Santos battles through injury to CIFS

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Saturday, at around 1 p.m., Kayla Santos (11) paced restlessly around the side of a wrestling mat, eyeing past a match taking place in front of her and at her soon-to-be opponent from Otay Ranch High School. It was day two of the 2018 San Diego CIF Championships.

Santos had breezed through all her matches the day before and avoided elimination. But on this day, she lost one of her matches but battled all the way to the 121-pound weight class consolation finals. If she won this match, she would have the chance to wrestle in another match for second place, which would ultimately allow her to move on to the State Championships.

All around her, the sounds of referees’ whistles mixed with shouting coaches and parents amid the mustiness of the red Sweetwater High School gymnasium. The atmosphere was similar to all the other tournaments she wrestled at in her high school career.

Except the next six-minute battle she was about to enter wasn’t just any ordinary match.

As the match before her ended, signaling that her time had come, all kinds of thoughts and emotions raced through Santos’s mind, for her situation had become all too familiar.

Feb. 11, 2017, Santos wrestled in the consolation finals of the San Diego CIF Championships at Clairemont High School.

“I was wrestling a girl from Brawley High School,” she said. “I had already lost to her once and beaten her twice in previous tournaments, so I was feeling pretty good about this match.”

Her confidence correlated with her performance for the first half of the match, as she took control of her opponent and scored at a steady pace by the time she was midway into the second period.

“I was doing pretty well,” Santos said. “I was up by four points and still had a lot of energy left in my tank.”

Then, just as the outcome of the match seemed to be in her control, the unexpected happened.

“I was getting up from the bottom to try to get an escape,” she said. “And then, [my opponent] threw me down to the ground really fast. I stuck my left arm out straight to post myself up, but the way [my opponent] snapped me down made it bend in an awkward and painful way.”

A loud pop was the last thing she heard before a searing pain shot up throughout her arm. A loud pop caused her to forfeit the match. A loud pop prevented her from achieving her dream of making it to the state championships. A loud pop brought her overwhelming amounts of frustration and despair. A loud popA loud pop was what ignited a raging fire in her heart and drove her through another long year of struggle and determination.

“That was the most painful thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Santos said. “I was crying the whole time because it hurt so much.”

At the hospital, her doctor diagnosed her with a dislocated elbow. As she was being shown all the X-rays of her arm, she said she was too numb to process any of the information or most of what had just happened. But, it was the day after when the events dawned on her and all her emotions flooded through.

“I was really mad at myself because I didn’t contribute to the team as much as I thought I should have,” Santos said. “I put in all the work throughout the entire season, but this uncontrollable event happened.”

As she thought more about the events that had unfolded, she began became less and less certain about her passion for the sport.

“I kept thinking more about everything and questioned myself a lot,” Santos said. “It got to the point where I almost quit wrestling.”

But she decided to stick with the sport and continue to pursue her dream.

“I realized that going to State was more than anything I had ever wanted, so I just knew I had to keep fighting,” Santos said.

However, the road to achieving this goal was far from easy and she soon realized that the next 12 months of her life would be the most difficult she had ever faced.

“During the offseason, I never missed a single practice and I ran afterwards every day,” Santos said. “My biggest challenge was getting strength back into my arm. I had to lift weights a lot and it was just really difficult because I would be strong in my right arm but weak in the other. So, I had to use different weights for my different arms.”

She also had to control her emotions.

“I just had so much anger built up inside of me,” Santos said. “So, I ran a lot to let those emotions out. At the beginning of the season, our team would run at 5 a.m. every day.”

Another challenge was presented when former head coach Perry Watson announced his retirement in late March.

“At first, it was super hard because I didn’t know what kind of people my new coaches were going to be,” she said. “I didn’t know if they were going to be hard coaches or soft coaches. But what definitely helped with my transition into working with the new coaching staff was buying into everything they said.”

All the work and dedication that Santos put in seemed to pay off as the season arrived.

“I’ve won all the San Diego County tournaments this year and something new was that I’ve been placing at the LA County tournaments, which are much harder,” she said.

Indeed, she entered CIFs with a record of 18-5. During the week of CIFs, practices were more intense than ever and Santos said that winning CIFs was the only thing on her mind. But all the confidence and momentum she picked up throughout the entire season and offseason came to a sudden halt, Feb. 7.

“I had the worst jitters for CIFs because I didn’t want to repeat last year,” Santos said.

After Santos expressed some of these feelings to coach Duayne Guile over text, he insisted on having a talk with her after practice. During the talk, Guile told her that she couldn’t see winning CIFs as something difficult to achieve, that she had to view it as just a qualifying tournament for her ultimate goal of making it to State. He also told her that she couldn’t let her past experience at CIFs affect her and that this year was the year she was going to punch through to State. All she had to do, he said, was build her confidence.

“Coach and I are really close and I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she said.

Santos’ consolation final match was a tight one. She and her opponent battled back and forth, taking turns level changing and shooting, each attempting to get their first takedown for the majority of the first period.

Then, after about a minute, her opponent quickly dropped down and took a high C shot on Santos’ right leg for a takedown. Santos was now down, 2-0. But her opponent’s shot damaged a little more than her confidence.

“She took a shot on the knee that I had previously injured at a tournament up in LA County,” she said. “It bent backward a bit.”

But Santos didn’t stop. This was the match she had been waiting for all year. She fought constantly from the bottom, trying to get an escape. As the clock ran down to 13 seconds, she mustered enough strength to get to her feet and spin around her opponent for what she hoped would be a reversal. But, the referee awarded no points for this—the clock had run down. In the second quarter, things became more interesting as neither wrestler scored.

The third quarter remained tight as well, but just before it ended, Santos was finally able to get her reversal to tie the score at 2. They were going into overtime. In wrestling, overtimes are one-minute periods won by sudden victory—whoever scores the first point wins.

But as the two wrestlers battled and moved frantically all over the mat, they both came up empty-handed and went into double overtime.

“I was so tired by this point, it seemed like the longest period of my life,” Santos said. “Thirty seconds into overtime, she snapped me down. I held onto her leg as she wrapped around my waist, but the ref still gave her the takedown. I lost in double overtime.”

After all the obstacles she overcame, she said this moment was hard to take in.

“I knew the refs made some bad calls, but working super hard this season and wrestling tougher girls than the ones I lost to during CIFs made me frustrated and angry,” Santos said. “I left the gym and broke down crying.”

Despite all of this, Santos has been able to recuperate and isn’t going to let this year’s CIF results stop her from attaining the dream she has always had of being a State placer.

“The way I see it is, it just wasn’t my time. I needed to suffer these huge losses to motivate me to never feel like this ever again.”

The long and arduous journey this year has given her with a lot of insight and motivation.

“I’ve learned how it feels to want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe,” Santos said. “But most importantly, I learned that wanting it isn’t enough. You have to work a hundred times harder than anyone to really achieve what you want.”