Winning a wrestling championship is never easy, but three-time NCAA All-American Anthony Robles — who was born without his right leg — conquered more obstacles than most to earn his sport’s top collegiate honor in 2011.
Motivated by his mother, who he says “raised me to believe that you never let a challenge become an excuse,” Robles developed a fierce desire to prove he was just as capable as anyone else. On the wrestling mat, he overcame what seemed like a weakness by honing his assets: incredible grip strength, a strong center of gravity, and signature moves that helped him rack up points.
Despite his many successes, Robles considered giving up the sport several times during his high school and college careers as issues took their toll: lack of confidence, illnesses, the training grind, and family circumstances (he never knew his birth father and had a difficult relationship with his stepfather). But his love of competition and support from family, coaches, and fans kept him striving to win.
“After a setback during my junior season, I didn’t know if I was going to come back,” he says. “But I got an envelope of letters from a group of third graders in Atlanta whose teacher had read them an article about me. Their well wishes brought me to tears and made me see I wasn’t just wrestling for myself or for a plaque, but to show others they can overcome their challenges.”
In the years since his championship journey, the 28-year-old Robles has been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, become the first noncompetitive athlete to land an endorsement deal from Nike, and won two ESPY awards, including the Jimmy V. Award for Perseverance. He regularly appears on both ESPN and the Pac-12 Networks as a wrestling analyst and is building a national following as a motivational speaker. His 2012 autobiography, Unstoppable: From Underdog to Undefeated: How I Became a Champion, has been optioned for a film.
What’s next? “I’m learning to use a prosthetic leg again for the first time since I was a kid, because I want to be able to run using it,” he says. One thing seems clear: Once Robles starts running, he won’t stop.
Experience Life | You played a lot of sports growing up. What got you into wrestling?
Anthony Robles | I did play a bunch of sports — even tackle football. My mom pushed me to try everything and set my own boundaries. During my freshman year of high school, we moved from California to Arizona. My cousin wrestled and I often practiced with him. One day I went up against one of his teammates, and even though I got beat badly, I fell in love with the sport.
EL | What are some lessons you’ve learned from wrestling?
AR | To have confidence in myself — that’s something I struggled with. When you’re out on the mat, it’s just you and your opponent. No one is going to sub in for you when you’re getting beat or you’re tired, so you have to believe in yourself.
Wrestling taught me it’s important to focus on your strengths and camouflage your weaknesses. Don’t worry about the things you can’t do or don’t have, but find out what you’re good at and hone the gifts you have that will make you successful.
At first, it was hard to figure out my wrestling style and what I was capable of. Eventually, my coaches and I were able to build a unique style that people had never seen before and couldn’t prepare for easily. I can prepare for an opponent by practicing wrestling a guy with a similar build or movement style, but my opponents couldn’t do that — there were no other wrestlers missing a leg.
It also taught me that it takes time to achieve your goals. Becoming a national champion was a long, hard road. But I learned that those goals that take a while to get to are even more special.
EL | Once you began having success, some people argued that having only one leg gave you an unfair advantage. How did that make you feel?
AR | It was the complete opposite when I first got into wrestling! Everybody felt sorry for me and didn’t think I was capable of much. That was the biggest drawback for colleges recruiting me —they didn’t think I could compete at a high level because I was missing a leg.
When I started hearing the advantage thing, it made me mad. I remember thinking, If it’s such an advantage, then why aren’t colleges knocking down my door with scholarship offers? It felt like people were trying to tear me down and belittle the hard work I’d put in, which was the reason I was becoming successful.
After a while, it made me happy because people weren’t looking at me as a sympathy case anymore. Now it was, He’s beating these guys too much. He’s too good. So they had to find a reason to tear me down.
In the end, I was happy to be the kid standing at the top of the podium, so it didn’t matter what people said because I was achieving my goal of winning.
EL | How important has it been for you to be able to shift your mindset like that?
AR | Mindset is key to success. I’ve always been competitive, and, in a way, being born missing a leg put a chip on my shoulder, which I used to prove to myself and others that I could fit in.
After a while, though, with the help of one of my teammates, I learned to shift my thinking from a mindset of “being good enough” to one of “being the best,” which helped me take my game — and life — to the next level.
My mindset now is to be happy, but never satisfied. So I’m always pushing to get a little better with my public speaking. Eventually I would like to start a charity that helps young, single parents like my mom get an education.
EL | What are some things people can do in their own lives to become unstoppable?
AR | Write down your goals and look at them periodically. This keeps you accountable and reminds you of what you’re chasing and where you’ve been. I still have mine that I wrote down on a sticky note when I was 14 that said I wanted to be a state wrestling champion!
Also write down the steps you’re taking to achieve your goals — daily or weekly. The journey is long, but as long as you’re getting closer to what you want to achieve, you’re making progress. So focus on the little steps. My coach used to tell me, “You eat an elephant one bite at a time.” Instead of worrying about getting what you want all at once, break it down into pieces and you’ll eventually achieve what you want.