After siblings Aden and Nyla Valencia won titles in the inaugural U.S.A. Wrestling High School National Showcase in Coralville, Iowa on March 27, they immediately headed to Fort Worth, Texas for the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials.
Though the Valencias are students of the game and love watching wrestling at the highest level, they weren’t going to the Trials as spectators—they were going as selected warmup partners to some of the competitors who were looking to punch their ticket to the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games. The fact that Aden, a Sobrato High freshman, and Nyla, a Sobrato High junior, had to be invited by a Team USA coach or competitor speaks volumes to their prodigious talent.
Aden was the warmup partner to Jacarra Winchester, who ended up winning the title in the women’s 53 kilogram (116 pound) division. Nyla was the warmup partner to Amy Fearnside, who finished fourth in the 50 kilogram (110 pound) class. As warmup partners, the Valencias were on the mats with all the other competitors in the Trials working up a sweat and preparing their partners mentally and physically to shine in competition.
“It was absolutely an unreal experience,” Nyla said. “Just being down there among Olympians and previous world champions was just exhilarating. Everyone made me feel like I was a part of the team and in a way I was competing because I tried to have the mindset that I was preparing myself in the next couple of years to be in the same situation preparing for the Olympic Trials trying to make an Olympic team.”
The experience was also incredibly rewarding and motivating for Aden.
“I was right there warming up with the best wrestlers in the world, and that was absolutely incredible,” he said. “I got to witness them getting ready, their motions, the way they get in their zone for war. I saw them get emotional after wins, and I got a little emotional because I could feel that. Just seeing a lot of wrestlers that I usually watch on TV was really cool.”
Even though Aden is just 15 years old and Nyla is 16, the brother-and-sister combination are eyeing the 2023 Olympic Trials. If all goes well, that would set up a run for the 2027 Trials with the intention of making the 2028 Olympic team. A lot has to happen between now and then, of course, for them to reach the highest level for the opportunity to compete on the sport’s biggest stage.
But given their respective career arcs—all Aden and Nyla have done is excel as they go up a level in competition every couple of years—it wouldn’t be a shock to see them one day gracing a Team USA singlet.
“It would be extremely tough to make the Olympic team in 2024, but I can always dream high,” Aden said.
In the High School National showcase event—which featured over 200 state champions on the boys side and more than 100 nationally-ranked girls, according to trackwrestling.com—Aden and Nyla dominated their competition en route to the championships.
Aden, a U15 world champion in both freestyle and Greco-Roman, outscored his opponents by a combined margin of 53-7 to win the 106-pound title. Nyla, a multiple national champion and last year’s CIF State Champion, defeated Faith Cole 13-6 in the 106-pound title match to add to her growing list of accomplishments. Nyla registered three 10-0 technical superiority wins and pinned two-time Cadet world medalist Sterling Dias in the semifinals.
Nyla was already ranked No. 1 in the country before the event started, while Aden rose from No. 3 to the top spot after his dominating performance. Two siblings ranked No. 1 in the country at the same time? No one is surprised, the least of which is Joel, Aden and Nyla’s dad. He introduced his son and daughter to sports at an early age, though Aden and Nyla said they never felt like their dad was pressuring them to go a certain way.
They were both extremely motivated to get on the mat, but at different times. Aden started wrestling at 3 ½ and started ice hockey a short time after, though he dropped the latter sport years later to focus on the mat. Nyla didn’t enter her first wrestling competition until she was 10, but has been drilling with her brother on the mat for as long as she can remember.
All of the hours toiling on the mat forged an inseparable bond that plays out in tangible ways. Not only are the siblings each other’s biggest fans, but they spend the majority of their time off the mat together as well.
“My brother and I have a special relationship,” Nyla said. “We spend every waking second together, and we never get tired of each other. There are moments in the training room where we’ll fight (argue) sometimes (because of the intensity of competition), but off the mat we’re best friends. I’m extremely lucky to have a brother like him and have a relationship with him as close as the one we have because not a lot of kids have that. We spend so much time together you would think we’d get annoyed and frustrated with each other, but we don’t and that’s amazing.”
Aden said his parents, Joel and Sandra, are responsible for the siblings’ close relationship.
“It’s 100 percent in how our parents raised us,” Aden said. “They always stressed we’re each other’s No. 1 and to always look out for each other. They stressed the need to stay close because when they’re gone one day, we’ll be the ones holding the family together. We’ve always done everything together as a family.”
It also helps that the two are close in age, continue to go through similar life stages and have some common interests, namely being active.
“Nyla has never been one to play with Barbies much,” Aden said. “She’s always been adventurous and always wanted to get out and walk, hike or swim. I like doing the same things.”
The brother-sister duo also love to be in the kitchen, though Aden prefers cooking while Nyla loves baking. Aden is a huge fan of Gordon Ramsay and has taken his Master Chef classes and follows his YouTube channel. Aden also loves reptiles and owns three collared lizards, with the goal to breed them in the future. Aden stays motivated throughout the year, especially when there is a big competition upcoming.
That will be the case in May as he’s entered in the World Trials in the 17U division. But it never hurts to have a dangling carrot, either.
“If things go well, my dad will let me get a monitor lizard, probably one of the smaller species,” Aden said. “I don’t know what it is I like about reptiles so much, but I’ve always liked them from a young age.”
Aden likes to draw and Nyla loves to paint, and they also watch TV shows together and walk their puppy. On the mat, Aden and Nyla are always looking to develop their strengths into an even greater weapon and continually improve in areas where they feel they’re not as strong. At the High School National Showcase tournament, Nyla stuck to her game plan by hitting her shots and attacks while staying confident throughout the matches.
“It was the first time I was able to let loose and stay relaxed and do what I do best on the mat,” she said. “(The championship match) was definitely a big confidence booster and a big moment for me in the sense that I established where I’m at in the weight division.”
Though Aden was satisfied for the most part, he said he was still a little tentative at times and didn’t like the way he wrestled in one of the matches. Going forward, Aden gave insight into what he needs to improve on to reach his goal of becoming an Olympic champion.
“Obviously the mental aspect of the sport is something I always need to improve on,” he said. “Also stalking and pressuring my opponent because they know who I am and they might back out and stall to keep the match close. I need to work on closing distance and stalking so I can get to my shots and score points. Transitioning to freestyle to my top game which is probably my best position is something I want to focus on. If I get on top in freestyle, they’re probably getting turned. And I need to work on my finishes because I run into a lot of big, strong kids, so getting to my finishes quicker is important.”
Though Joel is the one who raised up wrestling champions, Aden and Nyla couldn’t have advanced this far without Sandra’s love and support.
“She’s one of my biggest supporters and I go to her for her loving support and wisdom,” said Nyla, who will be competing in the 17U and 20U divisions in the World Trials. “Having her in my life has been incredibly amazing. At first, she was pretty against me wrestling because it was more of a boys sport (many years ago). But women’s wrestling has definitely evolved and nowadays she is right in my corner. She is very emotionally invested in my success, and I think that’s incredibly important. Off the mat, she makes sure we have proper nutrition and we’re recovering properly. Without those things, it would be harder to be at the level we’re at.”
Aden and Nyla aren’t just standouts in the athletic arena—they hit the books just as hard as they do the mat. Both have 4.0-plus GPAs and take pride in their studies. With everything that is on their plate—for most of the year they train twice a day—it’s no wonder the siblings don’t spend much time on their phones or social media.
“I’d rather be with family and friends and focus on things truly important than focusing on a different world that is almost meaningless in a way,” Aden said.
While Joel is Aden and Nyla’s primary coach, they also work with Armando Gonzalez Sr. and Jr. at the renowned Amateur Wrestling Academy in Gilroy twice a week. The teens also make frequent visits to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and spar with all of the top junior wrestlers who like them are looking to earn their way to the senior level. Although the siblings now have the same goal to make the Olympic team, it wasn’t always that way for Nyla, who planned on quitting the sport after graduating from high school.
“That was my plan as a 10 year old,” she said. “It’s crazy how much things have changed since then.”