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For senior David Graves and sophomore Avery Atma, their 2020 state wrestling championships are the ultimate recognition for the thousands of hours they have put in on the wrestling mat since the eighth grade. For Las Cruces High School and the Las Cruces school district, the titles are a celebration of students who excel in athletics and in academics: Graves has a 4.1 GPA and Atma has a 3.7.
The two young men “exemplify what we’re all about,” said long-time LCHS Head Wrestling Coach Kevin Marks. “They are true student athletes.”
Graves, 18, won gold in the 145-pound weight class, with a 2019-20 record of 44 wins and four losses; and Atma, 16, won in the 120-pound class, with a 37-3 record, at the New Mexico Activities Association 2020 Wrestling State Championship Jan. 21-22 in Rio Rancho. Both Bulldawgs are Las Cruces natives.
LCPS had a third state champion crowned at the tournament, as Oñate High School senior Angelita Altamirano won the girls’ wrestling title in the 100-pound weight class. She made history by becoming the first girls wrestling champion in the state, said LCPS Athletic Director Ernest Viramontes.
Graves will graduate this May and plans to attend prep school in Boston, study aeronautical engineering and continue wrestling. He’s also a gymnast and played on the LCHS football team.
Graves said wrestling has given him “the ability to know my limits and how to break through them. No matter how tired I am, I still have more,” he said. Winning a state championship meant “everything I’ve put in it for five years finally came to fruition,” Graves said, like “growing a fruit tree and finally eating the fruit.”
Atma reached the finals at last year’s state championship and worked extra hard this year to win the gold. “Wrestling is a passion for him,” Marks said. “He’s been putting in the hours.” Atma plans to defend his title as an LCHS junior next year and hopes one day to wrestle for Penn State.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do than be on the wrestling mat,” Atma said. Winning the state title has made life less difficult, he said. “Now that I’ve done this, everything is easier,” Atma said.
Because wrestling is an individual rather than a team sport, “everything they did was them,” Marks said. “These kids, they did it. That’s their state championship. No one can take it away from them.”
At the same time, Marks, said, Graves, Atma and all his other wrestlers “helped each other get better” all season long. “You’re as good as your training partner,” he said.
In their lives as in wrestling, it’s about “the individual effort that they put forth,” the coach said. It’s the extra discipline and the ability to overcome adversity that makes state champions.
For Graves, that included wrestling the entire season with a broken finger. For Atma, it was dealing with a knee injury.
Atma has two sisters, ages 9 and 11, both of whom are wrestlers like him. He counsels them that being mentally ready on the mat is as important as the physical training. Graves has a brother, age 27, and three sisters, ages 19, 20 and 21, and comes from a wrestling family.
“I’ve learned you can’t go into a competition being afraid,” Graves said. “You do everything you can,” he said. If one wrestling maneuver doesn’t work, “I’ll just try something else. I’m here to have fun.” The difference for Graves in winning a state championship this year was his ability to win close matches in the last few seconds, Marks said.
“I’m a big believer in God,” Atma said. “The only thing holding you back is you.”
“We love state champs,” the coach said. But more than that, he said, “We’re putting good people out into society.”
Because they won state championships, Graves and Atma have been invited to the National High School Coaches Association Wrestling Tournament, March 27-29 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Both boys are raising money to help pay for the trip. To make a donation, contact Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org.