EARLY IN his improbable career, Anthony Robles, who was born with one leg but with a heart far larger than his 125-pound body, would occasionally hear people comment: Look how hard he is trying! It seemed enough to some that he was even out there competing. But it was never just enough for Robles, who wanted people to see him for his athletic ability and not his handicap.
That changed when Robles began winning. In the eyes of some, the absence of a leg seemed to be an "advantage," that it gave his opponents one fewer area on which to gain a hold. But Robles always remembered what one of his coaches had told him: "You know you are getting somewhere when the haters come out."
The personable, young Robles would indeed go far. In his senior year at Arizona State, Robles, 23, won the NCAA wrestling championship at 125 pounds last March at the Wells Fargo Center.
Last evening at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill, the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association bestowed on him the 2012 Most Courageous Athlete Award.
Robles called it "just a huge honor."
"I looked up the previous winners on the Internet," said Robles, who won the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the ESPYs last summer. "I feel like I don't deserve the attention. I wasn't in my sport for the attention. I just love to wrestle. I just feel very fortunate."
Robles compensated for his missing leg at a young age by strengthening his upper body. As a sixth-grader, he set a school record for pushups. He played some football as a boy, but turned to wrestling in eighth grade. Although he did not do well early on, he fell in love with the sport, which he said has always been something that has allowed him to feel free.
"I can forget about everything else, and just have fun," he said.
"Even when I was losing, it was still that place where I could find solitude," he said, adding that it has helped him fulfill "the purpose I always believe I had in life."
Robles began to excel in wrestling at Mesa (Ariz.) High School. Going 96-0 in his junior and senior years, he won two state wrestling championships. But that was not enough for colleges to overlook his disability and offer him scholarships.
"I was disappointed," Robles said. "I thought I would get some offer. The reason [coaches] gave was that I was a risk. I had done well in high school, but this was the elite level. Only two schools even called: Drexel and Arizona State."
Robles was inspired by the exploits of Nick Ackerman, a bilateral amputee who won an NCAA championship at Simpson College in Iowa. Ackerman is missing both legs below the knee.
"Our high school coach hung a photo of him in our locker room," Robles said. "I have since spoken to him. I always admired his strength and determination. He just told me to keep fighting."
Robles walked on at Arizona State and won three Pac-10 championships at 125 pounds. He also was selected as an All-America three times. With a 36-0 record his senior year, he captured the NCAA championship by defeating defending champion Matt McDonough, of Iowa, 7-1. Robles ended up with 122 career victories.
He conceded that his disability gave him some advantages. But he said it also has disadvantages.
"I looked at it as give-and-take," said Robles, who has degree in business communications. "In certain areas, I did have an advantage, and it did work well for me. But there was also certain positions I had to stay out of, because I did not have the leg, and, because of it, did not have balance . . . I focused on improving, and not my weaknesses."
Robles added that his disability forced him to become "mentally tougher" than he would have been otherwise.
"It made me want it more and it made me work harder," he said. "I had to figure out my own style."
Currently, Robles is a motivational speaker and a volunteer assistant at Arizona State. He said a film deal also is in the works. Long-range, he said he would like to start a foundation "to give back and help others."