Karelin was born in Novobirsk, Siberia, where his great-grandparents, progressive intellectuals, had been dispatched against their will. Temperatures there can reach -50 degrees farenheit. Nicholas Davidoff described the city this way in Sports Illustrated: "For months its snow-covered sidewalks are traversed by men and women swathed to anonymity in wools and furs. Days are short and grim. Gray buildings line streets that eventually give way to the endless pine forests that long ago gave this brooding part of the world its name: Siberia, the Sleeping Land…. Today, within some of those gray buildings aremore than 100 universities and research centers, an opera house admired internationally for its architecture and its programs, a ballet company and a circus." Karelin's father was a truck driver and his mother an office worker. He weighed fifteen pounds at birth and, as a boy, hunted on skis and built his strength hauling logs through the snow. Victor Kusnetzov, the only coach Karelin would ever have, convinced the boy to take up wrestling at the relatively late age of thirteen. He trained by running through thigh-deep snow two hours at a stretch and rowed a boat
on frigid lakes until his hands bled. He once carried a refrigerator, alone, up eight flights of stairs.