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Wednesday, Feb. 21
The Indiana Daily Student

sports wrestling

Wrestler Alcala defies childhood, collegiate adversity to shine at IU

Wrestling

Upon first glance, it may be easy to dismiss Ricky Alcala as no match for the tall, lean heavyweights he often faces. Opposing wrestlers, coaches and even fans often have.

Alcala does not blame them.

“I’m unpredictable, in a way,” Alcala said. “Looking at me, you wouldn’t expect me to be as good as I am or as fast as I am. I’m 275 pounds, but I’m pretty quick. I surprise a lot of people.”

Most recently, Alcala surprised Minnesota’s Tony Nelson, the then-seventh-ranked heavyweight in the country. The win vaulted Alcala (22-6) to 14th in the latest Intermat rankings.

As the lone graduate student on the IU wrestling roster, Alcala has taken a roundabout path that no one, including himself, saw leading to this year, his first and only year as a Hoosier.

***

As one of 11 children born to Mexican immigrants, Alcala was encouraged by his father, a former professional boxer in Mexico, to take up a sport.

Boxing, however, was not an option, so Alcala turned to football, joining his school’s team in sixth grade.

“My family had a bad rep in the town,” Alcala said. “The teachers and principal already had a bad perspective of my last name. My principal told my coach not to rely on me making grades just because of who I was.”

With the help of his coach, whom Alcala called ‘a new father figure,’ Alcala stayed eligible the entire season. With football season finished, the same coach suggested he try wrestling.

“I didn’t do well in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, even my freshman and sophomore years of high school,” Alcala said. “My junior year of high school, everything just clicked and I started winning.”

Denied a chance to place at the state meet his junior year due to being late to weigh-ins the second day, Alcala nonetheless began to realize that his athletic future lay on the mat instead of the gridiron.

He turned down inquiries from Tyrone Willingham, then head football coach at Washington, to play defensive tackle for the Huskies.

“As a senior in high school in football, I played fullback for the first three games of the season,” Alcala said. “I scored a game-winning touchdown in the first game. Other coaches started scouting me and telling players to take out my knees, chop me, tackle me low. My coach said, ‘We’re going to take you out and put you back at lineman. I don’t want to risk your wrestling career.’”

The 5-foot-11-inch Alcala was moved back to defensive tackle but knew his days in football were numbered.

“I felt like I wasn’t tall enough to play football,” Alcala said. “I played d-tackle, but I still felt like I was shorter than the average d-lineman.”

On the wrestling mat, though, Alcala’s career was just taking off as he placed third at the state meet that season.

“There hasn’t been a year I’ve regressed,” Alcala said. “Every year I’ve gotten better. Every year I’ve had a better record. I wish I had one more year.”

***

Football and wrestling kept Alcala busy and his grades up, but the two sports also kept the self-described childhood “troublemaker” from living up to the negative expectations his teachers and principals once had for him. But the “bad rep” that followed his family wasn’t built off of rumors.

Only three of Alcala’s 11 siblings graduated from high school, and money was so tight that some mornings, he would have to do laundry just so he would have clothes to wear to school that day.

When Ricky was in seventh grade, one of his older brothers was sentenced to 35 years to life and later was killed in prison.

“It messed my entire family up,” Alcala said. “My brothers started doing really bad stuff. My mom and dad were sad, and I didn’t want to put them through that again. Doing sports kept me away from everything else: drugs, gangs, violence, all the things that had been prevalent in my town. I would stay in school even after practice, stay in the library and study and not go home, just because I enjoyed school.”

Alcala said he never planned to go to college, but after graduating from Arvin High School in Bakersfield, Calif., his good grades and emerging wrestling prowess took him to the University of California at Davis.

As a wrestler at UC Davis, Alcala qualified twice for the NCAA championships, made public speaking appearances and served as a representative on the school’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Entering this year, Alcala was set to be president of the SAAC, primed for a big senior season and planned to attend graduate school for physical therapy after graduation.

One afternoon at 2 p.m., that all changed.

***

Rumors swirled that budget cuts would force the cancellation of some athletic programs at UC Davis, but Alcala was sure wrestling would not be one of them. After all, in 2007, UC Davis wrestler Derek Moore became the school’s first national champion in any sport and according to Alcala, the team had been named the best team on campus four out of the past six years up to that point.

“They had already told a few teams that they were being eliminated, but our team was never brought up,” Alcala said. “It was a last-minute decision to eliminate our program. That day our coach texted us and told us they eliminated our wrestling program and that we had to meet up at 2 o’clock in the wrestling room to talk about it, pretty much out of the blue. I knew they were going to eliminate some teams, but I really didn’t think it was going to be the wrestling team.”

Despite the plans he had made, Alcala knew as soon as he heard the news of the cancellation that he would be going elsewhere. He had a year of eligibility left and had no plans to waste it.

“It wasn’t even a question,” Alcala said. “I told the coaches, ‘I’m out of here.’ They told me it was my decision. I didn’t know what my options were at the time. I knew I wanted to wrestle my last year.”

After exploring his options and receiving interest from “20 or 25 schools,” Alcala narrowed his choices to Appalachian State, Old Dominion and IU — all schools that are in a different time zone than California. He was ready to see a new part of the country.

Alcala said he chose IU because of the academics and the opportunity to work with heavyweight coaches such as Pat DeGain and the man he replaced as IU heavyweight, Nate Everhart, now a student assistant. Kevin Stanley, a 2001 IU All-American, was Alcala’s upper-weight coach at UC Davis and encouraged him to attend IU.

“When he came in on a visit, he was very personable and seemed like a guy with very high goals and a guy with a good head on his shoulders,” IU wrestling coach Duane Goldman said. “We just felt he would be a good fit on our team.”

Taking summer classes at UC Davis allowed Alcala to graduate and then transfer as a graduate student. He is now seeking a master’s degree in Athletic Administration/Sports Management.

***

Joining a close-knit program as an outsider appeared difficult and unenviable at first, but Alcala quickly succeeded in carving out a niche on the team.

“I lighten the mood a little bit,” Alcala said. “Everybody’s sad and cutting weight, and I’m the heavyweight who doesn’t have to cut weight, so I’m trying to bust jokes and make people laugh and forget about cutting weight. I’m just social.”

This year, for the first time, Alcala has had top-notch heavyweights to wrestle in practice, and both he and his coaches have seen the benefits.

“He really creates the right opportunities for himself and utilizes the coaching staff,” DeGain, a former IU All-American heavyweight, said. “He’s picking everyone’s brain. He’s the reason he is as good as he is.”

Alcala’s future could be in a number of places or professions. Teaching, coaching or returning to physical therapy are all options, as is continuing with sports management.
 
Right now, though, he said his focus is on his last season of wrestling, the sport that helped him escape from the perils of his hometown and gave him the options he now has before him.

“Once you’ve done it for as long as I’ve done it, it becomes part of your identity, so to speak,” Alcala said. “It becomes how you define yourself, as a wrestler. It’s a huge part of my life.”

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