ASHEBORO — Like most middle school students, Asheboro’s Oscar Zelaya was trying to find himself while attending eighth grade at North Asheboro Middle School.
In his own words, he was hanging around the wrong people, doing things he shouldn’t be doing and was headed down a road that surely could lead to serious trouble in the future.
Then he found wrestling.
“Before wrestling, I was really lost, hanging around the wrong crowd, the wrong people, people I shouldn’t be around,” Zelaya said. “It got me into a couple of predicaments.”
Behind the constant urging of NAMS wrestling coach John Lopienski, Zelaya finally gave in and said he would go to one practice. It was a day that changed his life as he instantly fell in love with the sport.
“I wasn’t too sure,” he said about attending his first practice. “I didn’t know how I would feel about it until I got in the room. I went into one practice and knew this is what I want to do and want to focus on. I told Mr. Lopienski I wanted to be a wrestler and he pushed me throughout the summer off-season.”
Lopienski remembers the amount of prodding it took to get Zelaya to come to his first workout.
“I really didn’t know him personally, but he just looked like he had potential to be an athlete,” said Lopienski, who was a substitute teacher one day a week during Zelaya’s seventh grade year before taking a full-time job at the school during Zelaya’s eighth grade year.
“I kept telling him that first year he needs to join the wrestling team. I stayed on him, but he didn’t come out. I just kept asking him and asking him and I think it got to the point where he said, ‘This guy isn’t going to quit asking me so I might as well go once.’ That’s how it started.”
There were some bumps. Although undefeated, Zelaya suffered a knee injury and missed a majority of the second half of the wrestling season. Still, while most may have found a different way to occupy his time while healing, he never missed a practice, encouraging his teammates and doing whatever he could to improve.
He did come back and placed second at the Randolph County Wrestling Meet, finishing his season at 9-1.
“We got him through that first middle school season,” said Lopienski, who is in his fourth year as the AMS coach. “And he hasn’t stopped.”
Zelaya continued his hard work during the summer, practicing and competing around the area and then ventured into freestyle wrestling.
“We wrestled in every tournament we could,” Lopienski said. “I really pushed him. There were times when I would call him on a Monday and say we were going here on Saturday and I knew he didn’t want to go. But he knew it was necessary to get to where he wants to go.
“It’s not common for a kid to put that much effort forth for as long as he has done it,” Lopienski added. ”Kids will go two or three weekends and then when summer is here and they think they did enough. He did not skip a beat.”
There was a reason.
“My whole summer was spent trying to get better,” Zelaya said. “I wanted that varsity spot as a freshman and knew I had to work my butt off.”
Now a freshman at AHS, Zelaya is making a name for himself very quickly. Competing in the always-tough 138-pound weight class, he is 22-9, including a 2-2 record at this past weekend’s Tiger Holiday Classic in Chapel Hill.
“Very rarely does a freshman step into the varsity team and make an impact like Zelaya has,” AHS wrestling coach Wes Berrier said. “He’s competing in one of the toughest weight classes in the state year in and year out. It’s very unusual unless you're a Sawyer Davidson or a Nick Coe. You just don’t see too many freshmen at 138. That is a stud weight class.”
Zelaya continues his hard work.
“The kid eats and sleeps wrestling,” Berrier said. “The kid is going to Club, going to Zoo City Wrestling, Grass Roots Wrestling Club. He’s all in. He’s focused on school and wrestling. He wants to be successful.”
Zelaya, who has one older sister and a younger sister, has received plenty of support at home as well.
“I feel like wrestling has become a big part of my life and my parents see how much I want this and they try and motivate me,” he said. “I really haven’t focused on anything like this in a while. This has brought discipline in my life.”
And plenty of success.