Sunnyside’s Jaime Rivera Jr. heads to West Point, paving road to success for youth in community

Sunnyside’s Jaime Rivera Jr. from when he won his third state title this season (Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Sunnyside High School senior wrestler Jaime Rivera Jr. was so advanced academically as a third grader attending elementary school in Chicago that he brought tears to the eyes of his educators.

“When he started kindergarten and first grade, he was identified pretty soon as somewhat of a gifted student,” his father Jaime Sr. said Friday. “We knew right then and there. He was retested again in third grade and the teachers actually got really emotional when they saw his essay-writing skills. They were like, ‘Wow, this is different.'”

During a signing ceremony Friday, Jaime Jr. was on the Sunnyside auditorium stage with his father and mother Luz with a West Point banner in front of him and a large video display of him wearing a United States Military Academy West Point wrestling uniform.

Jaime Rivera Jr. with his parents Jaime Sr. and Luz during Friday’s signing ceremony with the U.S. Military Academy Prepatory School at West Point (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Retired U.S. Army Colonel John Bryant stood a few feet from the Rivera family speaking to the crowd that consisted of Sunnyside administrators, teachers and students, as well as members of the Rivera family.

“I’m here this afternoon to present an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy Prepatory School to one of your classmates … who has demonstrated the qualities of which we search,” Bryant said. “It’s my privilege to be part of awarding this appointment to the prep school for Jaime Rivera.”

Jaime Jr. is a common-day Captain America.

Honor student since he could put his first sentence together as a first grader. Champion of three titles in his four years as part of the Sunnyside wrestling dynasty. Signed by the U.S. Army wrestling program, earning a scholarship for full tuition worth $300,000 that covers room and board, educational fees and medical and dental care.

“And four summers of fun-filled adventure training at West Point and around the world,” Bryant added.

Jaime Rivera Jr. will major in engineering while attending the U.S. Military Academy Prep School.

He plans to utilize his experience with the Army to become involved with military intelligence.

His third-grade teacher in Chicago would not be surprised.

“I feel, as of now, the ends are open — I can do government work, stay with the CIA or FBI, or go to the private sector and enter a big company and use my engineering major,” he said. “Who knows? Right now, the doors are open. I’ll see what I like and it is what it is.”

Jaime Jr. was raised in Chicago until he was in the fourth grade because that is where the family resided after the elder Rivera attended the University of Illinois upon graduating from Willcox High School in 1995.

He earned an accounting degree at Illinois and became an auditor in Chicago until the family — which includes Cristian (a sophomore wrestler at Sunnyside) and Giovani (a seventh-grade wrestler at Gallego Intermediate) — returned to Southern Arizona in 2014, when Jaime Jr. was 9.

“We wanted to be back with my parents, who were getting a little older, and with my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews,” the elder Rivera said. “We wanted to be back home with family and before they get older and wanted to make their own decisions.”

Jaime Sr., a standout wrestler at Willcox High School, trained all three of his sons in the sport from when they were able to walk. When the family returned from Chicago, Jaime Sr. coached Jaime Jr.’s wrestling team at Desert Sky Middle School in Vail.

Jaime Sr. and Luz entrusted Sunnyside High School to not only improve their son’s wrestling skills with its dynamic program, coached by Anthony Leon, but also strengthen his academic pursuits.

“We know we have a powerful wrestling program — it’s clear with the 35 wrestling state championships,” Sunnyside Unified School District superintendent Steve Holmes said. “We’re the dominant program here in the state. What I know is also clear — we’re a strong academic institution. Here’s a young man going to West Point, prestigious West Point, and we’re honored that he gets to go and serve and be the man he’s going to be in honor not only for our community, but for his family.

“That happened with a lot of really good support from family and good support from the wrestling room, but I want to say, also good support from the school culture that’s here.”

Jaime Jr. holds the distinction of being the first wrestler from the Sunnyside dynasty to advance to West Point.

He joins a growing list of Division I wrestlers coached by Leon since he was hired in 2011 that includes Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State), Jesse Ybarra and Sebastian Robles (Iowa), Anthony Echemendia (Ohio State) and Rene Fragoso (committed to ASU and will sign Monday).

The list is growing.

Leon said world-class sophomore wrestler Audrey Jimenez is likely headed to Princeton after graduating from Sunnyside in three years next spring. She plans to compete for a spot on the U.S. wrestling team for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Class of 2023 state champions Michael Avelar and James Armstrong (who will contend for his fourth state title next season) are being recruited by numerous Division I programs, including Michigan and ASU.

Bravo-Young (two-time NCAA champion and 2024 Olympics aspirant), Ybarra and Robles often return to Sunnyside’s wrestling room to train and bestow their knowledge to the current group of wrestlers. Jaime Rivera Jr. said he will also return and give back to the school, program and community.

“He’s a leader, someone who can really set the tone in the wrestling room,” Leon said of Jaime Jr. “You need those guys. We’ve had them in the past but sometimes you don’t pick the institution, the institution picks you. In reference to West Point, I remember being involved in the recruiting process.

“He had options to Michigan and Wisconsin, Arizona State, etc., and he was drawn specifically to West Point. I think it’s that leadership aspect. That’s really what intrigues him.”

Jaime Sr. talked to the crowd during the ceremony Friday and became choked up with emotion twice, when talking about his son’s accomplishments and when mentioning the work Leon has performed to help make his son a champion on the mat.

His son Cristian, another Class of 2024 Division I prospect, is coming off a state championship at 132 pounds under Leon’s guidance.

“Every one of my kids and every wrestler is so blessed to have him,” Jaime Sr. said of Leon. “His work ethic that he shows to them is a great example — being here at 5 or 6 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 8 or 9 p.m.

“He runs morning practice and then teaches throughout the day, runs practice in the afternoon, and then runs the youth program after that. The guy has unlimited energy and he’s taught so much to my kids — work ethic and just being a great example, pushing them, and staying on them in every aspect academically, athletically. He’s just a great guy and a great friend. I’m very thankful for him.”

The Sunnyside community indirectly benefits from what Leon is helping to generate with his staff.

Jaime Jr. is an example of that because of how he will impact the youth in coming years with his exploits at West Point.

“Leadership is something I take super seriously,” Jaime Jr. said. “It’s one of the reasons I chose West Point to be honest. Being able to pave the road for people of the school and the community to follow behind in my footsteps, in their own way, is something big to me.”

He made his third-grade teacher emotional with his writing skills at such a young age.

He will make students of all ages become enamored with him in the future.

The community prospers.


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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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