On a night filled with emotion and excitement as 10 national champions were crowned, Robles' moment was as big as any. It was Robles' last collegiate wrestling match, and he says the last of his life, and the sold-out crowd gave him a standing ovation as soon as his dominating, 7-1 win was complete.
"I had a lot of butterflies going out there," Robles said afterward. "I've dreamt about stepping on that stage a dozen times, and this whole year I've just been preparing for that moment. And I was scared. I was scared out there, but as soon as I hit that first takedown I sort of relaxed. I said, 'OK, back to business. Same drill as usual, like every other match.' "
As a sophomore two years ago, Robles finished fourth in the NCAA championship, and then took what he considered to be a step back as a junior, when he went 25-11 and finished seventh. Robles wanted to be a national champion, not just an all-American, but to accomplish his goal, he had to become mentally tougher.
The physical part he had down, even with only one leg.
Robles has a bigger upper body than most of his opponents in the 125-pound weight class, and in a sport that is all about imposing your style on your opponent, Robles has a distinct advantage. He cannot stand up and wrestle, so he forces his opponents to stay low on the mat. Once Robles gets on an opponent's back, like he did Saturday night against McDonough, he is virtually impossible to beat.
Even though he did not lose a match all season, Robles was so nervous before the match that he thought he was going to throw up. After winning his semifinal match on Friday night, Robles hardly slept. He spent part of the day Saturday sightseeing with his mother and four siblings, and they ended up at the Rocky statue at the foot of the art museum.
Robles was too sore to scale the museum steps, but his 19-year-old brother Nicolas did. Later, back at the hotel, Robles watched Cinderella Man, then got to the arena and could not settle down.
Ten minutes before the match, Arizona State coach Shawn Charles, sensing his wrestler was uncharacteristically jittery, calmly talked to Robles, telling him it was a match just like the other 35 he had won this season.
Robles had not faced anyone as tough as McDonough this season, but McDonough, who traded the No. 1 ranking with Robles throughout the season, had never wrestled against Robles. Early in the match, Robles got on top of McDonough and executed a roll through tilt and then converted to a ball and chain. By the time the first period was over, Robles held a 7-0 lead.
A few minutes later, with the national championship in his hand, Robles' journey was complete.
"I didn't get into the sport for the attention," he said. "I wrestle because I love wrestling, but it inspires me when I get kids, even adults, who write me on Facebook or send me letters in the mail just saying that I've inspired them, and they look up to me, and they're motivated to do things that other people wouldn't have thought possible."
What Robles has been able to do is make people forget that he has a disability. He does not view himself that way, nor do others.
That was not the case when he was little. Judy remembers being irritated and hurt by the sideways glances strangers gave her when she would carry her little boy. He scooted instead of crawled, and walked using a prosthetic that tied around his waist. But for the most part Robles, who is scheduled to get a prosthetic in the next few months, has always just used crutches, and he is so fast on them that he can run a 10-minute mile.
After his match was over, Robles ran through a back hallway at the arena and scaled the podium, where he was awarded his national trophy. Then he took an elevator to the mezzanine level and made his way through the crowd, posing for more than a dozen pictures and accepting congratulations.
"He's the best wrestler," said 9-year-old Justin Giacobbe, of Bergen, N.J.
Finally, Robles reached his mother. They hugged for a long time. The moment was 22 years in the making.
"This kid helped me grow up," Judy said. "We were inseparable, always together. I just let him be. . . . I always thought that I would be the one taking care of him, and he would live with me forever. And whoa, he proved me wrong."
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