” he added. “It neither is comfortable and breathable. That’s why it doesn’t take much to sweat and have a bad armpit circle wearing a grey $2 Walmart shirt.”
SEEKING REDEMPTION IN FRANCE
The academic realm is more challenging overseas.
Taleb enrolled in Bordeaux International School in the fourth and fifth grade where he learned English in six months. Half the classes were taught in French while the other half was in English. Almost all the students and teachers were foreign, including coming from Britain, Australia and America. School felt like a full-time job as classes start at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m.
“This school is private, hard to get in and most students are foreigners, children of a foreign ambassador staying in Bordeaux for a year or two sometimes, and all my friends from there were foreigners,” Taleb explained. “Today, only one is still in France. The others are in Texas, Canada or South Korea.”
Like being in Fallon for the past nine months, Taleb felt like a foreigner even at his French school.
“It’s a funny feeling,” he said. “During lunch breaks, we were only allowed to talk French on Monday and Thursday, and English on Tuesday and Friday, even when playing with friends. The workload was too much and I had to stop sports.”
Middle school came soon after and it didn’t go well for Taleb. He was held back in the seventh grade and was told on multiple occasions by his teachers that he wouldn’t advance. He was kicked out of three different middle schools and was on the brink of a major change.
“Teachers were arrogant and one of them would tell me every day that I wouldn’t achieve anything and be lucky if I finish middle school,” he said.
That’s when Taleb had enough and opted for the public-school system, enrolling in Élie Faure High School. Although students didn’t get to choose their courses, eight to 12 classes were expected per week. English was mandatory and you needed to choose a third language between German and Spanish. Taleb chose the latter.
“Teachers were either neutral or supportive, and my counselors actually believed in me instead of holding me down,” Taleb lamented.
Extracurricular activities, unfortunately, didn’t exist like they do in the United States and the athletics program was a mess.
“Élie Faure High School is great but I feel happier to be in Churchill County as a Greenwave,” Taleb said.
Plain and simple, he was on a mission to correct the ship on his middle-school experience and prove his teachers wrong. He likens his journey to “Coach Carter,” the Samuel L. Jackson story about a basketball coach who uses strict tactics to enforce academics over basketball.
“I wanted to prove wrong my middle-school teachers who, not only didn’t believe in me but tried to break me, but also becoming a student-athlete,” Taleb added.
ADJUSTING TO THE U.S.
It’s not difficult to get caught up with the clichés and stereotypes with any society.
There was only one that Taleb could relate, though: gun safety and control. Guns are banned in France whereas in the United States, people have the right to bear arms and they take advantage of the constitutional right for many reasons, including protection and hunting.
“In France, someone with a pistol is up to something bad,” Taleb said. “In the U.S., it’s strictly for protection. I am used to seeing open carry weapons today and it doesn’t make me feel unsafe because at the end of the day, people kill people, not weapons.”
After the cultural adjustment and before arriving in Nevada, Taleb went through a four-day introduction session on the East Coast where he visited iconic landmarks in New York City, like Liberty Island and the Empire State Building. Subsequent stops included Washington D.C. and Philadelphia but it was the last stop that intrigued Taleb the most.
“My favorite place out of all was the Rocky Steps,” Taleb said. “I grew up watching every (Rocky) Balboa movie.”
And he even rewatched all the Rocky movies once he found out about Night of Fights.
“As soon as I heard about it in November, I was already pumped up,” said Taleb, who wanted to do it for his cousin. “I knew it would be fun and I was confident on my fight because I wrestled under coach de Braga and he makes all of us war machines. I didn’t know who would be my opponent but whoever it is I would enter on the ring with the Eye of the Tiger, Apollo Creed’s song from the movies and just go all in.”
Coming to the West Coast, Taleb has been trying to live life to the fullest in the Lahontan Valley. He’s made many friends along the way, participated in sports and Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and volunteered at Fallon Daily Bread.
His influences ranged at the school, including developing a deeper passion for English literature. But Taleb’s biggest influences were with NJROTC instructor Keith Bryska, who acted like a crutch of support, NJROTC commanding officer Chad Martyn and fellow senior and wrestling teammate Terry White.
“Terry welcomed me on my first day in the weight class,” Taleb said. “We became gym buddies, wrestling teammates and we would practice together every day. We would go on miles runs together and he would get me ready and motivate me before a wrestling match.”
In between academics and athletics, Taleb wanted to explore the region after watching movies about the western culture. The Canterburys introduced him to the surrounding areas, and ghost towns were a frequent stop as was Virginia City to go along with Reno and Lake Tahoe. Taleb was in for a history lesson about the Silver State.
“We tried to show him the history of the west is definitely a lot different than what you see at home,” Kathy Cantebury said. “Everything he sees at home is huge and historical. The west wasn’t won that way.”
On different trips with the Canterburys, Taleb experienced the majestic Carlsbad caverns, San Diego, San Francisco and of course, Disneyland.
“I met a close friend on the first exchange student trip, so we decided to go on another one in California, visiting Los Angeles,” he added.
ONCE A GREENWAVE, ALWAYS A GREENWAVE
When he arrived in Fallon, Taleb missed the cutoff to play in fall sports.
His new passion is football after playing it the last couple of years in France. Taleb, though, found an alternative a couple months later when the wrestling season started and White encouraged him to join.
Words that would scare off most before setting foot in the wrestling room didn’t bother Taleb. He welcomed the challenge even though it had been 10 years since he last tried wrestling.
“That it was tough, the hardest high school conditioning we have and probably the toughest in the entire NIAA,” Taleb recalled. “We would never see the sun as we go on miles runs early at 6 a.m. in the winter and get out of practice at 6 p.m. by the time I shower.”
For someone who hardly wrestled, Taleb made his way up the depth chart from junior varsity to the varsity lineup by the postseason in the 132-pound weight class. De Braga, like Taleb, welcomed the new challenge and the results were unexpected.
“Some of the matches he lost were within a point, and most of those points were given to his opponents for locking hands or a full nelson,” the second-year coach said. “Eventually, he had it figured out and was winning a bunch of matches. Taleb got to regionals and was one match away from going to state. He had to win to go for third place but lost a nail biter. To see his growth in wrestling was exceptional and it really makes a coach feel good.”
De Braga couldn’t help but fathom what kind of wrestler Taleb could have become if he were in the program for all four years. Becoming a state champion was a possibility but when the final curtain dropped on Taleb’s wrestling season, de Braga hoped his influence would carry with him back to France.
“His work ethic is incredible. He is fun to be around and always has a great attitude,” de Braga said. “I will definitely miss him and hope I influenced a lifetime memory for him as a coach and for himself as a Greenwave wrestler.”
Turn the calendar over to the next month and Taleb was ready to make an impact on the track. As soon as he found out when his teammates would be arriving from Las Vegas, Taleb headed over to the high school, waiting.
The bus carrying several track and field stars, including a state champ and a few medalists, turned into the parking lot Saturday evening. Awaiting them was Taleb, who cares more about his teammates.
“He is a kid that I would have liked to have around for four years,” Heck said. “He definitely had a positive impact on our team this year and I am very glad he chose to come to Fallon this year.”
After competing in one of the school’s toughest programs over the winter, Taleb faced a decision of whether to go out for baseball or track.
With baseball, he would be reunited with de Braga but he hasn’t played the sport and would have faced huge odds of not making the team. After wrestling helped made him stronger, he figured track would be a nice complement because it would make him faster.
In the end, though, being around more people is what sold him.
“It’s also a huge team, so it’s more friends to meet and there a lot of different events to do. The conditioning is also harder,” Taleb said.
The list of friends continued to grow in the spring as his infectious smile and positive attitude could not be ignored by his teammates or coaches.
“He is willing to try just about anything and enjoys competing and helping out wherever needed,” Heck said. “Ilyes is a positive teammate and is always around cheering on his fellow athletes.”
And he’s a good athlete as he showed during the wrestling season. Taleb competed in sprints and his season ended during the regional trials earlier this month.
“He is one of those kids that could be successful in pretty much any sport he tries,” Heck added. “He is quick and strong and has a great work ethic.”
Taleb has cherished each moment since he arrived nine months ago. He’s made impressions on his classmates, fellow student-athletes, teachers and coaches. Whether it’s the way he dresses every day, how he socializes with his friends or his competitive and learning nature in sports, Taleb never took anything for granted because this could be the only time he comes to Fallon.
“We all do something for the last time,” Taleb said. “Going to practice for the last time and going to school for the last time, it’s always different because we take it for granted as we are used to it every day. But there’s one thing that will break my heart to say for the last time is goodbye.”
But in return, those who had the privilege of calling him a friend hope that their influence will help him succeed even more when he returns to France. Even if he isn’t able to return to the Lahontan Valley, Taleb’s confident presence will still reside with those he impacted for years to come.