Advertisement

Anthony Robles, who was born with only one leg, reaches ASU Sports Hall of Fame

Anthony Robles, former ASU NCAA individual wrestling champion, poses for a portrait at the Riches Wrestling Complex on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Tempe. Robles will be inducted into the ASU Sports Hall of Fame.
Anthony Robles, former ASU NCAA individual wrestling champion, poses for a portrait at the Riches Wrestling Complex on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Tempe. Robles will be inducted into the ASU Sports Hall of Fame.

Anthony Robles made good.

The kid who was born with one leg to a teen mom became the example of what’s possible if you just keep going. He became a champion wrestler at Mesa High, even though he was little more than a ragdoll when his career started. He was lightly recruited, facing criticism that having one leg was somehow an advantage in the sport.

He ended up as the unquestioned star of one of the best programs in the nation, Arizona State University. Then he became a champion again, despite seeing his mom and siblings facing eviction, living off food stamps and struggling through a depression so bad that he wanted to quit the sport.

Now, he’s going into the ASU Sports Hall of Fame. It would be fair to wonder whether the goal was worth the struggle, but for Robles, there’s no question.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m so blessed. I’m honestly living a dream, right now.

“It was one thing going through it at the time, asking myself ‘Is this worth it?’ ‘Is this gonna pay off?’ But now that I’m looking back, I’m like, ‘Man, I would have done that a hundred times over.’”

Robles is part of a hall of fame class that includes Super Bowl champion Terrell Suggs, swimmer Caitlin Andrew, golfer Anna Nordqvist, basketball star Briann January and shot putters Jessica Pressley and Ryan Whiting.

'He's just making the best of it'

He’s already in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He’s already won an ESPY. He might be forgiven if he shut it all down and just rested on his glory days as an athlete who transcended his sport. But that’s not who he is.

“Long ago, I adopted the mindset: I’m happy, but I’m never satisfied,” he said. “Every single day, I can be better than I was yesterday, I can go a little bit further than I did yesterday. That’s something that I’ve always lived by. Always trying to grow. Always trying to improve. I’m just sticking with that.”

But how? His biological dad disappeared shortly after his mom, Judy, became pregnant. She was pressured to give him up for adoption. And everything he did or didn’t do was seen through the lens of a physical limitation that he didn’t choose and had no control over. How did he make it when so many others failed, succumbing to stresses both real and imagined?

His college coach, Thom Ortiz, who has recently revived the wrestling program at Scottsdale Saguaro High School, has some insight.

“The Lord brought him into this world a certain way, and he’s just making the best of it,” Ortiz said. “You can do that, too. Really simple.”

'It's not what is, it's what can be'

Robles credits his mother.

“My mom always taught me never to let my challenges define me, to never let my challenges become an excuse,” he said.

It was tempting. Going into his junior year at ASU, he expected to become a champion. He had finished fourth, making him an All-American, as a sophomore, but he took a step back, finishing sixth at nationals. His mom and siblings had money problems, and there were nights when there wasn’t enough to eat. His stepdad had moved out, landing for a time in Robles’ college apartment. He caught mono. ASU recruited a guy to take his spot. The university temporarily disbanded the wrestling program and didn’t even reward him when he decided to stick it out. And, mostly, he just didn’t want to put himself through the mental and physical grind required to become a champion.

But he kept going.

“I felt like if I gave in, threw in the towel, I would be using it as an excuse to never see what my true potential is,” he said.

ASU wrestler Anthony Robles' rise to NCAA wrestling champion is being made into a film produced by Dwayne Johnson of Seven Bucks Productions.
ASU wrestler Anthony Robles' rise to NCAA wrestling champion is being made into a film produced by Dwayne Johnson of Seven Bucks Productions.

That next season, he finished with a record of 31-0. He blitzed through the NCAA Tournament field and won it all, over a wrestler from a storied program, Iowa, that he had dreamed of competing for as a youngster. And he won the most prestigious ESPY, the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance. “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up,” Jim Valvano, the college basketball coach, had said years earlier while battling cancer.

Robles gave a glimpse of what was next with his acceptance speech. “And now, as I go forward with so much more to do, this is my message: … It’s not what is, it’s what can be that measures worth.”

He became a motivational speaker, traveling the nation to share his secrets and provide the inspiration that he needed so many times along the way. He became the head coach of his alma mater, Mesa High, donating his salary to his assistant coaches. He got married last year, and he’s got a baby boy on the way.

None of it would have been possible, he said, without his mother.

“My mom has always been my hero, my No. 1 source of inspiration when I needed it,” he said. “She believed in me when no one else did. She’s been in my corner all my life. I’m constantly trying to make her proud. Just to show her that the life lessons she’s taught me along the way — the biggest being, don’t let this missing leg ever become an excuse for me … I just want to show her that it wasn’t just something she said and I just forgot about it. It really meant something to me.

"I live my life by that now and it continues off the mat, through my coaching, my speaking, I’m getting ready to become a dad here in December for the first time … I’m reflecting on how my mom raised me, and I want to share those lessons with my son.”

'Forward with so much more to do'

It’s bigger than that. He’s sharing those lessons with the world, one Mesa kid at a time.

“Mesa High has a special place in my heart … Mesa is where I grew up. That’s home. That’s where I got started,” he said.

“That area, there are some kids coming through that are dealing with a similar upbringing that I had. Rough family situations, financially, they’re not in the best position. A lot of them, they could go one way, where it’s not very good. Or they could use wrestling as an outlet to help them stay focused and graduate from high school and potentially go to college or do other things.

“It’s more than just searching for individual and team state titles, it’s about changing these kids’ lives, leaving a positive impact like other people did for me. There’s no place I’d rather be than Mesa High School.”

If it seems unlikely, that’s because it is. His friend, former teammate and coach Brian Stith knows better than anybody. He remembers the first time they met, at a recruiting dinner. The kid who grew up to become a heavily sought-after motivational speaker barely spoke that night.

“There’s a lot of things that will just throw you off with Anthony,” Stith said, laughing. “He’s a motivational speaker?! That guy I met the first day?! I would have told you, ‘No way. He doesn’t talk. He’s not loud enough.’ Now he stands up in front of thousands of people, and he does his thing, sends a very good message every time he presents.”

Anthony Robles made good, and if history provides a glimpse into the future. He’s still going, “forward, with so much more to do.”

Arizona State Hall of Fame and Hall of Distinction

Arizona State will celebrate the careers of nine Sun Devils athletics standouts in the university's first induction ceremony since 2019.

When: Saturday, at halftime of the ASU-Washington football game

Where: Sun Devil Stadium

2022 Hall of Fame class: Caitlin Andrew, women's swimming; Briann January, women's basketball; Anna Nordqvist, women's golf; Jessica Pressley*, women's track and field; Anthony Robles*, wrestling; Terrell Suggs, football; Ryan Whiting*, men's track and field

* — NCAA individual champion

2022 Hall of Distinction class: Don Bocchi, assistant football coach and senior associate athletic director; Charli Turner Thorne, head women's basketball coach

Reach Moore at gmoore@azcentral.com or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SayingMoore.

There's plenty Moore where this came from. Subscribe for videos, columns, opinions and analysis from The Arizona Republic’s award-winning sports team. 

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Anthony Robles shares how he became a champion despite missing leg