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By Jason Bryant
Wrestling is blessed in a way. We see great performances and once-in-a-lifetime moments. Or at least, they seem to be once in a lifetime.
So many times in sports, we hear of “once-in-a-lifetime” feats and accomplishments. Nine years ago, current Penn State head wrestling coach Cael Sanderson provided a true “once-in-a-lifetime” moment, finishing his career at Iowa State becoming the first undefeated four-time NCAA Division I champion.
The phrase is often overused. Then 1972 Miami Dolphins were once in a lifetime. The New York Giants proved it by defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII back in 2008. Cael Sanderson was once in a lifetime.
Anthony Robles now fits the category of once in a lifetime.
With a sellout crowd and live ESPN broadcast, wrestling provided its fans with a monumental moment in sport — not just a monumental moment in wrestling.
Some people might have been turned off by the media exposure a singular wrestler received amidst the other 329 athletes who qualified for the 2011 NCAA Division I Championships in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
Get over it.
Within wrestling, Robles is a well-known entity. Born without a right leg, Robles popped up on wrestling’s radar after he won the NHSCA Senior Nationals as a senior for Mesa High School in Mesa, Ariz. He signed with Arizona State, redshirted and burst onto the scene as a freshman.
Robles’ signature tilts made him a feared opponent during his collegiate career. Sure, he took his share of losses, including a Round of 12 defeat to Stanford’s Tanner Gardner as a freshman — one that drew a standing ovation from the crowd at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis back in 2008.
But there is something special about Robles and everyone knows it. It’s not the fact he turned what many termed as a disability into a wrestling style that became not only tough to wrestle, but tough to figure out.
While some feel wrestling Robles at least once helps for preparation, that’s all it helps with. No disrespect to Minnesota three-time All-American Zach Sanders, but wrestling Robles numerous times didn’t help him figure it out a way to beat him. Sanders defeated Robles a few years back at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational — the next two meetings would go Robles way. One came in the NCAA Championships in 2009 and the other in this season’s NWCA All-Star Classic.
Just because you get your hands on someone like Robles doesn’t make them easy to figure out.
Having only been around the sport of wrestling for 15 years, it’s hard to call anyone other than Sanderson “once in a lifetime.”
Robles makes it a list of two.
No wrestler in the past decade and a half has captured my attention and admiration like Robles has. Every interview, every conversation, every text message, Robles has been as good of a kid as I’ve ever encountered.
After the finals, I got up from the press table to congratulate a wrestler. It’s something I rarely do while on the clock. As a member of the working media, we’re not supposed to have favorites. We don’t openly root for wrestlers, no matter where our alliances and allegiances stand.
Shortly after Robles concluded his interview with ESPN, I walked through the back tunnel where Robles stood with his mother. A small congregation of tournament volunteers and even officials walked up to Robles, shook his hand and posed for pictures.
I only had one thing to say to Robles, even though I’m sure I could have made it an hour-long conversation.
“I just want to say it has been an absolute pleasure to watch you wrestle for the last four years, congratulations, you deserve it.”
With a big grin, Robles thanked me like he did the thousands of others whom he came across following his win over Iowa’s Matt McDonough. This kid is a case study in class and humility. He deserves every feature and interview that can be written about him.
Sure, I would have liked to see the media focus on things along with Robles, too. There were a number of great human-interest stories within the tournament. Penn State’s run towards its first title since 1953, the David Taylor-Bubba Jenkins scenario, Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore trying to win his school’s first individual championship. They all could have been headlines for ESPN, USA Today or the throngs of media in Philadelphia.
But Robles’ story captures the imagination. It captures the spirit of what wrestling is all about. This is one of the few, if not the only, where an athlete with Robles’ limitation (speaking in sports terms) could not only compete, but excel to the highest levels.
So much credit outside of wrestling is given to great athletes, rising past adversity and beating challenges before them. Robles wasn’t competing in Paralympic-level events, he was competing on college wrestling’s highest stage.
Robles’ story isn’t just inspirational to kids and athletes with alleged “disabilities,” it’s inspirational to everyone. I’m inspired just thinking about how he created his own unique and dominating style.
Robles personifies what wrestling is about: all shapes, all sizes, all races, colors, creeds, and all physical “disabilities.”
Everyone can wrestle. Just ask Matt Hamill, the deaf UFC fighter who won three Division III championships at RIT. Same with Nick Ackerman who won a Division III title at Simpson.
Craig Sesker of USA Wrestling asked me before the tournament who would win in a sprint, me or Robles on his crutches.
“Robles,” I said, without batting an eye.
Fifty years from now, people might scan through brackets and remember Kyle Dake winning his second championship or Jenkins’ dramatic fall over his former teammate and former coach or they might not.
They’ll remember Robles. He was truly a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, not just in wrestling, but in the history of all sports.
(This article appeared in the April 5, 2011 issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. To subscribe to WIN, either click the “Subscribe to WIN” button on this website or call our office at 1-888-305-0606.)