The first match of the last tournament of Anthony Robles's wrestling career began with his dropping to the mat in a tripod—two hands and a knee. There was no other limb to use; Robles had been born without a right leg, and now the bottom of his maroon-and-gold Arizona State University singlet hung shriveled and slack on that side. His opponent in the 125-pound weight class, a Virginia sophomore named Matt Snyder, loomed over him, twice his height, even in a wrestler's crouch.
It was March 2011, and Robles was in Philadelphia for the NCAA Division I championships, college wrestling's preeminent tournament. As a sophomore, he had finished an auspicious fourth; the next year, he had slipped to seventh. Now, as a senior, he was the top seed—a first for a one-legged wrestler. His remarkable achievement had drawn a throng of reporters to the pre-tournament press conference, where, to widespread bewilderment, Robles had announced that he would retire from wrestling at the end of the championships. He would not compete internationally. He would not try out for the London Olympics. He would become a motivational speaker, he had told the baffled reporters and fans before him, and turn his back on wrestling at the moment he had come to dominate it.
Snyder circled. Robles pawed his opponent's head, then shot forward, viperlike, at Snyder's legs. There was no time to sprawl away. In an instant, Robles took Snyder down and began shifting side to side, looking for an opportunity to lever him onto his back. Seconds later, he found it. Securing Snyder's hands and hips, Robles rolled across his own back, creating such torque that Snyder was forced to give up his position or risk serious injury. Snyder yielded, and Robles flipped him.
The crowd erupted as Robles held his man inverted, watching the referee count off points. Robles let Snyder right himself, then turned him again. And again and again and again. In the second period, with the score 17-1, the ref waved off the match—a technical fall, like a TKO in boxing, saving the loser needless pain and humiliation.
"He just completely dominated me," Snyder said later. "I was like, 'This isn't fair.'"
Something amazing would unfold over the next few days: A one-legged man would climb to the pinnacle of a sport that selects for such anatomical homogeneity that competitors of different weight classes frequently look like Russian nesting dolls of one another. What Robles accomplished that weekend in Philadelphia was unprecedented in his sport, perhaps in any sport. But what he planned to do afterward left everyone just as dumbstruck. Why was he walking away?
The first time I met Anthony Robles—and nearly every time after—he was intercepted by a fan. We had arranged an interview at a Sheraton in St. Louis, where he was in town to provide color commentary for ESPN during the 2012 Division I championships. Robles loped into the hotel lobby on a pair of aluminum crutches—powerfully built with a handsome, gap-toothed grin that faintly recalled a young Mike Tyson.
I turned to greet him, and as I did an enormous man stepped between us. Four-time Super Bowl champion linebacker Matt Millen wanted to introduce himself to Robles and, not surprisingly, I couldn't get around him. Fifteen minutes passed. At last, Robles looked over to his agent, Gary Lewis, who maneuvered me between his client and Millen. Each man, the wrestler and the linebacker, extended a beefy hand in my direction.
It was a daunting decision. Wrestlers are known for their prodigious hand strength. Oklahoma alumnus Danny Hodge can still crush an apple in one hand at the age of 80. But Robles's grip is fearsome even by wrestling standards. Opponents have rarely been able to pry it off with one hand, and only sometimes with two. Many have ended up surrendering to his hold and have focused instead on limiting the damage he could do with it. "I couldn't even think of breaking his lock," one candid victim told me.
I opted for the evil I didn't know and tentatively placed my hand in Millen's massive paw. He squeezed it, hard, and when he finally returned it to me intact, I felt as if I had gotten away with something splendid and improbable, like a deer bolting free of an anaconda's coil. Then I turned to Robles, whose handshake turned out to be restrained, even gentle. I wondered at this as we ducked into the hotel's sticky-floored lounge, which was not due to open for several hours, and where I imagined his fans wouldn't find us.
Twenty minutes later, a middle-aged man with a Negro League baseball jersey peered into the darkened banquette where I was interviewing Robles. He was missing a number of teeth, and he looked like he hadn't been eating well. "Man! Man!" he cried out when he discovered the person he had come looking for, and fell sobbing into Robles's arms. "You're a good brother! You're a good brother!" the man said, over and over again. Robles held him, and they talked for what seemed like a long time.
After the man left, blubbering an apology for interrupting, I asked Robles if he knew who he was. Robles said no. I asked if that kind of thing had happened before. Robles looked at me evenly. "It happens a lot," he said.
Later that day, while Robles, Lewis and I were walking the concession-stand loop of the stadium, a staffer stopped Lewis to ask if he needed a wheelchair for—pointing at Robles, on his crutches—"that one." Robles demurred so generously that the staffer smiled with the satisfaction of someone who has just discharged an important civic duty.
Wrestling has barely changed since it was practiced in ancient Babylon, and one of the axiomatic truths of the sport is (or was) that success depends on a pair of strong, flexible legs. From my own high school experience, I learned that a wrestler can compensate for minor physical idiosyncrasies—a torso that is too long, say, or arms that don't straighten all the way. But to excel at the Division I level, you need legs like a Clydesdale's.
Yet Robles, in his senior year at ASU, carved through the opposition like Sherman through Georgia. He was so good, in fact, that a contingent of wrestling fans declared his missing leg to be an unfair advantage. Most wrestlers outside the Corn Belt train and compete in near obscurity, but like a gambler who wins too much at the blackjack table, Robles had become too dominant not to be an object of scrutiny and suspicion.
He can carry more muscle in his torso, the brief against him went. He can get so low you can't shoot under him. And the ultimate reversal: It's unfair that he has just one leg for opponents to attack.
Did Robles win in spite of his one-leggedness, or because of it? It's an ungracious question, but it deserves consideration.
For some differently shaped athletes, the matter is testable. When Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee sprinter now accused of murdering his girlfriend, moved from Paralympic competition to able-bodied races, he underwent intensive biomechanical evaluation to determine whether his artificial legs were inherently faster than flesh-and-blood ones. Treadmills and stopwatches found no advantage, and he was cleared to compete. In his case, the question of fairness was simply a question of physics.
Wrestling is more complex. Where the outcome of a sprint is dictated by a single variable—speed—wrestling matches turn on an interaction of factors, including flexibility, timing, strength, endurance, and countless others.
Robles was at a marked disadvantage on one of the most influential of these dimensions. His balance is awful when he stands without support. A stiff shove sends him toppling like a tower of blocks, hence his dropping into a tripod whenever possible during a match. But wrestling demands a certain amount of time upright. When an opponent stood from the bottom position, Robles had to stand, too, to prevent his man from escaping. This left him in the precarious situation of simultaneously leaning on his opponent for support and trying to lift and hurl him back to the mat. When the roles were reversed and Robles began on bottom, it was difficult for him to stand with his opponent clinging to his back. Similarly, the need to keep one leg under him compromised his ability to trip opponents, a common takedown finish.
Strength also figures importantly in a wrestler's likelihood of winning, and is largely a function of his weight. For an ordinary person, one leg takes up about 16 percent of his total body weight, which would give Robles the frame of someone weighing 150 pounds. In fact, he is even stronger than the math would predict, able to bench press more than 300 pounds and knock out 100 pull-ups in two minutes. A lifetime on crutches has given him tremendous grip strength, which he used in the neutral, or both-men-standing, position to tie up opponents' hands and wrists, preventing them from initiating an attack. Down on the mat, his grip helped him jerk their arms from under them, secure their wrists fast, and wrench them onto their backs. On the occasions that he found himself in the bottom position, he broke the top man's hold and smartly shucked him off.
At 5-foot-8, Robles is also one to three inches taller than most 125-pounders. This gave him a reach advantage and allowed him to create of himself an extended lever arm for "tilts," high-scoring moves that use concentrated torque to briefly expose an opponent's back to the mat.
But perhaps the greatest tactical advantage of Robles's having just one leg was that he had just one leg. This meant, yes, only one leg to defend against attack, but more importantly it meant a profound change in the way other wrestlers related to his body, and consequently the way they experienced the unfolding of a match. They became discombobulated, groping for a part of him that wasn't there. Strangely, they were the ones knocked off balance.
The day Robles entered the world, doctors whisked him from the delivery room, to spare his mother, 16 years old and single, the shock of seeing her one-legged child. He was what's known as a congenital amputee, and the cause of his condition remains unknown. When the doctors finally returned him to his mother, she looked her boy over carefully and predicted that the smooth declivity where his right leg should have been marked the end of her freedom forever.
Three years later, another doctor thought Robles would walk better with a prosthesis and fitted him with a heavy artificial leg. The boy promptly took it off when he got home and hid it behind a piece of furniture. At five, he shinnied 50 feet up a pole outside his house.
But if Robles was willful and assured by nature, a childhood of being stared at and taunted eventually saddled him with terrible self-consciousness. "I wanted to fit in so badly," he later said of his elementary and junior high school years. "For a while I tried to hide … to be camouflaged." But the bullies were not put off, and Robles gave up trying to disguise his differences.
And then a new idea began to crystallize along the margins of his awareness. What if, instead of trying to conceal his deformity, Robles were to put it on display? Perhaps by making himself as visible and vulnerable as possible, he could face—and even one day move past—the shame he felt about his body.
So in the ninth grade, about a decade later than most eventual champions, Robles pulled on a singlet and competed in his first wrestling match. He got off to a dismal start. Many of his early outings ended with Robles getting pinned to the jeers of hostile crowds. Worse still were the patronizing, after-match kudos for trying in spite of the obvious. At the end of his first season, Robles was last in the city of Mesa, Arizona, an area not known for great wrestling.
Watching Robles rule the NCAA championships eight years later, many believed that he had always been on an inexorable path to glory. He seemed simply too good for it ever to have been otherwise. The problem with this logic, however, is that it only works in hindsight. In the ninth grade, Robles was a miserable wrestler. Virtually nothing about him portended a champion. He was not born into a wrestling dynasty or raised in one of the handful of states where the sport still rivals football in popularity. He was 10 pounds underweight, even in the lightest weight class. He finished half his matches on his back.
What Robles did accomplish in that first season was largely psychological. Standing nearly naked in front of his peers started him, as he had hoped it would, on a long march back to feeling comfortable with his body and his identity, a feeling he had not known since he was a toddler. "Wrestling helped me come out of my shell," Robles has said. "It forced me to say, 'This is who I am.'" If it seems paradoxical that this metamorphosis began with Robles's being repeatedly trounced by his opponents, it may have been that he was learning to substitute the punishments they dispensed for the ones a self-reproving teenager inflicts on himself. Life is full of abuses, Robles knew, even at 14—the trick is to find the ones that offer the promise of redress.
After his first year of wrestling, nobody thought Robles stood a chance against most two-legged opponents, except Robles himself, who decided the expedient thing to do was to make the sport more difficult for himself. He asked the best wrestler on the team, a 152-pounder named Chris Freije, if they could train together over the summer. Freije agreed, but his interpretation of "training" turned out to be closer to most people's definition of cruelty. With a 50-pound advantage on his new apprentice, Freije pummeled Robles every day, often reducing him to tears. Robles had said he wanted no allowances for his weight, inexperience, or disability, and Freije, with a mix of stewardship and sadism, took him at his word. "He liked to be mean," Robles told me.
Freije smacked Robles in the head and had him push cars over speed bumps in the withering midday Arizona heat. On the mat, he was even more punishing. Robles admired Freije immensely, but he needed to find a way to protect his psyche and his body, fast.
One day, Robles tried a radical change in his stance. Instead of balancing on one leg, he dropped to the mat, on two hands and a knee. Suddenly, with his lowered center of gravity, Freije could barely budge him. And by tucking his leg under his haunches, Robles substantially reduced his exposure to attack.
With his defense transformed, he turned to offense, mastering a series of tilts. By stringing together a few of these, including one he invented himself, Robles discovered he could rack up a dozen points in a single period.
Wrestling offers little room for revolutionary change. There is hardly any equipment to overhaul or reengineer. The principal aim of the modern wrestler is what it's always been, to drive his opponent from his feet to the ground. When a major innovation arrives, as it does maybe once in a generation, one of two things happens. Either a reliable countermove is developed and the innovation is consigned to a footnote in the sport's history, or the innovator catapults his own career, and sometimes those of many others.
There was no countermove for Robles's discoveries. In his sophomore year, his second season of wrestling, he used his lowered stance and his arsenal of tilts to rise from last place in the city of Mesa to sixth in the entire state of Arizona. Then he really started improving. As a junior and senior, Robles went 96-0, crowning his high school career with a national championship.
Becoming a national champion on less than four years' experience is an extraordinary accomplishment, and Robles figured it put him in position to realize a fantasy he had nurtured throughout high school: to wrestle for the University of Iowa, one of the most storied and successful athletic programs anywhere in the NCAA. With two undefeated seasons and a national title behind him, he finally indulged in the conscious belief that he would soon wear Iowa's black and gold.
Only Iowa never called. And neither did Oklahoma State or Columbia, his second and third choices. Only two middling Division I programs offered Robles the scholarship his family needed to afford college: Arizona State and Drexel. Robles was crushed. Rumors circulated that he was considered too small to win at the D1 level; that coaches shrank from the challenge of working with his unusual body and style; and that prospective teammates complained that if they were to train with him, they might become adept at wrestling a one-legged opponent, but ill-prepared for the two-legged competition they would face on match days. Robles looked like a gamble at best, a liability at worst. In the end, his mother urged him to go to Drexel because the school's offer covered room and board. Robles chose ASU to stay close to his family and took a night job washing airplanes to make up the scholarship difference.
By the end of his college freshman season, Robles was already one of the best wrestlers on the Arizona State team. The next two years, he won All-American honors by finishing in the top eight at the national tournament. Yet he still wasn't wrestling up to his full potential. Unforeseen events kept him distracted. In his freshman year, the ASU athletic department dropped its wrestling program after the Board of Regents cut the university's budget by $26 million. Robles considered transferring, but didn't know where to go, and the program was eventually reinstated. A year later, his stepfather, Ron Robles, abandoned his mother, Judy, and left for California with another woman.
Ron, Judy, and Anthony had become a family when Anthony was 2. Since then, Ron and Judy had had four other children together. Anthony never met his biological father, and always longed to be accepted by Ron, whose last name he'd chosen to take. "I don't call him my stepdad," he told me. "I don't think of him as my stepdad. He's my Dad. And I really looked up to him."
Sometimes the elder Robles reciprocated with a queer sort of affection, as when he took the boy to a tattoo parlor so they could get the same guardian angel imprinted on their bodies. It was an ironic choice: there was little Anthony Robles needed more protection from than his stepfather. Both Anthony and Judy told me that Ron criticized his step-son mercilessly, and sometimes physically abused Judy in his presence.
Judy said Ron couldn't forgive her son the color of his skin—Anthony's biological father is black—or forgive her the love she feels for Anthony. For Ron, she believes, these were intolerable, living reminders that he had to share her with other men.
Still, for all the tumult when he was home, Ron's leaving devastated Judy. In addition to losing her husband, she had no income, four children to feed, and a mortgage to pay. She fell into depression and took to her bed. The bank began arrangements to foreclose on her house.
Until then, wrestling had been Anthony's respite from a noxious home life—"my sanctuary," he called it—and even the indignities he suffered in his first season were preferable to the ones his stepfather delivered, because there was always something to be done about the former. Losses, no matter how ugly, could be avenged. Ron Robles could not be made to love.
But Ron's leaving and the gloom that hung over Judy were too much. Even Anthony, unremittingly positive until now, started to despair. He told his mother he couldn't keep his mind on the mat, and he offered to quit college and take a job to help out.
Judy knew her son dreamed of becoming a NCAA champion, and seeing his willingness to give up that possibility inspired her to get out of bed. She told him to stay in school. She sold her blood to get enough money to feed the family. Eventually, she got a job working at ASU.
Anthony returned to wrestling with a ferocious determination to make good on his mother's blessing. Until his senior year of college, few supposed him a real contender for a Division I championship. But in the fall of 2010, he emerged as something wholly different—something redoubtable and unprecedented. Against his first opponent of the season, he reeled off 14 points and a pin in under two minutes. The next he pinned even faster. Robles continued in this fashion from November through January.
Just after the New Year, he assumed the No. 2 rank in his weight class nationally. He then proceeded to technical fall or shut out his next nine opponents. In February, he became the top-ranked 125-pounder in the NCAA. The ASU Sun Devils closed the season with a road campaign in which they dropped every meet from Nebraska to Stanford. Robles, meanwhile, outscored his opponents 69-2 to close out an undefeated season.
Typically, a wrestling match begins with a series of skirmishes, starting from the neutral position. Grapplers paw and push, cuff and tug one another until one senses he has unbalanced his opponent enough to create an opening, and then lunges at one or both of his legs. The lunged-at wrestler tries to sprawl his legs away or, if he cannot, gives them up and counter-attacks with his upper-body. This begins the "scramble"—a battle of vectors, inertia, and angular acceleration, alternating between strained counterpoise and flashes of explosive motion, as each wrestler tries for a takedown.
The critical thing about the scramble is that, at the college level and beyond, it is almost entirely reflexive, moving far too fast to be thought through. Scrambling wrestlers rely on muscle memory, developed through extensive repetition and retained for years. (Hence the theatrics in the audience at many wrestling meets, where former competitors jerk their legs, claw the air, and otherwise try to gesticulate their way free of the fracas before them.) Occasionally, a wrestler exerts some conscious control as he scrambles, deliberately trying something new and counter-instinctual. This is usually the point at which he loses the scramble.
Wrestlers scrambling against Robles regularly reached for the leg that wasn't there, the way people who learned to drive on a manual transmission car sometimes grab for a phantom gear stick in an automatic. This was especially true when opponents tried to "turn the corner" clockwise, or slip past Robles's right side to complete a take-down. With no right ankle to catch hold of, they lacked the anchor they needed to finish their attack. A number of other moves were also literally out of reach, including the navy ride, the western ride, and some cradles. One of the most popular and effective maneuvers for the man on top, known simply as "legs," involves lacing one leg through the bottom man's same-side leg and turning it outward at the hip. Needless to say, there is no "legs" without legs.
Whenever an opponent attempted to gain purchase on a part of Robles that does not exist, muscle memory failed him. It was a bewildering and anxiety-provoking moment. "A lot of the stuff you're used to doing on a more able-bodied wrestler, you can't do," Matthew Snyder, Robles's first-round victim at the 2011 championships, told me. "You're looking for the leg and it's just not there." When this happened repeatedly, as it did for anyone who hadn't trained with a one-legged wrestler before facing Robles, frustration, confusion—and ultimately demoralization—set in. This was a fatal combination. No wrestler can win with despondency in his heart, at least not against a foe as formidable as Robles.
What was an opponent to do? Robles's anatomy suggested at least two possibilities. One was to attack his leg relentlessly. Every time Robles scooted across the mat or attempted a takedown, he drove off the same leg. Every time a competitor yanked his ankle outward, the same knee got wrenched against the joint. As a result, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of Robles's leg endured terrific strain, and thus were more prone to fatigue and injury than those of a wrestler who can distribute the same stresses over two legs. By his senior year of high school, his knee was so stiff after practices that he could barely move it. If an opponent could have somehow consistently circumvented Robles's hulking upper body, he might have eventually been able to take out his relatively vulnerable leg.
A second, and perhaps underutilized, strategy for scoring against Robles can be found 5,000 miles east of Arizona, in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris. Among dozens of giant statues dotting the Tuileries is one of the Greek mythical hero, Theseus, in close combat with the Minotaur, the bovine-headed, human-bodied offspring of Queen Pasiphaë and a white bull. In this depiction, Theseus forces the Minotaur's massive horned head down with his left hand, as he prepares to bludgeon the beast with the club in his right. He triumphs not by evading the Minotaur's deadly horns, but by confronting them directly.
In the 2008 NCAA championships, Stanford's Tanner Gardner took an analogous approach against Robles. For much of the first period, Gardner plowed forward, ramming his head into Robles's and collaring his neck. In the second period he converted a head hold into a take-down, and, beginning the third period in the top position, he took the unorthodox course of releasing Robles's body and applying a headlock from behind. His tactics sent the match into overtime, where he again took Robles down with a head hold, earning himself the win. Theseus would have approved.
All of this—every detail of Robles' technique and virtually every square inch of his body—has been hotly debated in the fertile anonymity of cyberspace. Loyalists tend to concede his superior strength, but emphasize the many other variables that inform the outcome of a wrestling match. Robles both benefits and suffers by his anatomy, they argue, and to focus on a single metric is to miss the point. Many believe justice requires a long view, a weighing of equities and inequities over time. "It might have been unfair for us to have to wrestle him," Snyder said, "but it was more unfair what he had to go through to get there".
The detracting camp sometimes cites the numerous amputees in the sport as evidence of Robles's advantage. In 2001, for example, double-leg amputee Nick Ackerman (whose grandfathers, bizarrely, lost their legs in separate accidents) won the Division Three tournament. Other critics linger over Robles's disproportionate upper-body strength. If they are aware of the irony of calling the man once considered too small to succeed at the Division I level too big, they don't let on.
This is not a position held only by a few angry bloggers on the periphery of the wrestling community. While many doyens of the sport have loudly hailed Robles as a deserving winner and a first-class human being, several of them have lowered their voices and confided to me—always "off the record"—that he wouldn't stand a chance against a wrestler with the same-sized torso. A 157-pounder, say.
But what most critics don't know is that Robles did wrestle a 157-pounder. Every day in practice at Arizona State, he worked out with Brian Stith, a former national runner-up in that weight class. Just as he did in high school with Freije, Robles trained with Stith so that, when it came time to compete in his own weight class, the job would be comparatively easy. And was he able to hold his own against one of the top 157-pound wrestlers in the country? "For sure," Stith told me. "Anthony would be a champion at any weight he wrestled."
In the last match of his career, the Division I championship, Robles found himself facing Iowa Hawkeye Matt McDonough, the defending national champion. The two had never wrestled before, but Robles had known all year that to win the title, he'd likely have to get through McDonough, the favorite going into the season. He'd kept a picture of McDonough in his locker, where he could look at it before and after practices.
Robles didn't sleep well the night before. He was up against not only one of the sport's biggest stars, but the coaches who had snubbed him, the critics who had dismissed him, and the hourglass he had turned over when he announced, three days earlier, his plan to retire from wrestling and become a motivational speaker. Robles tossed in his bed, with the knowledge that strange and unexpected things happen this deep in a tournament eating at his confidence. After four matches in two days, injuries flare. Legs and lungs give out. The body mutinies, and attention yields to momentary, decisive distraction.
But the moment the ref blew his whistle, the anxiety was gone. Robles dropped to his knee, and McDonough responded in kind, lowering his own stance to meet him. They vied for control of one another's hands and wrists. Twenty-five seconds in, Robles caught both of McDonough's wrists and spun behind him for a takedown. He then pried McDonough's supports from under him and drove him forward into the mat. With McDonough on his belly, Robles searched for an opening, shading to the right, then to the left.
At 88 seconds, he found it. As McDonough pushed his way up to all fours, Robles cinched his opponent's left wrist across his body and rolled hard across his own shoulders for a cross-wrist tilt. The torque was extraordinary, and the defending champion flipped like a pancake.
It was the most remarkable move of Robles's career. McDonough, inverted, pedaled vainly in the air as the crowd roared to its feet. Few of the 17,000 fans there had ever seen the Hawkeye on his back. McDonough kicked loose, but Robles kept him flat on his stomach. A minute later, Robles turned him with another tilt.
McDonough wriggled free again, but he was badly shaken. Robles had taken him down, kept him down, and was now turning him virtually at will. Tom Brands, Iowa's usually irascible head coach, stood mutely by. At the end of the first period, Robles was far ahead on points, with an even more commanding psychological lead.
Everyone loves an underdog. The problem, here, was figuring out who he was. Some saw in Robles's two tilts his latest crime against sport and man, others a great comeuppance to a world that had disbelieved. But the fans who watched the match had one thing in common: A year before they could not have imagined a one-legged man winning an NCAA Division I wrestling championship any more than they could have imagined him flapping his arms and taking flight. All of them—every last person who stood staring from the stands—must have felt the tethers loosen between what they beheld and what they thought they knew, the latter drifting away, into the rainy Philadelphia night.
Robles coasted the rest of the way. McDonough raced around him for the last two periods, seeking an opportunity, but there was none. Time expired. The referee raised Robles's hand.
McDonough hurried to the locker room, accepting no handshakes and no applause. There is no second place for Iowa wrestlers.
An interviewer stopped the new champion as he made his way off the mat. He told Robles he was an inspiration. "It's an honor," Robles said, breaking into a boyish grin. He took up his crutches and strode—there is no better word for it—over to the stands, where his mother and girlfriend jumped and cried and hugged each other. The crowd gave him a sustained standing ovation.
Later that day, the coaches in attendance voted Robles the outstanding wrestler of the tournament, making him, by consensus, the best college wrestler in any weight class, anywhere in the country.
Last year I chased down John Smith, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Oklahoma State's head coach since 1992, to ask him why, for heaven's sake, he hadn't recruited Robles to Stillwater. I reminded him that Robles had won a high school national championship after wrestling for just three and a half years. "We ended up not going that route," Smith drawled, looking sheepish. "It was a mistake. I shoulda went that route."
I put the same question to Tom Brands, knowing that Iowa had been Robles's dream program. He fumbled through a couple of thin excuses, then suddenly erupted: "Are you looking for a fight?" Thanking Brands for his time, I turned to walk away. "Hey!" he barked after me. "Hey! That's off the record!"
A few weeks before the 2012 Olympic Trials, I told Robles about my encounters with college wrestling's two most revered coaches. He looked entertained, but not as gratified as I had anticipated.
I tried something more provocative. I told him how some former and would-be Olympians had reacted to his decision not to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. Kenny Monday, a 1988 gold medalist, and Raymond Jordan, who had helped coach Robles at ASU, both told me they consider the top position to be Robles's strongest, and that freestyle wrestling—a variant of the sport practiced at the Olympics—is better suited for wrestlers who excel in the neutral position. Jarod Trice, who wrestled at the Olympic Trials and calls Robles a close friend—"I just texted him this morning! He's my boy!"—reluctantly agreed: "I don't know how the leverage would work for him [in freestyle wrestling], because of the leg".
Where collegiate wrestling awards two points for any takedown, freestyle scoring is more variable. The simple leg tackles preferred by Robles earn just one point, while dramatic lifting-and-throwing takedowns—nearly impossible to execute while balancing on one leg—are worth three or five. Even more problematic, time on the mat, where Robles does most of his damage, is limited in freestyle wrestling.
Still, Robles might be a better freestyler than he at first appears. He may not throw many opponents, but his ultra-low center of gravity makes him equally difficult to throw. And unlike college wrestling, where using the same tilt twice in a row without changing holds doesn't earn points, in freestyle wrestling Robles could repeatedly roll his opponent with a single tilt, scoring with every revolution.
I shared his colleagues' comments with Robles because I was frustrated by his choice to forgo the Olympic trials. I was looking for an explanation and, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I harbored a hope of spurring him to action, to prove the naysayers wrong. But before I let him speak, I goaded him one more time. Was it possible that he was too—ahem—inhibited to try out for London? Did he prefer walking away a college champion to risking a loss at the next level?
"A little bit," Robles confessed. He admitted to wanting to end his career on a high note, and to the seductive appeal of giving up to mitigate the pressure that accompanies sustained success.
"But my dream was never to win a gold medal," he said. "When I was in college, when I was wrestling in high school, my dream was to be a national champion." He said he missed wrestling, profoundly, but that he was happy with the direction his life had taken in the last year: connection with fans, lucrative motivational speaking engagements, Nike sponsorship, a book release, a movie deal in the works.
And then he hinted at the 2016 Olympic Games, in Brazil: "I'm still young. I'm only 23. … Four years from now, I'll still be prime age." (Brazil would be Robles's last chance at Olympic competition; last month, the International Olympic Committee dropped wrestling from the 2020 Games.)
I didn't find it an altogether satisfying answer, and suddenly I realized why. I'd been wanting Robles to see things my way. I'd seen his crossing over to freestyle wrestling, where his anatomical advantages are reduced, and still winning—as I imagined he would—as the ultimate rebuttal to his critics. I'd wanted him to erase the invisible asterisks that accompany every record he ever posted. I'd wanted Robles to demonstrate, once and for all, that ingenuity and discipline, not brawn, were the bedrock of his success, because these are attributes I value.
But I was just another guy reaching for phantom parts of Robles. His journey has been about many things, but it is not, fundamentally, about proving anybody wrong. Or being controversial. Or even about learning to wrestle with one leg. These are all epiphenomena of something larger.
Robles has been trying to solve the problems that life has been heaping on him since the moment he was born: a body that didn't look right and the bullies who wouldn't let him forget it, one father absent and another full of hate. Wrestling just happened to be an exquisitely efficient response to his dilemmas. It gave him, all at once, a sanctioned way of blowing off steam, an assessment of his abilities independent of other people's appraisals, and a vehicle for working collaboratively, for a change, with other men.
His decision to retire from wrestling had less to do with inhibition than with the challenge of how to be the 23-year-old he wanted to be. By not wrestling, Robles gets to support his family and through his words lift up the thousands of people who look to him for inspiration. And with a quiet pride that a less mature man might consider vanity, he allows himself to revel in the enormity of his achievements.
Before his final tournament, Robles told an interviewer that the thing he likes most about wrestling is the way it allows you to focus on your advantages—what you have rather than what you lack. Some people are tall and can use their length for leverage, he said. Some capitalize on physical strength.
Robles was suggesting, in essence, that as long as he didn't dwell on the nuisance of missing a leg, he could go about the business of becoming a champion wrestler. It was a preposterous remark, except that it turned out to be true. An absence isn't a weakness if you make it someone else's problem.
David Merrill is a psychiatrist in New York City and a former high school wrestler. Illustrations by Jim Cooke.