Chugiak wrestler is a success in life despite childhood

Matt TunsethAlaska Dispatch News
MATT TUNSETH / Alaska Star

What's tough?

Melissa Apodaca has been training six hours a day with the goal of representing the United States in one of the toughest sports around, freestyle wrestling. The 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 while keeping up with her college courses at Northern Michigan University, where last semester she earned a 4.0 grade-point average.

But those things don't begin to qualify as tough in Apodaca's life.

To understand her drive to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team this weekend, one must first understand where she came from.

Growing up, Apodaca was subjected to poverty, neglect and abuse. Her single mother left the girl to fend mostly for herself. She slept on couches, drifted from house to house and had to fudge facts 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 as an adolescent, she said, was to achieve more than her two older sisters.

"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 middle-school student on the Kenai Peninsula, Apodaca signed up for any sport she could in order to hang around the school into the evening. It was there she picked up wrestling, a sport that proved to be a natural fit for a girl who grew up fighting just to survive.

This week, Apodaca is the No. 2-seeded wrestler in the 63-kilogram weight class (138.75 pounds) at the U.S. Olympic trials in Iowa City, Iowa. She is one of two Alaskans at the meet -- Soldotna's Michaela Hutchison is an unseeded wrestler in the women's 55-kg weight class (121 pounds).

From her first day on the mat, competing against boys, Apodaca knew wrestling was for her.

"I was looking at them and I was like, 'I can take those boys,' " she said.

Apodaca's family moved to Anchorage when Apodaca was a freshman in high school, leaving her adrift. But Chugiak High is where she found what she considers her real family.

A shy, often introverted teenager at the time, she had little way of communicating how bad things were at "home." But as she started joining athletic teams, 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 who was working at Chugiak as a counselor and cross-country running coach when she met Apodaca.

When Apodaca began opening up about her lack of a real home, teachers and coaches at Chugiak came to her aid. Duncan Shackelford, the 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 close relationship with Smith, who had taken a keen interest in the girl. At the start of Apodaca's sophomore year, Smith told her to call any time if she had problems she wanted to talk about.

"The next day, she called and asked if she could live with us for the year," said Smith, whose husband Ben was also teaching at Chugiak at the time.

The Smiths -- high school sweethearts at Chugiak who have been married for 13 years -- gave Apodaca her own room and told her she was welcome to stay as long as she liked. She's been there ever since.

Lving with the Smiths helped give Apodaca the social skills she needed to be a "normal" teenager, and she began to come out of her shell. The shy introvert is gone.

"Now she talks all the time," Ben Smith said.

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 before graduating in 2008.

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. Today she attends school and trains at Northern Michigan, where she is a 4.0 student.

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 after that.

She hadn't wrestled in a major competition in more than two years when she entered the U.S. Senior Nationals in December. 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.

But she made it to the finals, losing by fall to 2010 World Championships silver medalist Elena Pirozhkova. The performance earned her a spot in this week's trials.

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."

U.S. Olympic wrestling trials

Saturday and Sunday, Iowa City, Iowa Alaskans entered

Michaela Hutchison, Soldotna, women's 55 kilograms (competes Saturday)

Melissa Apodaca, Chugiak, women's 63 kilograms (competes Sunday)

Alaska Star