Valley wrestler wins Silver Medal

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Get to know Sammy Chagolla, wrestler and vice principal at Ira A. Murphy Elementary School in Peoria. At the age of 45, he competed at the Veterans World Tournament in Ankara, Turkey and won the silver medal.

Jose Cardenas: A valley man failed to qualify for the Olympics 20 years ago. After this disappointment, he writes himself a letter commanding him to keep his goals alive. Years later the letter is found and the wrestler is inspired to continue his lifelong dream. Tonight get to know Sammy Chagolla, educator, motivator, and wrestler. Welcome to "Horizonte."

Sammy Chagolla: Thanks very much.

Jose Cardenas: I guess I should say, is it vice principal, or assistant principal?

Sammy Chagolla: Assistant principal of Ira A. Murphy Elementary School.

Jose Cardenas: You start out of course as a phenomenal high school wrestler in Peoria.

Sammy Chagolla: At one Pointe time won four state championships as a high school wrestler.

Jose Cardenas: And a national championship.

Sammy Chagolla: National title my freshman year.

Jose Cardenas: That success led you to -- you went to N.A.U., you wrestled there. And then you trained for the Olympics. Tell us what happened.

Sammy Chagolla: What happened was I was training for the Olympics back in 1987. And I was doing my student teaching at cactus high school at the time. They told me, we want -- I took over this position at the same time I was thinking, am I going to be able to do both jobs. So I took the permanent subbing position at the time, and started to train, and it was very difficult doing both.

Jose Cardenas: But you managed to, and you went to the tournament in Las Vegas.

Sammy Chagolla: I went to the tournament in Las Vegas, which was April 26th, 1988, and I fell a little short. I came out fourth in the Olympic trials, and you needed to be in the top three. So therefore I drove home with my father, pretty disappointed. And when I got home I sat in my room and wrote five letters, and one of the letters was the letter my wife found.

Jose Cardenas: And this letter you found, we're going through boxes, we've got a picture about that time with you -- you had done so well, despite that disappointment, you were on the Wheaties box, breakfast of champions.

Sammy Chagolla: Back in 1988. I won a national contest of 10,000 athletes, where they put me on the Wheaties box for over a year. I was very fortunate that Arizona and the city of Peoria and everyone supported that.

Jose Cardenas: But still despite that, you had terrific disappointment and you swore off wrestling competitively, wrote the letter, didn't see it for 20 years. How did you come to find the letter, and tell us how that led to the most recent adventures?

Sammy Chagolla: What happened, my wife and I were looking for some photographs for an ex-wrestler of mine, and it so happened she stumbled upon the letter, and she asked me, what does this mean? The letter said "do not open until after the age of 40." And so --

Jose Cardenas: at this point you were 44?

Sammy Chagolla: I was 44. I had just turned 44 in June. It's July 19th, about 7:30 at night. She opens the letter and she reads it to me, and I remembered exactly what it said. Basically in that letter it talked about my disappointment of not making the Olympic team, and maybe I failed my coach, and I didn't make it. And so at the very end of the letter I basically said if some day I was healthy enough by the age of 45, and I was married, that I would share that experience with my wife. Would I train again for the national tournament and wrestle again. One more time so she could experience that with me.

Jose Cardenas: Why would you, in your 20s, write a letter that says at the age of 45 I'm going to wrestle again? What was magic about that?

Sammy Chagolla: I really believed that I think any athlete goes through these emotions where you're almost there, and just the fact that you weren't able to reach that goal that you had your whole life, that you still deep down inside you still think that you have one more shot. And I said to myself that if I was healthy enough, why not dream it? So I just chased the dream down, and that's what I did.

Jose Cardenas: But it had been 20 years since you competed. It's not like Brett Favre, who retired just a few months ago, actually retired several times. But it had been a long time, a lot of people would say, that's a nice thing I wrote.

Sammy Chagolla: And I think there's a lot of people that look at it that way, but I think that as I was growing up, I was taught that you try and fulfill your dreams. Chase your dream until the very end.

Jose Cardenas: We have some pictures of you training on screen.

Sammy Chagolla: I just followed the dream. And my teachers were able to give that to me at a young age, give me that self-esteem I needed to accomplish the goals, and I just saw this as an opportunity to share that with my wife and my family, and help out kids, maybe if I was able to do this and accomplish it, that it would be a positive thing for kids.

Jose Cardenas: So you embarked on a rigorous training campaign and ended up competing in a national tournament. How did you do there?

Sammy Chagolla: In the national tournament I came in second, I was pretty sick, but I finished doing that when I came back home the doctor basically said, I don't know how you finished wrestling in that tournament, because --

Jose Cardenas: we have video of you wrestling.

Sammy Chagolla: Right. My lungs were just -- I just wasn't feeling very healthy. So when I came back, I was able to recuperate and basically I said to myself, if I'm in the top two I now qualify for the world championships. So I wanted to wrestle in a USA uniform, so I wanted to wrestle for the United States. And so I embarked on that, and I went to Turkey on August 14th with my wife.

Jose Cardenas: With the support of a lot of people, including the city of Peoria.

Sammy Chagolla: The city of Peoria basically -- I contacted them and told them, listen, you know that I'm a kid from here, I've always been support by you guys and I've always tried to do what's best for kids, and I need your help. And they basically gave me money to support the trip there with my wife, and we were able to do that along with my high school wrestling coach.

Jose Cardenas: And you did very well. In fact, you're wearing the silver medal that you won at the tournament. Tell us about that finals match.

Sammy Chagolla: I was in the finals and a few minutes before we went on the American coach that was coaching us basically told me that they were going to allow my high school wrestling coach to come out and coach me. But they saw that he was there and came all the way to Turkey to support me in the world championships, and I get on the mat, I give it my best shot. And everyone needs to understand that at 45 training after a year, it's very difficult. So I get on the mat, I go into double overtime, no one scores a point, at the very end, there's 30 seconds left --

Jose Cardenas: We just showed on the end the reviewing stand, the winner was your Iranian opponent. It was an epic match, double overtime. But what's more perhaps significant and many striking was after the match was over, and the exchanges you had with your reigning opponent. Tell us about those.

Sammy Chagolla: After the match we went to the awards stand and we were all sitting down one, two, three, and four, how we placed, and the Iranian had an interpreter and he basically said that the wrestler wanted to tell me something. And so he told me to stand up, I stood up, and he basically got on his knee and kissed my hand and said "you're a brother to me now, and I want you to know that." The gold medal that he had, was going to receive, was going to give his family a college education. And he was thankful for the opportunity to be able to wrestle and experience that.

Jose Cardenas: You're speaking of gifts. He gave you two gifts.

Sammy Chagolla: He gave me this gift right here, the Iranian flag, which is very important to me, and he gave that to me, and he also gave me what he was wearing that night. But the story behind it, this individual that I had wrestled, he also told me that he was a prisoner of war in 1991, captured in the Persian Gulf War by the Iraqi soldiers. And he basically took office -- showed me his back, and showed me how they had tortured him. I think after having a match like this with an opponent, I can tell you that speaking to him, it's more than just a medal, silver or gold.

Jose Cardenas: It's an incredible story. We're glad were you able to share with us. I'm sorry we're out of time, though. Perhaps we'll get you back to talk about it more in the future.

Sammy Chagolla: Thank you very much.

Sammy Chagolla:Wrestler and Vice Principal, Ira A. Murphy Elementary School, Peoria;

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