The future NCAA-champion wrestler entered the world in the same manner as every other human before him. Only the moment of euphoria quickly turned to fear as newborn Anthony Robles was rushed away by doctors before his mother, Judy, could ever hold him. Doctors returned later to tell his mother that her son was inexplicably born without his right leg, but that he was otherwise healthy.
Both mother and son waited years for an explanation of exactly what happened to his leg. In truth, the answer was of no consequence. Anthony never wavered in self-confidence, as Judy recalls, nonchalantly telling curious strangers that he was just born that way.
Still, Robles received unsolicited stares from many people he encountered, which cemented the idea that Robles was different from his peers. Judy instructed her son to “Never allow your challenges to become your excuse,” which served as a guiding edict for Anthony as he began his wrestling odyssey at the age of 14.
Anthony’s cousin took him to his first wrestling practice without his mother’s knowledge. He returned home beaming, but Judy saw her son’s mangled face and tried to discourage him from the sport. But Anthony had found his passion, and he eventually persuaded her.
Robles cleared off his bookshelf to make room for the trophies he planned on winning, but the losses piled up in his first season wrestling at Mesa High School in Arizona. After a demoralizing showing at the city tournament, Robles stared at the vacant shelf and resolved to “be unstoppable” and become Arizona’s best wrestler.
The task proved easier said than done for Robles who needed to overcome his massive disadvantage. His coach paired him with the team’s top wrestler to toughen him since he would always be smaller than his opposition. Robles’s weight hovered around 90 pounds, meaning he was roughly ten pounds lighter than anyone else in his 103-pound weight class.
The grueling practices and workouts eventually paid off for Robles, who posted an undefeated record in his junior and senior years. He won two state titles and a national title in his senior year, accolades worthy of a Division I scholarship. There was still the matter of the missing leg, however. Robles was spurned by his top choices — Iowa, Oklahoma State and Columbia — which forced him to walk on at Arizona State in his home town.
With the assistance of the football conditioning coaches — Robles owns the ASU record with 100 pull-ups in two minutes — Robles earned the top spot in his weight class and a scholarship to begin his sophomore season. A bout of mononucleosis at the end of the season forced him to the sidelines for three weeks. The window of opportunity, Robles feared, was slamming shut.
The illness wasn’t the only turmoil in Robles’s sophomore season. While rehabilitating, Robles’s stepfather abandoned the family and left Judy alone to care for her other children. Judy didn’t have a job and sold her blood on a weekly basis to make ends meet. Anthony insisted on withdrawing from school and coming home to support his mother, but she would not allow it.
“You need to stay where you’re at,” Judy told him.”The best thing you can do is work your hardest and get your degree. … That’s what you can do for me.” His mother’s intervention kept him at ASU.
Still, Robles struggled both physically and emotionally returning to the team. He’d lost eight pounds of muscle and his mind was still on his mother’s situation at home. After one grueling practice, Robles was at what he called a “crossroad”, moments away from walking out the door and quitting.
“You’re not what I thought you were. This team doesn’t need you,” coach Thom Ortiz said. “If you want to quit, there’s the door.” After Ortiz followed him into the locker room, where Robles had packed up to leave, he reconsidered. Ortiz challenged him to rediscover his confidence, and Robles answered the bell, placing fourth at the NCAAs that year.
“Never quit on your dreams,” Robles told the audience when reflecting on that tumultuous sophomore season.
The nine year trek to the mountaintop became a reality 0n March 20, 2011 in Philadelphia. Robles advanced to the finals, where he squared off with Matt McDonough of Iowa — the same school Robles had at the top of his list in high school.
“I trained for nine years for this one match,” Robles recalls thinking to himself before the match. “I didn’t come here to win second … I want that ring.”
No wrestler was standing between Robles and the title that night. He defeated McDonough 7-1 in front of his mother, three brothers and sister. The empty bookshelf from high school finally had it’s crown jewel.
The beauty of sports comes when the sporting event itself weaves itself into the fabric of the human experience, which Robles’s inspiring tale and unstoppable mantra accomplish. “I know you’re chasing quite a few things,” Robles remarked. “You’ve got to tell yourself that ‘I’m unstoppable’ every single day to get to your point, to climb to your mountaintop.”
“Once you get there, that view is amazing.”