Just one month ago, Anthony Robles made his debut on ESPN as an analyst for the NCAA wrestling championships. And at the age of 23, he has already won a national wrestling championship and an ESPY. From the mat to the big screen, Robles is taking on challenges and conquering them one by one.
What was your initial impression of "On the Mat?"
"They did a great job of capturing the hard work and dedication it takes to excel in wrestling. It was a great film and this is exactly what the sport needs. More people need to be aware of wrestling and how it builds not just boys, but girls, into men and women. There are plenty of female wrestlers out there now. Our sport doesn't get a ton of attention but it definitely builds strong men and women. Documentaries like this really help that effort."
How do the experiences of the wrestlers in "On the Mat" compare to your experience with wrestling in high school?
"I can definitely relate. What really stuck out to me was watching them cut weight. Seeing those high school kids go through that brought back memories. In high school I really had to suffer my junior year by cutting down. It's a discipline and not a lot of people understand what it takes to monitor your weight like that. Every single ounce of it!
"I noticed they interviewed different wrestlers on the team and they were all unique. They all had different styles and personalities but they came together as a team. Once the state championships came around they kept saying, 'I've got to do this for the team.' It's interesting because wrestling is definitely an individual sport but at the same time you're bonding with your teammates and you're wrestling for them. So it's a team effort."
What are the best methods for cutting weight?
"Discipline is the best method. A lot of high school wrestlers just stop eating. They'll go days without drinking or eating anything and that's not the way to do it. We call it crash cutting. For me, it was about eating smaller portions. I had to monitor myself and I always knew how much weight I had to lose. On average, in a week you can cut 10-15 pounds."
How much of a toll does cutting weight have on your body?
"It takes a huge toll on your body. For a wrestling match you weigh in an hour beforehand and if you cut 10-15 pounds that week and you only have an hour to eat, fully digest your food and then compete, it can really mess you up. A lot of guys will start cramping and pull muscles, or even suffer serious injuries. Wrestling is a long, grueling season and it takes a toll mentally and physically. It can even be hard to concentrate in class because your stomach is growling. But it all comes with the sport. If you want to be a wrestler you have to be willing to cut the weight."
How did you get into wrestling?
"I got into wrestling by the encouragement of an older cousin. When I was 14, I moved from California to Arizona. I still wasn't big into wrestling but my older cousin would take me to his wrestling practices just to watch so I picked it up and I started to love it. When I stepped out onto the mat for the first time I wasn't very good and I got my butt kicked, but wrestling gave me an indescribable feeling. I knew it was where I needed to be and nothing made me happier than stepping on a wrestling mat."
What makes wrestling different from other high school sports?
"We don't get the glory or attention like football and basketball. There's no big contract waiting for you on the other end, even if you're an Olympian. You don't get those multimillion-dollar contracts so wrestling is all about going out there and doing your best."
In the film, Steven failed to cut weight in time for a match. Did you ever experience something like that in your wrestling career?
"Instead of having to cut weight I was actually asked to bump up two weight classes to compete. That's another unique thing that our sport brings to the table. When I watched Steven miss cutting weight like that it made me mad. That's unforgiveable in our sport. It was really cool of his teammate to put himself out there and step up to cut weight since Steven couldn't."
Is wrestling more of a mental sport or physical sport?
"It's 90 percent mental. Having mental toughness going through workouts, cutting weight and then having to compete out there all alone -- you've got to be mentally prepared. I've seen a lot of wrestlers who were big, strong and fast and they lose to some guy that's little and unheard of. It's about who is gonna go down swinging. Nothing has made me mentally tougher than wrestling."
How did other wrestlers react when they noticed you had one leg?
"I think some guys thought I was made of glass. They didn't want to hurt me. When I started winning matches after my freshman year there was a target on my back. Then the goal became: 'We gotta take this guy out.' It was fine with me and I enjoyed the pressure. In the end, it switched from people not knowing what to expect from me to respecting me. I gained their respect not as a one-legged wrestler, but as a wrestler and as a competitor."
Did you feel like you had something to prove as a handicap wrestler?
"I did have something to prove especially coming out of high school because I was 96-0 my last year of high school. I was a national champion and two-time state champion in high school. With that record you would think that I would have been highly recruited but I wasn't. I got one Division I offer from a wrestling school. No one else even called me. I felt my record and hard work was overlooked because I had one leg. Coming into college I had a lot to prove to myself so I wanted to destroy everyone in my weight class. I wanted to make those coaches regret not recruiting me."
What motivates and inspires you to keep getting back on the mat?
"My love for the sport. Wrestling is so pure. You and one other guy. Whichever player is better will come out on top. You don't have to worry about a bad call or the defense not doing their job -- it's just about who shows up that day and performs to the best of their ability. The other thing that inspires me is the attention I received from kids and adults who told me that my story inspired them because I overcame having one leg. In my mind I wasn't just wrestling for a medal or a title, I was wrestling for those who were looking to me for inspiration."
When you speak to young athletes, what is the most frequent question you get asked?
"I always get asked what kept me going through the hard times. It took me nine years to win a national title. But during the hard times I wrote down my goals. In high school I wrote down 'state champion' on a sticky note. I still have that notepad in my trophy case. In college, I wrote down 'national champion.' I posted it in my locker so I would see it every day I went to practice. It helped me hold myself accountable. Write down whatever you want to accomplish. Make sure it's eye level and that you're doing a little bit every day to work towards your goals."
What's your most memorable moment?
"Winning the national championship in college. I remember the clock winding down, I'm up 7-1, the crowd was screaming and then they announced me as the new national champion. For those few seconds I felt joy and a huge sense of relief. Nine years of work finally paid off and it was all worth it."
That's great. What about the ESPYs? How did it feel to win the award and attend the show?
"The ESPYs was a huge honor especially getting the Jimmy V Award. I saw the Dallas Mavericks, Green Bay Packers and Adrian Peterson. It was an honor being among celebrities. Being able to rub elbows with athletes and enjoy it with my family was priceless. I got to meet Serena Williams after my ESPY speech and I have a huge crush on her so that was cool."