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What my sport taught me: ESPY Award winner and wrestling champion Anthony Robles

I never felt like I belonged. I always kind of felt like an outsider and was trying to find my purpose, to fit in some way. And with wrestling, I didn’t really need to fit in. Wrestlers, they all have their unique styles. And being out there one-on-one with your opponent, that’s what I loved about it.

I was blessed to have a great high school career, but when I got to Arizona State, I remember it felt like I was starting all over again. I actually got pinned in the practice wrestle-offs and that was very humbling. As time went on, and as I’d lose and get frustrated, I started to learn really what I was made of on the inside.

Anthony Robles, who was born with only one leg, became a national champion for Arizona State in 2011. Credit: NCAA Photos

Coach Shawn Charles wasn’t afraid to put my weaknesses right on the table, right in my face and say, ‘This is why you’re going to lose. This is what could hold you back from reaching a national title, so what do you want to do about it?’

My dream was always to be a national champion. And the whole thing felt like a dream.

The morning of the NCAA finals, I remember weighing in. I remember being so scared the whole day. I couldn’t eat anything, and I remember thinking I’ve trained my whole career for this opportunity tonight. I have one chance to wrestle for seven minutes, and I can either make or break my dream.

When I ran out on that red carpet, seeing the cameras flashing and hearing the roar of the crowd when I stepped on the mat, I still had that fear in me. Honestly, I felt at that moment like I was about to lose. 

But I looked up in the Arizona State section and saw my mom and my siblings up there. That was extremely special to me because we have gone through some hard times as a family. I just remember thinking, ‘I’m going win it for the family tonight.’ That’s what helped the fear to disappear in my mind.

It felt like the longest match of my career. And strangely, I remember having enough time to enjoy it. That was the most fun I’ve had in a match. With 10 seconds left, I could hear the ref starting to count down and the crowd starting to get loud. They got down to zero, I dropped my head, and I heard him say, ‘You’re a national champion.’

Seeing the crowd stand up and give me a standing ovation, that’s something I think about pretty much on a daily basis. The only way I can describe it, I felt like I was taking a breath for the first time.

Every year now, I’m amped for the finals. As a commentator, we’re right there mat-side. And every time, when they’re about to start the finals and they sing the national anthem, I always get emotional. My eyes always water up with tears, my heart starts racing. Every time, it’s like I’m reliving my dream for a few seconds there. And that’s hard because as soon as that’s done, that’s when we go live on ESPN, so I’ve got to settle down a little bit.

I love the sport; it’s clearly changed my life. It’s given me my career and my confidence, and all those special people — my teammates that are still in my life, and my coaches. And now as a motivational speaker, that’s my way of giving back. Because I couldn’t have reached my goals without special people in my life who helped me get motivated.

Two-time ESPY Award winner Anthony Robles shares his inspirational story as a motivational speaker and his wrestling insight as an analyst for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network. Despite being born with only one leg, Robles reached the pinnacle of college wrestling and became a national champion for Arizona State in 2011.