Not long after her last match, wrestler Areana Villaescusa of the Army women’s World Class Athlete program expressed disappointment to her coach.

“I wish I had more mat time,” she said.

That’s a telling statement from a wrestler who suffered an injury more than a year ago that threatened her wrestling career and life. It was similar to what Peyton Manning experienced, considering she had a ruptured cervical disc that caused pain throughout her neck, shoulders, arms and hands.

On Thursday, Villaescusa wrestled in her first official wrestling tournament since the injury. It was at the first day of the 21st Dave Schultz Memorial International at the Olympic Training Center, which annually draws some of the best from across the globe in men’s and women’s freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

The lower weight classes wrestled Thursday and the higher weights will compete over the next two days.

Villaescusa easily won the 57-kg bracket. And it was a short run as there was only one other competitor. Villaescusa twice pinned Amanda Walker, of Wyoming Seminary, in two separate matches to finish as the first tournament champion.

”It’d have been nice to have a few other girls in her bracket so she could get a couple other looks, but for being back in her first tournament, we’ll take it,” WCAP women’s wrestling coach Aaron Sieracki said. “It was definitely enough. We’ll move on.”

Though she could have wrestled more, Villaescusa was glad to be back on the mat.

“I felt good but there’s definitely a lot of things I need to work on,” she said. “I need to take more shots, but I feel good to come back with a win.”

The previous time she wrestled competitively was at the same Schultz tournament in November 2017. She began to feel pain in her neck. But it wasn’t until a training camp shortly after that she realized something was seriously wrong.

Two months later, she had surgery. Doctors replaced the ruptured disc. But even before the operation, she wasn’t sure if she could return to a sport picked up in the sixth grade, because nothing was promised. The Rio Rico, Ariz., native persisted and recovered.

She began training again last May.

“In my mind, I’m coming back,” Villaescusa said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to come back.”

This determination was apparent at a young age.

As high school freshman, she placed second at the ASICS/Vaughan Nationals in Fargo, N.D. — the largest collection youth wrestlers in the country.

At 17, she moved to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic Training Center. She was there for the next three years while she studied full time at UCCS and worked nights as a nursing assistant.

In 2016, she joined the Army and WCAP wrestling at Fort Carson in hopes of one day fulfilling her ultimate goal of becoming an Olympic champion.

So, what’s next for Villaescusa?

More wrestling, of course. She’s competing at the Grand Prix of Germany in February. She hopes she’ll get more than two matches this time and with different wrestlers.

“Being able to be back on the mat and be competitive again, with my neck feeling great, my body feeling great,” she said Thursday, “it was an awesome feeling.”


Chhun Sun is a sports reporter with an emphasis in preps. He joined The Gazette in April 2015 and covered public safety for three years before joining @gazettepreps staff. The Thailand-born Cambodian-American has been in journalism for nearly two decades.

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