By Alaa Abeldaiem
“This is it.”
As the final seconds of the 2011 NCAA 125-pound national title match ticked away, those were the words that ran through then-Arizona State wrestler Anthony Robles’ head. For years, he had dreamed of winning a title, and with a 7-1 lead against Iowa’s defending champion Matt McDonough, Robles couldn’t help but smile, hearing the crowd erupt as the match came to an end.
That was it. Anthony Robles was a national champion.
“You talk about a ‘we made it’ moment, and winning that title was the biggest one I ever could have imagined,” Robles said. “That was the moment I’ve been training for and it finally came true.”
Not everything in Robles’ life came as easily as that match did four years ago. Born without a right leg, Robles struggled at first, both physically and emotionally.
He was a mere 90 pounds when he first started wrestling as a freshman in high school, finishing with a 5-8 record and in last place at the Mesa City wrestling tournament.
“I was awful,” Robles said. “I was so much smaller than everybody else, and I just got pinned every time I went up against the bigger guys.”
School wasn’t any easier. With only one leg, Robles noticed how much he stood out from those around him, a fact he wasn’t comfortable with at first.
“The first day of school for me was always the hardest,” Robles said. “I was the one getting a lot of the attention because kids would stare at me. It was uncomfortable growing up, and when people would ask me what happened, I would just say I was born that way and that was it.”
People’s low expectations and doubts never stopped him, however. Robles had loved sports ever since he was a kid, and his family’s support helped him see past those who didn’t believe he was capable of achieving his dreams.
“My family never raised me to see that missing a leg was something that was going to hold me back,” Robles said. “I knew that living with one leg was going to be a challenge, but they never tried to limit me in trying new things. They were always there to support me and encourage me as I figured things out. I knew, too, that I could be great at wrestling, but I just needed to figure out how. It was a puzzle. I just had to find something new to try and knew that eventually it would work out.”
And it did.
Robles went from being last in the city to finishing his final two years in high school with a 96-0 record, earning himself two Arizona state titles and one high school national championship.
Despite his significant improvement, however, not many college wrestling programs reached out to the young wrestler; Arizona State being one of the few that did. Robles would go on to reach the national tournament twice before actually earning the title, finishing fourth and seventh prior to his senior year.
His loss in the 2010 quarterfinals came as a particular disappointment.
“(Losing in the quarterfinals) was a heartbreaker for me,” Robles said. “I felt like I had just been working for so many years for no reason. At that point, I thought I was done. I felt like I didn’t have what it took to come back.”
But Robles knew he wasn’t done; quitting was never in his nature.
The two-time All-American returned to the mat the very next year, finishing his senior year with a perfect 36-0 record, earning another All-American distinction and winning that national title.
Just five months after being named a champion, Robles was awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPYs, a moment the wrestler says he’ll never forget.
“I remember being backstage before I went on to give my acceptance speech for the award and I was sweating like crazy, so nervous that I was going to forget my words. Jay Leno was standing next to me and he looked at me and said ‘Is this harder than when you won your national title?’ And I kind of looked at him and said no. He told me ‘So just remember that when you get on there. You already put in the work, this is just the fun part, so just enjoy it,” Robles said. “I don’t think I was deserving of the award, but I just felt so honored and grateful for that opportunity. I just hope I’m living up to what that award stands for and what he stood for.”
Being conscious of how he acts in public is something Robles has stressed in his daily life since he made headlines. Knowing that young athletes look up to him as an inspiration, Robles hopes that his actions can be representative of what a good role model should be.
“I remember getting letters from third graders one time and realizing that there was a bigger purpose behind what I did. Before then, I felt like I was wrestling for myself, but that changed when I saw that people were looking up to me,” Robles said. “Unfortunately today, not a lot of positive role models get the spotlight. I take what I do and how I act very seriously because I know that there are younger individuals out there looking up to me, and I don’t want to let them down.”
With his wrestling days behind, Robles has made it his personal effort to reach out and connect with young audiences to share his journey. Visits to middle schools, high schools, professional sports teams, hospitals, companies and wrestling camps across the nation have helped Robles share the theme and title of his book, “Unstoppable.”
“For me, being unstoppable means you grind through no matter what. You’re human; you’re not indestructible. You’re going to break sometimes. But no one should ever think ‘impossible’ is an answer,” Robles said. “I see motivational speaking at these venues as a way of paying honor to those who helped me reach my dream, and I just hope that in some way I can help the next underdog who’s trying to fight through whatever he or she is going through on their ride.”
Robles aims to start his very own wrestling camp next year, using his story to motivate others even further, and wherever his journey takes him next, Robles hopes to never stop advising future champions.
Champions, like himself.
“I’m always going to tell people that, no matter what you dream of achieving in your life, don’t let anything stop you,” Robles said. “It’s going to get hard. You’re going to fail at times. But that’s what makes champions: whether you say ‘I quit’ or whether you pick yourself back up again and push forward. We’ve all been there. Keep your eyes on the prize.”