8:50 p.m. PST February 17, 2016
Anthony Robles came to McNary High School with a message for the students: Be unstoppable.
Hundreds of students from the Salem-Keizer School District high schools gathered on Wednesday in the school’s gymnasium to hear from Robles, a Nike athlete and motivational speaker.
Robles was born with only one leg, but from eighth grade on, he had the dream of becoming a national champion in wrestling.
With the support of his family and coaches, he became the 2010-2011 NCAA individual wrestling champion in the 125-pound weight class.
Robles told his story to the students Wednesday, getting the crowd to laugh and cheer throughout his speech.
His speech was titled, “Unstoppable: From Underdog to Undefeated: How I became a champion,” the same name as his recent book.
Robles said he was self conscious about his leg growing up, as peers made fun of him. But his mother always told him he was going to do something great.
When he joined in at a wrestling practice in eighth grade, he said he knew he had figured out what that “something great” was.
But wrestling didn’t come easily to him right off the bat, Robles said.
Robles had a record of 5-8 as a freshman in high school and ranked last in the city of Mesa, Arizona.
He wrote down his dreams to hold himself accountable and push himself to do better.
He was inspired by a teammate and trained harder each year, he said. He was not willing to give up on his dream.
By the time he was a senior in high school, he’d won a couple state championships and took nationals his senior year, finishing his high school wrestling career with a record of 129-15. He was also an honor student.
He said he thought the calls would start coming in from colleges eager to give him an athletic scholarship.
He sat by the phone, but there were no calls, no emails.
“I figured they didn’t know how to contact me,” he said, laughing.
So he started calling schools, asking about their programs and his future with them.
But they all gave him the same answer: He had done well in high school, but this was Division I athletics, and due to his leg, they weren’t willing to take a risk on him.
This was upsetting to Robles, but he didn’t let it discourage him from his dream of becoming a national champion.
“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you have to build your own door,” he said.
He attended Arizona State University on an academic scholarship and began training for a national tournament.
Soon, he said he noticed his body slowing down. He was diagnosed with a bad case of mono and was not allowed to practice for weeks.
Robles said he also went through a large transition with his family as his stepfather had left the family without telling them why and his mother was having a hard time paying the bills, keeping the house and taking care of his siblings.
But she wouldn’t let him return home; she wouldn’t let him give up on his dream.
Robles went back to practice when he was well and he said he struggled at first to get back in the right state of mind, his thoughts occupied by the struggles his family was going through.
He said he broke down crying in front of his team and coach one day when he wasn’t doing well in practice.
Robles said his coach told him, “Whether or not you like it, there will always be obstacles in your way. All you can do is respond.”
His coach asked him, “Are you going to break down or grind through?”
He beat the next person he wrestled by nine points.
“This was my big challenge,” he said. “This was my obstacle.”
His senior year, he stepped onto the mat at the national championship, looking up at the thousands of fans. His family and high school coach were sitting in one section.
He said he remembers thinking, “I’m going to win it for them.”
He was up 7-1 and said the only way his opponent could win was by throwing him on his back. Robles kept his arms in so the opponent couldn’t get under him and flip him.
He said he was smiling as the other wrestler was choking him and hitting his teeth and chin; he knew in 10 seconds he was fit to be a national champion.
Robles ended his speech on Wednesday by reciting the poem “Unstoppable” written by Dan Clark for Robles, which ends with the line, “I don’t care what’s probable; Through blood, sweat and tears, I am Unstoppable!”
The students and staff in the gymnasium gave Robles a standing ovation.
Robles answered questions and signed a few students’ personal items when they asked and came up to the stage.
One student asked what it felt like to accomplish his dream.
Robles responded, “It felt like I could take a breath for the first time.”