Anthony Robles can do it. Do what? Whatever you might think someone with only one leg can't do. Ride a bike? He learned when he was five, with no more tumbles than you probably had. Run the mile? Technically, Robles "crutches" the distance, but he's done it in as little as eight minutes, which is better than a lot of people with two good legs. Play football? When he was 14 he hopped out to his position at defensive tackle for his junior high team in Mesa, Ariz. Sometimes blockers knocked him over like a bowling pin, but by the end of the season he had dragged down his share of ballcarriers.
If there's something Robles can't do because he doesn't have a right leg, he hasn't come across it yet. As for what he does best, it's obvious every time he puts on his Arizona State wrestling singlet and twists another opponent into a human slipknot. Last season Robles was an All-America in the 125-pound class as a sophomore and finished fourth at the NCAA championships. Most people would call that amazing. Robles calls it an appetizer. This year's NCAAs begin on Thursday in Omaha, and Robles, seeded fourth at 125 with a 28--2 record, will need to win five matches over three days to become a national champion. "I've been thinking about it nonstop since last season ended," he says. "I want the whole thing."
From the waist up, the 5'8" Robles looks every bit the wrestling champ. His chest and back are as wide as the screen at your local cineplex and so thickly muscled that it's no surprise he can bench-press almost three times his weight. His handshake nearly snaps your metacarpals, and he can do so many push-ups and pull-ups that you get tired of counting them before he gets tired of doing them. "And his heart," says former Arizona State coach Thom Ortiz, "I can't even begin to tell you about the size of his heart."
Sometimes sports build character; other times they reveal it. For Robles, wrestling has been a way of showing that he's too strong, in every sense, to be held back just because one leg of his pants hangs empty. "You define yourself by what you can do, not what you can't," he says. Robles does that by immediately dropping to the mat at the start of every match, negating some of his balance disadvantage by forcing his opponent to get low with him. Once there, one of his favorite moves is the ball and chain, in which he grabs an opponent's wrist with one hand, pulls that arm through the man's legs, then grabs the elbow of that arm with his other hand to gain control.
March 21, 2010
Robles had none of that technique when he began wrestling in the ninth grade. His only goal was to avoid being seen as a novelty or an object of pity. "I could tell that some guys were afraid they were going to hurt me," he says. "I hated that." But he laughs when he shares those memories. In fact, he laughs a lot, which balances out all the times he's brought people to tears.
His mother, Judy, cried on the day he was born, his right leg missing all the way up to the hip. An ultrasound had not shown an abnormality, and Judy wept not so much because her baby was imperfect but from the shock. "They did dozens of tests after he was born, but they were never able to find any explanation for it," she says. "It's something that was just meant to be, and now we see it as a blessing." It quickly became clear that the missing limb was not going to limit Anthony's activity. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg when he was three, but he soon figured the time spent putting it on and taking it off could be used for playing, so he tossed it when he was seven and has either used crutches or hopped ever since.
There were more tears when he began wrestling in ninth grade, not so much from Robles but from the spectators who watched him compete. "Grown men would come up to him after matches wiping their eyes, just to shake his hand," says Bob Williams, his Mesa High coach, who has misted up too. Once, when Robles was a sophomore, Williams made each wrestler run laps while holding a 20-pound sandbag after the team's poor performance at a meet. He didn't expect Robles to carry one, but he didn't tell him not to, either. Robles dropped his crutches, picked up the sandbag and hopped a few steps before falling. He got up and hopped a few more times. Another fall. He rose again and again. He fell again and again. But he didn't stop until the rest of the team did. Is it any wonder that one of his nicknames is Braveheart? "I had to turn away," Williams says. "It was hard to watch, but at the same time it was one of the most inspiring things you could imagine."
It will be even more inspirational if Robles wins the national title this weekend—at least it will be to most people. Lately there has been grumbling, mostly the anonymous type floating through cyberspace, that missing one leg gives Robles an advantage. Because he has less weight in his lower body he can have a more muscular torso than his opponents and still stay in the 125-pound class. "There will always be haters," he says. But maybe they've learned something from Robles too: There is no weakness that cannot be turned into a strength.
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For Anthony Robles, wrestling has been a way of showing that he's too strong, in every sense, to be held back because one leg of his pants hangs empty.