For one of the few times in her burgeoning career, Nyla Valencia didn’t finish. Last May in the World Cadet Team Trials in Irving, Texas, Valencia won the first of a best-of-three series against one of her rivals, Sage Mortimer, by technical fall. However, Valencia lost the second match 7-2 before getting pinned just 40 seconds into the third and deciding match of the 46 kilogram (101 pound) division. It was a gut-wrenching result for Valencia, and yet the Sobrato High sophomore has used that tournament as a great learning experience.
“Losing the second match pretty handedly was definitely not what I expected,” she said. “I remember feeling very nervous after the first win because I started having doubts in my head. So one of the biggest takeaways from that is I had to learn how to relax because I was so tight and super tense when I didn’t need to be. I kept on doubting myself and thinking maybe I didn’t train hard enough. I think it all comes down to mindset, and because of that whole experience we’ve been training our minds.”
Valencia was referring to training her mind with her dad, Joel, who is in his first season as the Sobrato co-wrestling coach with Richard Rael. Joel not only trains Nyla physically, but mentally. Given that two athletes are of the same talent level and both have trained diligently, it’s the mentally tougher one who will prevail in competition. Nyla recognizes the mental game is the main area she needs to improve in. She is her own worst critic, and often times her most dangerous opponent isn’t the person across from her on the mat, but rather the battles that go inside her head.
“I’m a little bit hard on myself for the amount of years I’ve been doing the sport,” said Valencia, who is a multiple-time national champion in both wrestling and judo. “I go into matches doubting my abilities and that is why I don’t get the results I want to, but I’m improving in that area. So my goal (going forward on the club and high school scene) is to wrestle the best I can and to really let it loose on the mat and allow my confidence to take me as far as I can. One of my biggest struggles is my confidence, and I think if I learn to let loose I have so much more potential (to unleash). It really motivates me to improve in that area, and I’m excited to see what will happen if I end up doing that.”
Indeed, Valencia has already accomplished so much at such a young age, and enters the 2019-2020 prep wrestling season ranked second in the Central Coast Section at 106 pounds. Valencia said at times it’s hard not to compare herself to her younger brother Aden, who last summer won a world championship.
“I look at my brother’s success and maybe compare a little bit, which I shouldn’t because we’re two different people,” she said. “My confidence has definitely gotten better, and I know I have to go into every practice and workout confident in my abilities and to let loose. … My dad emphasizes your mind will take us as far as they set the limits, and our body just goes along with the journey.”
Let loose. That’s one of the mantras Valenica will tell herself before and during every practice or match. Valencia certainly let it loose in the prestigious Super 32 Challenge—one of the top folk style wrestling tournaments in the nation—in North Carolina in mid-October. In the 108-pound championship match, Valencia overcame a 4-0 deficit in the first period by scoring eight consecutive points en route to a 8-4 win over Abby Duke, who was ranked 18th in the nation entering the tournament.
Valencia recorded two takedowns and gut wrenches in the second period to close out the match in dominating fashion.
“The Super 32 felt good to win because I had been taking silvers for quite a while,” she said. “It was something I’ve been training for a while. I would say it was close or rivals my biggest victory (to another tournament in Reno). The Super 32 bracket had tougher competition, and I was wrestling at 108 pounds there when normally I’m at 101. I wrestled with a strong and positive mindset and attitude, and that is why I was so successful at the Super 32. It was an import tournament because I was able to realize what I could do if I just stayed calm and didn’t doubt myself.”
Valencia dominated her first four opponents in the Super 32 Challenge, producing technical falls or pins in all of them. The title match was a different story, of course, and yet Valencia found a way to dig deep and record an impressive comeback victory. Athletic, powerful and technical, Valenica is one of the faces of the rising Sobrato wrestling program, which has exploded in numbers this season compared to years past.
A lot of that has to do with Joel Valencia and Rael and their enthusiasm and connections in getting high school students to come try out for the sport. The Bulldogs have around seven girls on this year’s team, as opposed to the past when they’ve had anywhere from zero to two girl wrestlers on the squad. All told, 44 kids came for tryouts, Joel Valencia said.
Nyla has been front and center in the efforts to recruit more girls to wrestling, and it’s worked. Of course, when you’ve won three national titles in wrestling and four junior gold medals in judo, that doesn’t hurt one’s ability to attract more participation into the sport. This is actually Nyla’s first season of high school competition, as was previously home schooled and skipped a grade. She won’t turn 16 years old until next August. Her level of maturity goes well beyond her years, though.
“We have a pretty good amount of girls and have done a great job of bringing in kids and allowing them to see how fun wrestling can be,” Nyla said. “People are trying out for the sport and loving it. I think it’s great more girls are trying out and the numbers are growing.”
Valencia has one goal in mind in her freshman year: to win state. Valencia could be on a collision course with Buchanan sophomore Cristelle Rodriguez, who has won national and world championships. Rodriguez and Valencia have competed several times over the years on the club circuit, and they’ve trained together at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Rodriguez wrestled at 101 pounds last year, but could go up a weight class this season, which would put her and Valencia in the same division.
“Cristelle is a 2019 world silver medalist, and we have a pretty healthy rivalry,” Valencia said. “I treat my rivals really well because we both share the same goals and same dreams and we’re making each other better. I don’t see the point of bashing anyone, so even though we’re competitors, we have healthy relationships and in fact I’m friends with her.”
Outside of the national tournaments that bring together the best girl wrestlers from across the country, Nyla usually has to wrestle with boys to sharpen and improve her skills. Aden and Nyla practice together frequently, and Nyla benefits from Aden’s superior strength and quickness.
“We don’t necessarily wrestle a lot, but we work a lot together on technique and situations,” she said. “We’ve always had a really strong relationship in the training room and outside the training room.”
Nyla counts her dad as the most positive influence in her life. Joel has given Nyla all the tools to excel at a young age, and Nyla has responded in force. One of the distinguishing characteristics in Nyla’s career has been the fact she continues to show a maturity beyond her age. She talks like a seasoned pro, is very analytical and has a determination befitting of a potential state champion.
“One of the biggest aspirations of mine is to become a world champion and be as successful as I can be,” she said. “My dad’s goal is to train us (Aden) and make sure we enjoy the sport, and my dad has been doing a very good job of that. We’re definitely lucky to have him in our lives.”