“You have to be able to envision something you haven’t yet accomplished, there’s a lot of preparation. You have to learn to do something that is completely instinctual, looks completely natural, is completely fluid, [but] these things aren’t natural… [In wrestling] you have to earn an ending, you don’t just fall into one.” - John Irving, Academy Award-winning screenwriter and former Pitt wrestler on wrestling
Those words were used by John Irving as the intro for ESPN’s coverage of the 2011 NCAA Wrestling tournament and provide an accurate view of the college wrestling world. It is hard work, and it is very much a full-time job. Early morning runs, workouts between classes, practice, and after dinner runs take up much of your time that you are not working on class work. In practice, you drill the same moves over and over again to make sure you have every last detail right and wrestle “live” with your partner often to the point where you are so frustrated with each other at practice you come to blows with them at some point. Of course, after practice, it is back to the nature of being friends until the next day when you do it all over again.
It is not for everybody, and many standout high school wrestlers end up quitting the first few weeks in because they just do not want to deal with the pressures of the sport. I speak this from the perspective of being a former NJCAA wrestler myself. Now imagine that you have to deal with all the fun I listed above on one leg.
Such was the case of Arizona State University’s Anthony Robles. A man born without a right leg but refused to let it hold him back from accomplishing his “ending” of becoming a NCAA Division I Champion. This title is something that many wrestlers aspire to achieve but few ever do and many never even become All-Americans. Well Robles has achieved a Championship and 3x All-American status despite his handicap. That alone is amazing.
That said, it took more than a firm grip, a quick shot, and beautiful tilts to achieve this goal. It required the courage and mental toughness to first overcome his handicap and then conquer the 125lbs division. By showing that courage and that tenacity to never give up on his dream embodies what a champion is supposed to be.
Robles story had a deep impact on me this weekend when I looked back on my own injury issues that plagued (and ended) my career in combat sports. After a rather gruesome knee injury in my sophomore year of High School, I struggled with knee injuries on that same right knee for ten more years of training and competition. It was often joked that I was a “one-legged” wrestler and it bothers me deeply to have people make excuses for me. There were many nights after matches I felt cursed and frustrated. I nearly completely walked away from the sport after injuries cut short my college-wrestling career. It took a lot to come back and coach wrestling after all that disappointment. I felt handicapped, something Robles has rarely let himself feel.
Whereas I was never able to overcome my injury issues, Robles embraced his actual handicap. He found ways to adapt and overcome the way that few of us can. He stuck with an unforgiving sport after being pinned in his first match in high school and went 129-15 the rest of high school and 122-23 in college. That takes fortitude beyond what many people can fathom and that makes him champion beyond the award earned by him in Philadelphia Saturday.
In the world of MMA, fans often become callous towards fighters as people and many grow angry when they do not entertain them. Many fighters have resorted to vile insults and other ridiculous behavior to further their bottom line and possibly gain a chance at fighting for a championship. In all this mess, it becomes lost as to what really makes a champion a champion. It is about more than that hunk of metal they give you. It is about having the courage to go beyond what your peers do, it is about not allowing anything to get in the way of accomplishing your dream and that once you get there you shine as an example of what hard work and determination can gain someone.
Unfortunately, many of our champions forget what it is about and display behavior that would not be suitable for a five year old. The ridiculous self-aggrandizing behavior in an effort to show off or entertain often overshadows the achievement of becoming a champion. Fighters and wrestlers both require a certain self-confidence in order to compete in the sport but often times the line between self-confidence and arrogance is crossed for whatever reason. Many fans often enable such behavior by siding as “haters” or “super fans” and worshiping/hating everything said by the athlete regardless of how ridiculous or awful it is.
Robles has chosen the high road in his life. Regardless of whether he had won or not he is still a champion. He overcame his handicap with grace and humility and achieved goals that most only dream of. Now that wrestling is over, he plans to be a motivational speaker and I can think of few better to assume that role than him. Robles shows that quality to overcome and embrace his adversity that only a champion knows. Robles did not fall into his ending, he earned it and that is why I ask everyone out there to take notice of this man and realize him for what he is, a champion.
Anthony Robles versus Matt McDonough at the 2011 NCAA Finals:
Pictured: Anthony Robles (via FoxSports.com)