After a lengthy on-mat demonstration for a girls wrestling group, camp coach Anthony Robles found a chair in Orting High School’s muggy, dimly lit workout room to take a quick breather Tuesday.
Holding headgear in one hand and a wrestling shoe in the other, a mother of one of the camp participants approached and politely asked Robles to autograph both pieces of equipment for her young son.
Enthusiastically, the woman admitted to Robles that he was the first high-profile athlete her son had ever wanted to meet in person — and that is why the boy signed up for the five-day event.
“It is a huge honor,” Robles said.
Arizona is home for Robles, who turns 25 on Saturday. He was born there — without a right leg — in Mesa. He won an NCAA Division I title at the hometown university, Arizona State, and recently bought a house near campus.
Robles has become one of wrestling’s most colorful and eloquent personalities. After releasing his autobiography
“Unstoppable” in September, he has made more than 70 speaking engagements and book-tour trips all over the United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico. He also serves as a wrestling commentator for ESPN.
But something about Orting sticks with him. He has been a keynote performer at the annual South Sound Wrestling Camp since 2009 — long before any fame hit.
“There is definitely a connection. It is not just a business transaction, where I come in and get a check. These guys are my friends and family,” Robles said. “I have seen a lot of these kids for four years now. A lot of kids keep returning. It is something real special with the wrestling community, and more specifically with this group that draws me back. I want to come back because I am happy to see these kids. You don’t get that a lot.”
Jody Coleman, now the Orting High coach, founded the South Sound camp. In 2009, Scott Christian, a Bethel High alum who was a wrestling official in Arizona, recommended that Coleman invite a pair of ASU wrestlers to coach the camp.
One was Chris Drouin, a returning All-American for the Sun Devils — and a real headlining name. Robles, then an ASU walk-on, was the second one.
Coleman mailed two plane tickets to the college teammates. Only Robles showed up.
“I didn’t know anything about (Robles),” Coleman said. “What Scott told me was that he was a really neat person, a good worker and that he was really good with kids.”
Robles was all of that, and more — so much so that Coleman kept inviting him back, and Robles kept accepting.
In 2011, Robles’ life changed for good. He defeated Iowa’s Matt McDonough, 7-1, to win the NCAA Division I title at 125 pounds, capping an undefeated season.
Suddenly he was a household name with wrestling families. Appearance requests skyrocketed. Robles always made it a priority to return to Coleman’s camp.
“It was something I did before I got to the top level with my national championship,” Robles said. “They were there from the beginning. I know who is important to me.”
The summer after Robles captured the NCAA title, wrestlers from Oregon, Idaho and California asked to attend the camp. Months out, Coleman had to stop taking requests, capping the number at 200 participants.
“We could have had 350, easy,” Coleman said.
This summer, in response to the growing popularity of girls wrestling, the camp — with Robles’ help — is hosting 2012 U.S. Olympic team member Kelsey Campbell, who grew up in Milwaukie, Ore., and wrestled at ASU.
Also helping out this week are a number of former Washington high school state champions who now wrestle in college. One of them is former Orting standout Taylor Meeks, who earned All-America honors for Oregon State last spring as a sophomore.
Kirk White, a former Curtis High wrestler who won an NCAA Division I title at Boise State in 1999, has been a regular at the camp. He remains on the Boise State wrestling staff.
But this camp has really become popular because of Robles’ involvement.
“Orting is the longest camp I’ve done out of all of them,” Robles said. “I’ve done one in New York for four years, and one in California for four years. They take care of me. I am from Arizona, so I don’t go outdoors too much or see the ocean. I like to come here and hang out.”email@example.com @ManyHatsMilles