By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Two former wrestlers with similarly unique challenges visited Keizer schools last week delivering messages of inspiration.
Anthony Robles, who won the 2011 national NCAA wrestling title at 125 pounds, visited McNary High School Wednesday, Feb. 17. Keizer’s own Kacey McCallister, a wrestling standout at McNary who ended his career with a second place finish at the state tournament, visited Whiteaker Middle School Friday, Feb. 19. Robles was born with only one leg, McCallister lost both of his when he was struck by a semi truck at age 6.
Both wrestlers credited their parents for setting the standards by which they would learn to live their lives.
“(My mom) raised me thinking that missing a leg wasn’t going to be an excuse, it was a challenge,” said Robles.
After the accident, McCallister’s parents were told by doctors to let him figure things out for himself. If it meant figuring out a way to scale the cabinets to get a box of cereal, so be it.
“I had to figure out how to be awesome,” McCallister said. “The next summer I was playing t-ball. I would hit the ball and my dad would push me in the wheelchair, but he would run like he was the one playing. There were kids dodging me and trying to tag me out at the same time.”
McCallister knew from the beginning that he didn’t want to be stuck in his wheelchair playing video games and eventually figured out how to run using his arms to carry him.
Robles was 14 when he first tried wrestling. After trying out – without his mother’s knowledge – he returned home with dried blood on his stretched out T-shirt.
“My mom thought I got beat up at school and she was ready to go after somebody,” Robles said. “I thought it was the most awesome thing I’d ever done. She asked me if I’d seen my face.”
Robles placed last in the city in his first year as a wrestler. After his last match, he went to shake the hand of the opposing coach and something in the man’s voice told him he’d never had a chance.
“That lit a fire inside of me, I sat in my room alone and told myself it was the last time I would lose like that. I wrote down my dream of being a national champ in my bedroom,” Robles said, pulling out the now-laminated note he’d made to himself so many years ago.
McCallister hit his first roadblock when he tried out for a youth basketball team.
“My older brother was playing basketball and I thought, ‘Sweet, I’m going to go play basketball.’” McCallister said. “But when I tried out the coaches went to my parents and said, ‘We recommend your son doesn’t play basketball.’ They didn’t want responsibility if anyone got hurt.”
He eventually found a spot on a Boys & Girls Club team, but would discover a passion for wrestling in later years.
By the time Robles finished high school, he was a two-time state champ and a high school national champ, but colleges weren’t looking at him.
“They told me they couldn’t take the risk of offering me a scholarship, but when opportunity doesn’t knock, you have to build your own door,” Robles said.
Robles ended up earning an academic sholarship at Arizona State University and walked on to the wrestling team. He was in his second year, and starting to make waves as part of the team, when he was hit with a bout of mononucleosis. Then he found out his stepfather had left his family back home.
“It was a negative time, but my mom encouraged me to stay at school and keep pursuing my dream,” Robles said.
It all came to a head shortly before Robles was set to go to the national tournament. In an attempt to spur Robles to action, his coach pitted him against his alternate on the ASU team. Robles said he got destroyed six times before the coach told him, “You’re not what we thought you were. There’s the door.”
Robles went to the locker room and started clearing out his things. Not long after, his coached followed him in – slamming the door behind him.
“I stood up to face him and was planning to headbutt him in the chin as soon as he started yelling,” Robles said. “I’m waiting to explode and he opens up his arms and hugs me, and I told him everything that was happening at home. He told me there’s always going to be an obstacle and you can use that as an excuse to quit or you can grind through that.”
McCallister never let his lack of legs become an excuse. In addition to competing in sports, whenever he could, he found ways to tackle other challenges – even a paper route.
“There was this huge hill on my route and I had to go up it backward in the chair,” McCallister said. “The cool part was getting to go back down the hill.”
In college at the University of Arizona, McCallister joined an actual wheelchair basketball team, but soon discovered he was a wrestler moonlighting as a basketball player.
“I couldn’t dribble and I couldn’t pass to save my life. My coach had me throw a ball against a wall for like an hour,” McCallister said.
Robles’ tenacity finally paid off as a senior at ASU. At the national tournament, he was slated to face the returning champ.
“I don’t remember much of the match, but I remember with 10 seconds left I was up 7-1 and the only way he could win was by turning me on my back,” Robles said. “I was on the ground underneath him and I had my elbows in. To try to get me to move my arms, he had his arms locked under my chin and kept punching me in the jaw as he tried to get a better grip. The whole time I had a smile on my face because I was thinking he could punch me as much as he wanted because I was about to be a national champ. Even if he choked me out, I wake up national champ.”
Since achieving his dream, Robles said he cares less about the wrestling itself and more about the impact he can have on others.
“I just want to be remembered as someone who helped someone else achieve their dreams,” Robles said.
McCallister told the Whiteaker students that they, too, can do anything they dream of as long as they persevere.
“You can do anything, but it doesn’t just happen like that. It’s not about trying hard one time, it’s about trying hard day after day,” McCallister said.
The journey for both men is far from complete; each of them has new goals they are working toward. For Robles, it’s learning to run on a prosthetic leg. McCallister is set on figuring out how to snowboard.