Arizona State's Robles climbs into national rankings

The two-mile hike to the summit of Squaw Peak is a time-honored tradition for the Arizona State wrestling team. It tests the mental strength of the Sun Devils as much as their physical endurance.

It's a climb through rocky terrain and over loose gravel with majestic views of Phoenix from the top. But it's a challenge cut out more for a hiker with four legs than one.

"It takes a billy goat to get up that thing," Arizona State coach Thom Ortiz said.

Anthony Robles scaled Squaw Peak last year alongside his teammates. He never doubted he'd get to the top and he did so in less than a half-hour -- on crutches.

Sure, there was a slight degree of danger involved, the freshman 125-pounder thought.

"But everybody else was doing it and I figured I could do it, too," he said. "I don't see having one leg as a disability. I feel I can do whatever I put my mind to. If the coach tells you to do something, I'm going to be right there with the rest of the team doing it. That's pretty much how I've always been -- I don't like being treated differently or getting special treatment or anything like that. I just like to be treated normal."

Robles, however, is hardly normal.

Taking up the sport in ninth grade and winning a high school national championship three years later isn't a normal feat. Competing at 125 pounds and bench pressing nearly 2½ times that much isn't ordinary strength. Kicking down the door to the Division I rankings on one leg isn't a regular occurrence in college wrestling, either.

Robles entered the Reno Tournament of Champions with a 9-3 record and No. 19 ranking. He popped into the top 20 last month after beating then-No. 8 Javier Maldonado of Tennessee-Chattanooga.

I always try to remember how good it feels to be on top. I want to someday get back to the top -- in college.

--Anthony Robles

"I'm not 100-percent happy with my record, but I think I'm progressing well," Robles said. "I know I have a long way to go to reach the top. That's what I'm looking at right now."

The hike to the top of the NCAA 125-pound weight class is perhaps the steepest climb Robles has faced during his wrestling career. But those who have watched him accomplish other seemingly improbable feats since he was born without a right leg aren't about to dismiss the possibility that he could one day stand at the top of the college wrestling world.

"I've seen him ride a bike when he was 5 years old and nobody thought he could do that, and I wasn't even sure he could do that," Anthony's mother, Judy Robles, said. "I saw him play football and that was amazing. I've seen him play basketball. He drives a car. He's missing his right leg and drives with his left leg. People weren't sure how he was going to do that, but he adjusted. It's just Anthony's personality -- if it's in front of him, he'll figure out how to do it."

Wrestling was something Robles got a handle on faster than most. He didn't start competing until his freshman year at Mesa High School. Initially, he didn't like the demands of the sport.

"I got beat up a lot," he said. "I finished 5-8 in my first year. But after that, I liked the competition; I liked how it's just one-on-one. It has a team [dimension], but at the same time, how well you do is determined by how hard you work, not what anybody else does."

Robles spent the following summer training with bigger, better wrestlers on the Mesa varsity squad. He started to appreciate what getting beaten up in practice would do for him in competition. He placed sixth at the Arizona state tournament as a sophomore. He spent the next summer training against college wrestlers. He never lost another high school match.

Robles went 48-0 as a junior on his way to a state title at 103 pounds. He posted the same record as a senior, pinned his way through the 112-pound bracket at the state meet and capped his career later in the spring by winning his weight class at the 2006 High School Senior National Championships.

Robles instantly turned into a wrestling celebrity. He told his story on several national talk shows and heard others tell him how he had inspired them.

"I think it's an honor," Robles said. "I'm not out to get attention or anything like that, I just like wrestling and I want to be the best at it. People have come up to me sometimes and said I'm a role model for younger kids and I think it's awesome. I try not to disappoint them."

Still, there were questions about how Robles would adjust to competing at the college level. How would he handle wrestlers with better technical skills? How would he fare against opponents who were more physically developed than the ones he dominated at the smallest two weight classes in high school?

Ortiz found two traits that led him to believe Robles would succeed -- the carnival strength and the bursting heart.

"You can't see heart, but you can tell by looking in his eyes that he has heart," Ortiz said. "That's what allows him to compete. You can't measure a guy's heart."

But Ortiz could see it when he watched Robles scale Squaw Peak on crutches. He could see it when he watched Robles complete the team's mile run on crutches last fall in 10 minutes, cut his time to eight minutes the following spring and come back telling his coach he'll break the six-minute mark one day.

The off-the-charts upper-body strength is easier to quantify. Robles bench presses 300 pounds. Ortiz said you'd have to go five weight classes up to find the next wrestler in the ASU lineup with comparable strength. He also has a vice-like grip, shaped by years of clasping whatever he needed to carry while getting around on crutches.

"I think having one leg, some people might see that as a disadvantage," Robles said. "But I use crutches all day long and that's given me great upper-body strength. That's an advantage I have over my opponents. They're smaller than me because they have both of their legs and I have a bigger upper-body.

"I think my advantages equal my disadvantages. It's kind of up to me to figure out what I need to do to win."

It's a steep climb to the summit of college wrestling over rocky terrain. But there's a majestic view at the top.

"I always try to remember how good it feels to be on top," Robles said. "I want to someday get back to the top -- in college."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.