Anthony Echemendia‘s story of his perilous journey from Guatemala to El Paso with the hopes of gaining asylum in the United States after fleeing from Cuba three years ago was featured recently on the Big Ten Network.
Echemendia, who won the 152-pound state title in 2019 at Sunnyside, is a freshman at Ohio State wrestling at 141 pounds. He went 4-1 this season.
His eligibility was granted last year by the NCAA Clearinghouse for the 2020-21 season after his residency background was investigated.
Hard to believe that about three years ago he was concerned for his life running through the jungles of Guatemala and swimming through rivers trying desperately to get to the U.S. border.
He left his parents Rodolfo Echemendia and Dayami Acuña in Cuba but shares a very close relationship with them which makes the time away from them particularly difficult.
He was in Guatemala with the Cuban Junior Pan American wrestling team for a training camp. One night, he followed through with what was weighing on his mind for a while — he fled his team and set out on his treacherous trek “for what is a lot more opportunities here in the U.S.,” he told me in an interview last year.
Echemendia planned his course through the northern part of Guatemala across some rivers in Belize to Mexico.
“When I left my team, I didn’t talk to my parents,” Echemendia said. “I went about two days without texting anybody or contacting anybody. I knew my parents would say, ‘No, no, come back to Cuba. We don’t want you to leave.’”
Echemendia mentions in the Big Ten Network video that the Guatemalan police were in search of him and if they caught him “I would be in jail right now.”
Once in Mexico, he set on foot on the long 1,800-mile trek toward the border at El Paso, hitchhiking rides along the way. When he reached the border after about a week, he requested political asylum.
“When I got to the U.S., I spent about two months in jail and then they transferred me to a detention center,” Echemendia told me. “When I was in the detention center, I had to pass an interview. If you don’t pass the interview, they send you back to Cuba.
“If you do pass the interview, you need a letter from your family. My Godparents live in New Mexico, so they were able to send that letter. When I got out, I went to live with them.”
When his parents discovered he was in the United States after his long ordeal, they both became seriously ill, Echemendia said.
“My mom was really stressed out — to be honest, my mom almost died,” he said. “I am my mom’s little baby. My dad is a tough guy and he almost died from the stress. I slept in my parents’ bed until I turned 16, sleeping between them. Think about how close we are.”
He said he calls them every day, “otherwise, they will worry if I am okay.”
Echemendia’s arrival in Tucson occurred in October of 2018, when his Godparents released him to Fernando Villaescusa, a member of Sunnyside’s wrestling coach staff under head coach Anthony Leon.
“A coach on the Cuban team who knows my parents called Fernando because he knows him too and he told him about me — that I can wrestle and that I’m a good guy,” Echemendia said. “I lived with Fernando. He coached me with the other coaches. I was lucky to get the opportunity.”
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Echemendia classified as an 18-year-old senior from his education background in Cuba and wrestled in the last two months of the season for the Blue Devils. He dominated the 152-pound competition with a 22-0 record on his way to the state title.
His wrestling career in the U.S. blossomed last summer when he won the Freestyle and Greco-Roman titles at 145 pounds at the USMC 16U and Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D.
Universities started to recruit him heavily including Iowa State, Iowa, ASU and Ohio State. He at first committed to Iowa State but became interested in Ohio State because it is not only one of the best wrestling programs in the nation, the school also has Casimiro Suarez, a Cuban-born assistant gymnastics coach. Suarez and Echemendia struck a friendship after Suarez reached out to him.
Living in Columbus, Ohio, this fall will be about 1,300 miles away from Cuba. He feels like it is a world away, thinking back to the nights in the Guatemalan jungle not sure if he would survive.
Echemendia also did not know how to speak English when he reached the U.S. two years ago. Now, he can carry on a conversation in English because of individual tutoring with one of the Sunnyside coaches. With confidence, prepared for his college courses at Ohio State.
He earned the recognition of Ohio State Student Athlete of the Month in September. Echemendia is a business major studying Sports Industry.
“I got lucky,” Echemendia told me. “It was meant to be. I think it was God’s plan because I really love wrestling and I wanted to keep wrestling.
“This is crazy. I didn’t expect all of this. The only thing that’s missing is not having my parents here. I don’t know when I will be able to see my parents again. I am hoping for that day.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.