Corona Santiago's Sanders an inspiration to all
FEB 21, 2013 12:31p ET
Over that four-year stretch his goal was to turn Santiago into one of the top programs around. By doing so, he would inspire his wrestlers to be invested in the program, wrestle year-around, and reap the benefits with success on the mat.
Little did he know, four years later he would be inspired and reap the benefits of one exceptional wrestler, Christian Sanders.
Glassey is now in year four. His plan has worked like a charm. Last weekend the Sharks won a CIF title. It was the first boys CIF title in school history, in any sport.
This weekend, Glassey will be sending a section-high 12 wrestlers to the CIF Southern Section Masters Meet that will be streamed live on FOXsportswest.com on Friday and Saturday.
Included in the 12 is Sanders. For the Sharks senior to be included in that group is nothing short of amazing.
Sure he had the measurables. Out of the womb, he was a nearly 11-pound baby despite being born two weeks early, and walked on the Santiago campus a 250-pound freshman.
Sanders was as raw as they come. He never wrestled competitively before his freshman year nor had he been involved in any sports growing up. Being involved in team sports as a youth became a challenge for Sanders for a myriad of reasons.
Sanders is one of the estimated 2-3 out of 1000 people in the United States diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Asperger’s is part of the Autism spectrum. Among the traits of the disorder include being socially awkward. Boys, especially, avoid eye contact. Social cues aren’t picked up very well. And, in some cases, physical clumsiness is a setback.
Sanders’ upward climb has captured the hearts of not only his teammates but the wrestling community.
“He’s the underdog story every time he gets out there on the mat,” said Ken Sanders, Christian’s father. “You know how we all love those underdog movies?”
The film Ken has watched develop in front of his eyes over the last four years has been part drama, part action flick, part tear-jerker. Last year at the state meet in Bakersfield, Sanders was recognized as the winner of the Cullen Fitzgibbons Award as the most inspirational wrestler in the state.
Being looked at as an inspiration is something he’s perfectly fine with.
“I feel pretty good (about it),” said Sanders, who was given the nickname “The Sandman” by his teammates. “I know that I’m doing the right thing and I know that I’m getting work done.”
It’s more than just being an inspiration, he’s backed it up with his performance on the mat. He placed fourth last week at the CIF finals at 195 pounds.
He took home first place earlier this season at the Bash at the Beach at Edison and is considered one of the wrestlers to watch at 195 pounds, according to ccsrank.com.
As a senior he’s enjoying his finest season. He also finished first at the Beaumont Invitational and helped the Sharks to the first CIF title in school history. The beginning of his career, however, was much rougher.
When Sanders was in the eighth grade, Ken and his wife, Peggy, received a call from their son’s P.E. teacher at El Cerrito Middle School. The teacher, who wrestled in high school, said Sanders should think about wrestling. As they were working on wrestling, Sanders pinned his classmates left and right without really knowing what he was doing.
What they were hearing on the other line was quite perplexing. As a family, they didn’t know much about the sport of wrestling. They’d tried putting their son in t-ball at a young age but that didn’t last very long. Sanders just wasn’t coordinated enough to do it and can’t throw a baseball.
Ken played basketball growing up and thought he’d try that with his son. Once again the coordination was a factor in addition to the social discomfort of being involved in more of a team sport.
Growing up, Sanders didn’t have many friends at all due to his lack of social skills as a result of Asperger’s.
“I was really apprehensive because here’s an uncoordinated kid going into what I knew, just a little bit, was a pretty physical sport,” Ken said. “I was like ‘wow, I hope this works.’”
They gave it a try and it was rough in the beginning. The work was hard. He was roughed up constantly in practice. Conditioning was a huge obstacle for the then uncoordinated, overweight, 250-pounder who didn’t have much of an athletic background.
“When he came into our program, he couldn’t run 50 yards,” Glassey said. “He couldn’t do five minutes of warm-ups.”
Sanders would leave practice, hop into his dad’s car, and cry. He wanted to quit. He didn’t win a single match that season and would often leave the mat ripping off his headgear in frustration following matches.
“It was hard to see that,” Ken said. “As a parent you almost want to go ‘yeah, you know what? Quit. You don’t need this,’
“(We) just kept encouraging the kid, kept being as positive as we can and not looking at the negative part of it.”
Sanders stuck with it. By the end of his sophomore year, Glassey was sticking him in varsity matches to earn the team points because he became nearly impossible to pin.
“I do not want to get pinned no matter what,” Sanders said.
As a junior, he moved from 182 pounds to 195 pounds and found a home. It started to click for him as he advanced to the CIF.
His commitment has paid dividends beyond the mat. Socially he’s made strides and credits wrestling for it.
“My dad motivated me and my coach did too and I honestly thought I could do it,” Sanders said. “It led me to (becoming) a greater person than I am today.”
This season, he was unanimously voted a team captain by his teammates. He’s just one of the guys. The respect stems largely from his work ethic. Glassey’s plan to have members of his team wrestle year-around has paid dividends and probably none greater than with Sanders.
He embodies all that Glassey envisioned and more when he took over the Santiago program four years ago. Sanders’ progress is tremendous.
“The kid can’t even ride a bike,” Ken said. “He doesn’t know how to ride a skateboard but he knows how to wrestle.”
Glassey added, “(He is) probably one of my biggest successes. I’ve coached state champions and national champions and I’ve coached on the Pan-American team and world teams and this has probably been one of my bigger feats.
“He’s made the Masters meet which is insurmountable on the odds, but he made it.”