Nyla Valencia’s visit to the University of Iowa was the stuff dreams were made of.
And it was packaged into a mini movie, courtesy of Nyla’s dad, Joel. A Sobrato High senior, Nyla signed her national letter of intent on Feb. 8 to become a Hawkeye and wrestle under the guidance of renowned coach Clarissa Chun.
Joel happens to be a Global Talent Leader at Facebook so it’s no surprise he was able to put together a video that captured the essence of their time in Iowa. When Nyla watched the video days after her visit to the Iowa City campus, she had a groundswell of emotion.
“That was the only time I cried realizing I was committing to this university,” said Valencia, who barring an injury will more than likely cruise to upcoming Central Coast Section and CIF State Championship titles. “That was the most emotional part because I was pretty much in shock the entire trip. The whole experience was unreal and as you’re going through it there are certain things you don’t realize are happening until you watch the video.”
Valencia is the No. 3-ranked 106-pounder nationally by USA Wrestling, dominated the competition in winning the CIF State Girls Championship as a sophomore in 2020 and last March won USA Wrestling’s High School National Recruiting Showcase.
Valencia followed that up with a sixth-place showing in the Junior women’s freestyle national championships before winning the Super 32 Challenge—perhaps the toughest tournament in the nation—going 5-0 with wins over a Who’s who of wrestling standouts.
Valencia will wrestle under the guidance of Chun, a 2008 world champion, a bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympic Games and the USA Wrestling assistant national coach. And since the two are relatively similar in weight, Nyla said the two can be partners in the wrestling room.
“Nyla is an incredible person that works diligently to achieve big aspirations,” Chun said in a release. “She is competitive in the classroom and on the mat. She found Iowa to be a perfect fit for her and I know she is a perfect fit for this program.”
As recently as four weeks ago, Valencia had her eyes set on attending Columbia University as one of her life-long goals was to attend an Ivy League university. However, things changed when she had a couple of dreams where she was wrestling at the Olympics with Chun in her corner. Valencia has a goal to make an Olympic team and will try up to three cycles (2024, 2028 and 2032 Games) to make it happen.
“I remember waking up to those dreams, and that’s when I started to rethink my future,” she said. “That’s when I sort of gained a little bit of perspective that I have 10 years max in the sport and I’m extremely passionate about it. So I really wanted to give wrestling my all and train as hard as I possibly could and if I fell short, at least I tried everything I could. I’m giving myself three opportunities to make the Olympics before I decide to pursue medicine (to become a heart surgeon), so why not put myself in the best training situation possible to achieve that goal?”
The path to Iowa City got started last September when it was announced Iowa would become the first Division I, Power 5 school to offer women’s wrestling. There are currently 45 intercollegiate women’s wrestling programs spread over its three divisions, with five in Iowa alone.
Iowa is noted for its enthusiasm and financial support for sports, particularly wrestling. The sport is ingrained in the state and some of the most legendary figures including Dan Gable is part of Iowa lore.
Chun was named the coach in November and even though the program won’t begin official competition until the fall of 2023, Valencia will be able to compete as unattached in her freshman year.
Once Valencia decided to put herself in the best position to achieve her wrestling goals, Iowa had the inside track. Chun happens to be a family friend as they first met years ago when Valencia started getting invited to train at Olympic camps.
Friendship aside, Chun knew she had to make a great pitch to the Valencia family and that’s exactly what she did and then some. Joel and Nyla flew into Iowa around 12:30pm on Feb. 4, and from there it was non-stop going from one place to another.
First it was Iowa’s biology’s department, where Nyla saw some classes, sat in on some lectures and met people in the department and students on the premed track.
“Clarissa wanted to show me how strong of an academic department Iowa had and how it would be a great place for me to pursue becoming a cardio thoracic surgeon,” said Nyla, who carries a 4.45 GPA. “I didn’t realize Iowa was the No. 1 public university research institution in the United States.”
Next up was the famed Iowa wrestling room, something Nyla had seen before in wrestling documentaries.
“It was very awe-inspiring,” she said. “They have a recovery facility where athletes meet before competitions with a bunch of couches and a recovery chair, and I could definitely see myself in that room. What I really liked about the day one experience was the fact Clarissa really spent the time to show me all the amazing different aspects of the school. She showed me every single aspect of the university that would appeal to me.”
They capped off the first day with dinner, and Valencia got a glimpse into wrestling’s popularity in the area as the sport was being shown on all the big screens inside the restaurant.
“Coach Clarissa was pretty much a celebrity over there and there were so many different people going up to her congratulating her on being the new coach and how they were going to support women’s wrestling,” Valencia said.
Valencia said the second day of the visit was even better, if possible. They went to an Iowa men’s dual meet where Valencia got to see the wrestlers warm up. She also met with coaches Tom and Terry Brands and visited with the team doctors, a collection of surgeons in different fields, orthopedists and sports psychologists.
It was at the dual meet where Valencia was feted by countless strangers who treated her like she was one of their own, even though she hadn’t signed her letter of intent yet. If the Iowa fans figured making a top recruit like Valencia feel like royalty would make it too hard to not commit there, they would be correct because Valencia was blown away with the communal aspect of the wrestling program’s culture and community.
“Being at the dual meet was part of what did it for me,” she said. “The wrestling community there is incredible. There’s so much support for men’s and women’s wrestling. As Clarissa was introducing me, I was getting congratulated everywhere and people were shaking my hands. The wrestling spirit there was awesome, and the whole crowd was completely into it so it was just a surreal experience.
“Little girls were coming up to me asking to take photos of me because I was going to wrestle there. It’s such a good thing to know wrestling will be supported and people will be rooting for me and the team. That’s how strong the community is, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It let me know I would be a member of something pretty magical.”
The highlight of the trip for Joel was meeting Gable, a legendary figure in the sport who wrestled and later coached at Iowa.
“My dad also wanted to be a Hawkeye,” Nyla said. “He grew up wanting to wrestle for Iowa. He got to talk to Dan Gable for five minutes and got a lot out of it, too. My dad is pretty much in shock that his daughter is going to be a Hawkeye. He never expected that at all.”
Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago Valencia had her eyes set on Columbia and prior to that, Stanford. Incredibly enough, Nyla said it was her younger brother Aden—another prominent top-ranked national wrestler—who had his eyes set on Iowa.
“I grew up wanting to go to Stanford and Aden always wanted to be a Hawkeye for wrestling,” she said. “Now the situation is reversed because Aden wants to go to Stanford and he has a really good shot at it. The whole thing is extremely ironic. But things happen for a reason, and this was fate for sure.”
In a post on her Instagram account announcing the decision, Valencia wrote, “To all the women who have come before me, pioneering a journey for the new generation of female wrestlers, I want to thank you. …I want to thank my family and coaches for the sacrifices they’ve made for me as well as the unconditional love and support they have given me. Thank you Coach Clarissa and everyone else behind the program for stepping up as a leader, let’s make history!”
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Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.