For Tucson-native Andrew Vera-Jackson, wrestling isn’t just a sport — it’s a lifestyle. Since he first stepped foot on the mats back in middle school, the initial spark Vera-Jackson had for the sport has continued growing into a fire still burning bright within him.
“Sports have always been my escape in life,” Vera-Jackson said. “I just kind of fell in love with wrestling while still doing multiple sports. As I was transitioning to high school, I knew I had to focus on something if I wanted to go to college, so I ended up choosing wrestling.”
While Vera-Jackson’s overall journey has been vastly different than most other athletes, his relentless dedication and commitment to his goals opened doors to opportunities he never dreamed of having.
A 2015 graduate of Cienega High School, Vera-Jackson’s legacy on the Bobcat program isn’t limited to being a school record holder; He also was a two-time state medalist, an All-American wrestler and a member of Team Arizona.
Vera-Jackson earned a scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, AZ where he continued his wrestling career, but he said making the decision of where to attend was far from easy. Receiving nearly three dozen letters from universities across the nation, Vera-Jackson said he had little guidance in terms of navigating the process, leaving him to figure it out on his own.
“If you got a letter, then you just reach out to the coaches and go from there,” Vera-Jackson said. “My first two letters were from Stanford and Columbia, which was really exciting.”
After exploring the degree options and speaking with numerous coaches, Vera-Jackson settled on Embry-Riddle because of their academic programs directly aligning with his field of study.
“I knew a lot of other schools would be better for wrestling, but at the time, I was like, ‘Yeah, just get through college and then be done,’” Vera-Jackson said. “What I wanted to do with my life and Embry having the program of Global Security Intelligence Studies, it really drew me into them.”
While in college, Vera-Jackson also minored in Middle Eastern studies and learned Arabic, his third language. Despite touting a rigorous course load going hand-in-hand with his athletic commitments, Vera-Jackson found a way to transition from the daily grind of high school to college with ease.
Following his junior year, Vera-Jackson was forced to take some time away from both school and wrestling to attend to some family issues. Helping to take care of his mother while she recovered from medical procedures, Vera-Jackson knew his family needed him more at that point in time and made the tough decision to return to Tucson.
When he returned to Tucson in 2018, he began working with the Arizona Department of Corrections, where he stayed for the next three years until he was finally able to return to Embry-Riddle.
“It was nerve-wracking at first,” Vera-Jackson said. “You grow up quickly there. They sent me to a Level 5, Max Capacity Detention Center… When I finally took a step away from that and finished school, I was very, very happy I did.”
Being the first one in his family to graduate from college, earning his degree was a big deal.
“I’m proud of what I did and I’m excited,” Vera-Jackson said. “I hope I made my family proud with that. It was a very long road and they just really believed in me.”
After finally earning his Bachelors’, Vera-Jackson relocated to Fort Worth, TX to join the Spartan Mat Club at Texas Wesleyan University.
“They offered me a full ride to my master’s program,” Vera-Jackson said. “I was talking to schools, but this one I felt benefited my program. If I want to take the time to do schooling, I need it to be something that’s going to benefit my future.”
Anticipating his return to the mat, Vera-Jackson knew it was also going to be a grueling battle to get there. After three years away from training, it was going to take a lot of conditioning and time in the weight room to transition back to peak competition shape.
Grinding his way back to being in training shape, Vera-Jackson started floating the idea of trying out for the Bolivian National Team with his coaches. Initially hesitant, saying he didn’t want to waste any more time, he decided to go out and at least try.
His decision to go for it ended up paying off, as Vera-Jackson was named as a member of the 2022 Bolivian World Team back in November. Since then, his sights have been set on making it to the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“I’m in the process of trying to find a Regional Training Center,” Vera-Jackson said. “A couple of places are interested, it’s just going to take a little more time, getting my name out there a little more and bringing back some hardware.”
The time between now and the end of 2023 will be a crucial time for Vera-Jackson in his quest to become an Olympian. Not only will he look to compete all over the globe to continue challenging himself against the competition, but he also will continue traveling across the nation for training, working with numerous different training partners while improving and learning new techniques.
“My struggle is trying to find more freestyle clinics,” Vera-Jackson said. “I’m trying to get more exposure.”
The Tallinn Open took place in Estonia in March, and the Pan-Am Championships took place in Chile in May. Both provided him the opportunity to get more exposure while preparing him for what’s to come; The Bolivarian Games taking place in Colombia in July and the South American Games in Paraguay in October.
Competing in so many international competitions can get costly. Flights, hotels, meals and tournament fees are just some of the many expenses competing abroad can rack up, and it doesn’t factor in any basic funds needed to continue training at a high level back in Texas.
“Every time I go to Bolivia, it costs between seven hundred and a thousand dollars each trip,” Vera-Jackson said. “Everything I pay is out of pocket. Bolivia doesn’t help with any of the financial burden, being a third world country.
Vera-Jackson is currently working towards raising money for his upcoming competitions, and is looking for sponsors interested in continuing to support him on his journey. Individuals looking to donate to his goals directly can do so by visiting his GoFundMe.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @LittWithBritt