Wrestling for more than a ring

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By EVAN THOMPSON, sports editor

 

Mesa, Ariz., 2002. Anthony Robles just finished last in his city. The scrawny freshman in his first year of wrestling could feel what the parents, spectators and others watching were all thinking: He should feel content having the opportunity to wrestle at all, considering that he was born with only one leg.

Even the coach of the wrestler who ended Robles’ season shook his hand with empathy  in his eyes.

Robles went home that night with a fire lit underneath him. ‘That’s it, I’m done losing,’ he recalls thinking. “First goal is to be a state champ.”

So he wrote down a simple message on a sticky note. “State Champ. You can do it.”

What that message would lead to in the years following would defy all odds placed upon him, even if Robles never felt it weighing him down in the first place.

Robles, now graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in business communcations, is a motivational speaker, analyst on ESPN, and sponsored Nike athlete. His life changed overnight when he won a Division I national championship in 2011.

His accomplishments on the mat led him to being awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance during the annual ESPY’s in the months following his title. He has since spoken on several talk shows such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

His book titled, “Unstoppable: From Underdog to Undefeated,” has been endorsed by public figures such as Leno, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Oher and Serena Williams.

In two to three years, Robles will have his own version of the “The Blind Side” made about him in Hollywood. The writer for “Remember the Titans” has joined on and Russell Crowe is slated to play Robles’ biggest role model in the sport: his high school coach Bobby Williams.

“Having a recognizable figure like Anthony sending a positive message is huge for the sport,” senior Steven Alfi said, club president of the wrestling team.

Robles spoke in the SURC Ballroom on April 25 to share his story of how he overcame his many obstacles. Central Washington wrestler Joshua Hackney has been arranging the event since October. Hackney deals with a disability of his own.

“My main goal for the whole event was to try and reach students with disabilities and students without disabilities so they could interact,” Hackney said. “For those who think they can’t do something, Robles gives them hope.”

 

Realizing his calling

 

Robles was a freshman in high school when he first stepped onto the mat. He went to a wrestling practice with his cousin, who paired him with the team’s varsity 103-pound wrestler.

“The passion just grew right there,” Robles said. “ I finally found the purpose for my life. Being born missing a leg, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. Wrestling, it finally became something I could look forward to.”

Robles placed sixth at state as a sophomore, then went undefeated over the next two seasons. He finished as one of the best wrestlers in the state his senior year, a two-time champion and went on to win a high school  national championship.

But Robles’ hopes of receiving several Division I offers to wrestle were shattered. He got only two phone calls: One was from Drexel University in Pennsylvania. The other was from Arizona State, who offered him a chance to walk-on and earn a scholarship.

Robles chose to accept the Sun Devils invitation.

“It was really just a humbling experience, kind of slap in the face to me,” Robles said. “But it gave me that additional hunger to work even harder.”

 

Strength in Judy

 

When Robles was born, doctors were puzzled by his lack of a right leg. Robles has never met his biological father, who immediately abandoned him and his mother. His mother, Judy Robles, was only 16 at the time.

Robles’ stepfather also failed to be a consistent father-figure for him.

“I never met my real dad,” Robles said. “My stepdad was never someone I could look up to. He was always in and out, leaving my mom, coming back, they were always fighting. So I didn’t really have a father figure to learn from.”

Things reached a boiling point between Robles’ sophomore and junior year at ASU. He received a phone call from his mom that his stepfather had left a note saying he had left for California. He didn’t help pay the bills and never once called.

Judy Robles sold her blood once a week just to put food on the table for his sister and three brothers, who hadn’t even reached high school yet. The family eventually lost their home because they couldn’t afford the mortgage.

Robles wanted to come back home and get a job so he could help his family through tough times, but his mother wouldn’t let him. He had his own dreams to chase and she wasn’t going to let their circumstances come in between it. But that didn’t curb Robles’ emotions.

“I felt guilty,” Robles said, “that I’m over here trying to go after my dream of this ring and my family is suffering.”

Bout with depression

 

Robles felt the weight of the world bearing down on him after his junior year. After placing fourth at nationals in 2009, Robles finished seventh in 2010. It was less than he had hoped and worked for, and matters were made worse when he discovered his family’s situation.

“I think it was that mental breaking point for me,” Robles said. “I just remember after that year, I was like ‘I’m done, quitting, go back home and getting a job. This is it, I can’t handle it anymore.’”

That summer, as Judy forced Robles to remain at school and finish out his career, he went through a state of depression. He didn’t want to talk to or see anybody, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with wrestling.

 

Overnight whirlwind

 

It was a group of third-graders who saved Robles’ wrestling career. During that same summer, Robles received letters from a class of kids who had seen him wrestle at nationals. They were touched by his story, writing that Robles inspired them to go after their dreams.

“It made me realize the bigger picture,” Robles said. “Up until that point I was thinking, ‘I want the ring, I want the title.’ But after those kids wrote me, I felt like I was wrestling for them.”

After Robles rejoined the team, he had the best season of his career. He broke the record for most-techs in ASU history while leading the nation in any weight class in the same category.

He advanced all the way to the NCAA Division I finals where he defeated the returning champ Matt McDonough, 7-1, capping off his 36-0 season. He was awarded the most outstanding wrestler of the tournament.

Robles’ family and high school coach were there to witness the moment, paying testament to how far he had come.

 

Symbol of hope and courage

 

Robles spoke kindly of the individuals he had met and heard about during his tours as a motivational speaker. He highlighted one story in particular.

A high school junior and wrestler in Kansas City, Mo. was riding his motorcycle when he had an accident and slipped into coma. He woke up and discovered they had amputated his left leg while he was unconscious. But what happened next touched Robles.

“I still remember hearing about this kid,” Robles said. “It was a radio broadcaster who shared with me, ‘Just wanted to let you know, when the kid woke up, after his initial shock he said he wanted to wrestle again. He wanted to be the next Anthony Robles.’”

“It hit me hard,” Robles said. “It makes it all worth it.”

As for the sticky note he used so many years ago as a freshman: He still keeps it in his wallet.

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