Olympic tough

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 20:00
After overcoming childhood abuse, Chugiak grad has London in her sights
Melissa Apodaca grapples with her coach, Nate Hannah, during a practice at Anchorage Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Jan. 7. Apodaca, a 2008 Chugiak High graduate, will compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in April in Iowa.

What’s tough?

Melissa Apodaca is currently training six hours a day with the goal of representing the United States in one of the toughest sports around, freestyle wrestling. The muscular 22-year-old’s typical day includes running and lifting weights followed by a couple hours of technique work and sparring.

Think that’s tough?

The 2008 Chugiak High graduate does all that training while keeping up with her college courses at Northern Michigan University, where last semester she earned a 4.0 grade-point average.

But even adding up Olympic-caliber training and sterling scholastic marks doesn’t begin to scratch the surface on what has qualified as “tough” in the life of Apodaca.


Wrestling with life

To understand Apodaca’s drive to make the 2012 Olympics in London, one must first understand where she came from.

Growing up, Apodaca was subjected to poverty, neglect and abuse the likes of which she’s still reluctant to detail. Needless to say, her home life was a mess.

“We were basically homeless,” Apodaca said during an interview at an Anchorage jiu jitsu center while back in Alaska over the holidays.

Apodaca’s single mother cared far more about drugs and alcohol than she did her youngest daughter, Melissa said, leaving the girl to fend mostly for herself. She slept on couches, drifted from house to house and had to play the role of her own parent just to get a basic education.

“I’d always forge my mom’s signature so I could go to school,” she said.

Her main focus in those days, she said, was to achieve more than her two older sisters — whose lives were derailed early by an all-too-common fate.

“My first goal in life was to make it past ninth grade and not get pregnant by the time I was 16,” she said. “Because that would mean I was better than my sisters.”

As a way of staying away from her mother, who was living in Soldotna at the time, she began seeking out sports in middle school. She’d play anything she could in order to hang around the school into the evening.

“That kept me away from my home life,” she said.

It was while in middle school that Apodaca picked up wrestling, a sport that would prove to be a natural fit for a girl who grew up fighting just to survive.

From the first day on the mat, she knew it was for her.

“I was looking at them and I was like, ‘I can take those boys,’” she said.


A new start

Apodaca’s family moved to the Anchorage area when she was a freshman in high school, leaving her adrift and without a decent place to call home. But high school was where she would finally find her real family.

When she arrived at Chugiak, Apodaca didn’t know anyone. As a shy, often introverted teenager, she had little way of communicating to anyone how bad things were at “home.” But as she started joining athletic teams at CHS, Apodaca’s coaches began to take notice of the squat, muscular girl who seemed to always be the last person to leave the practice field.

“You could tell she was a little different than our normal kids,” said Rachel Smith, a counselor at Bartlett High School, who was then working at Chugiak as a counselor and cross-country running coach.

When Apodaca began opening up about her lack of a real home, teachers and coaches at Chugiak came to her aid. Duncan Shackelford, the school’s head football coach, said he and his wife, Wendi, a school resource officer with the Anchorage Police Department, took Melissa in for about six months.

“We all loved Melissa. She was just a good gal who has had some hard luck in her life with things,” Shackelford said.

Eventually, Apodaca began to form a particularly close relationship with Smith, who had taken a keen interest in the girl.

“Basically, Melissa and Rachel just kinda bonded,” said Rachel’s husband, Ben, who was also teaching at Chugiak at the time.

At the start of Melissa’s sophomore year, Rachel told the young girl to feel free to call at any time to discuss any problems she might be having.

“The next day, she called and asked if she could live with us for the year,” Rachel said.

Melissa had finally found her home.


Coming home

The Smiths took Apodaca in as if she were their own daughter. The couple — high school sweethearts at Chugiak who have been married for 13 years — gave the girl a room of her own and told Melissa she was welcome to stay as long as she liked. She’s been there ever since.

“She’ll have a room forever in our house,” Rachel said.

While hard work in sports came easy to Apodaca, fitting in at school took a little longer. Because of her troubled background, Rachel said Apodaca often came across as awkward at school. It wasn’t because Apodaca didn’t like talking, Rachel said, it was just that the girl from the broken home just didn’t know how to relate to other people.

“She was really shy,” Rachel said.

Slowly, however, living with the Smiths helped give Melissa the social skills she needed to be a “normal” teenager, and she began to slowly come out of her shell. Ben said that transformation had much to do with the bond Rachel and Melissa were able to form at home.

“Rachel is so good with her,” Ben said. “Just being a female, all that fashion stuff, all the things that females go through.”

Far from a shy introvert now, Apodaca, according to Ben, has become outgoing and has learned how to deal with new people and surroundings.

“Now she talks all the time,” he said.

Rachel said she and Ben never had any problems with Melissa’s behavior at home.

“She’s a great kid. She never lied to us about anything,” she said. “If she says she walked the dog, she definitely walked the dog.”

Apodaca says the support she got from the Smiths — along with the rest of the Chugiak High family — was instrumental in getting her out of her nightmarish home life.

“It was the whole Chugiak teaching community,” she said. “That’s the reason I love Chugiak High School and feel like I owe people so much.”

Shackelford said it was easy for people to want to help Apodaca because of the girl’s passionate desire to make herself better.

“It was about, ‘Let’s help someone who wants to make a success out of their life, someone who wants to be a positive person,’” he said.


‘She’s a pit bull’

With her home life finally stabilized, Apodaca was free to turn her attention to her budding career as a wrestler — where she had to confront an entirely new set of challenges.

Chugiak is a big-time wrestling school. The wrestling program has won two state team titles and produced more individual Alaska state champions — 57 — than any school in the state. When Apodaca went out for the team, she wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

“Of course they’re not going to be nice to the only girl on the team,” Apodaca said.

Rather than treating her as an equal, the veterans on the team let Apodaca know that they were none too happy to have a girl on the squad. But as the weeks went by, the only girl on the team began to earn her teammates’ grudging respect with a rabid work ethic and impressive tolerance for pain and suffering on the mat.

“At first the team didn’t really like me that well,” she said. “But everyone who was tough stayed with the team, and we ended up being a family.”

By the time she was a senior, Apodaca had become one of the most feared wrestlers — boy or girl — on the team. She recalls with pride how she even became one of the team’s enforcers, helping to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“I even ran a couple kids off who I didn’t think were tough enough,” she said.

Ben said Apodaca’s hard-nosed attitude is what sets her apart on the mat.

“She’s a pit bull,” said Ben, who now teaches physical education at Eagle River High.

Chugiak wrestling coach Tom Huffer Jr. said Apodaca was among the hardest workers he’s had in his program.

“She was just so passionate about everything she did,” Huffer Jr. said.

Shackelford said Apodaca’s desire is a rare thing to see in today’s teens.

“Wrestling’s not a popular sport because it’s hard work,” he said. “That ain’t popular with kids these days.”

Apodaca, he said, seemed to attack hardship with uncommon vigor.

“The harder it is, the more she shines. I think she always takes things as a personal affront, a personal challenge,” he said. “I see her always wanting to find something that’s going to tax her to make her better.”

While at Chugiak, Apodaca won an Arctic Winter Games championship in girls freestyle wrestling and was a four-time girls state champ while also wrestling on the boys team. She also played soccer, ran cross-country and even joined the football team, where Shackelford said she never shied away from contact.

“She’d throw her nose right in there,” he said.

Ben said Apodaca’s relentless nature was “almost annoying” at times, as the girl would do whatever she could to work out and play sports nonstop.

“She’ll do anything she can to get to a gym or go to wrestling practice,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Really? You gotta go again?’”

Melissa said she likes to work hard because she’s seen the results of taking the easy way out in life.

“It’s easy to quit,” she said. “It’s hard to keep going.”


Olympic dreams

Apodaca’s prowess on the wrestling mat began to draw big-time attention, and she was invited to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University. In 2009, she won the U.S. University Nationals and placed third at the World University Games in Spain.

But injuries to her knee and ankle slowed her progress, and she hadn’t wrestled in a major competition in more than two years when she entered the U.S. Senior Nationals in December 2011. Ranked the 14th best American at 63 kilograms by USA Wrestling, Apodaca said she wasn’t expecting much heading into the tournament.

“I didn’t even think I’d place,” she said.

The long layoff didn’t hurt a bit. Melissa made the finals, losing by fall to 2010 World silver medalist Elena Pirozhkova and earning one of seven spots in the Olympic qualifying tournament, which will be held April 21-22 in Iowa City, Iowa.

Only the winner of the qualifying tournament makes the Olympic team, and Ben said Apodaca knows she’s up against some formidable competition. But if she doesn’t make the team this time around, he said he’s confident Apodaca will one day be an Olympian.

“She’ll get it sooner or later. I know she will,” he said.


Returning the favor

Apodaca’s dreams go much further than becoming an Olympian. On her 21st birthday, she started a program called the “Melissa Apodaca Change Ribbon.” The symbol of her fledgling foundation is a blue, purple and teal ribbon that stands for abuse, rape and poverty. She said the goal of the project is to increase awareness of childhood abuse among teachers and students. She wants young people to know it’s OK to speak out about abuse at home and for teachers to better recognize when problems are occurring outside of school.

“Just making teachers and children more aware can make a big difference,” she said. “Even just that tiny little step could help prevent a lot more child abuse cases.”

After she graduates from college, Apodaca said she’d like to start a home to take in other kids who come from challenging home lives.

“I was one of those kids,” she said. “If those teachers at Chugiak had never taken me in, I wouldn’t be wrestling today.”

Apodaca said she continues to work so hard because she believes she has an obligation to use her athletic skills to help others.

“God gave me this talent, and he gave it to me for a reason,” she said. “And it’s not just wrestling. It’s to help kids coming out of a situation like I did.”

Rachel said Apodaca’s willingness to turn childhood pain into a positive for others is what makes her aspiring Olympian “daughter” so special.

“Her being a wrestler is part of who she is,” she said. “But it’s not everything about Melissa Apodaca.”


Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or [email protected]

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