Ex-Suffolk wrestler on Honduras Olympic team
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It is a small world, after all. At this summer's London Olympics, the lone wrestling entrant for the Central American nation of Honduras will be a 21-year-old former two-time Suffolk County champion from Rocky Point High School -- Brandon Escobar.
Though a geographically unlikely tale, it is the latest evidence that America really is a hyphenated land. And that the primary emphasis of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin -- "the taking part" -- lives on.
"This is, for me, one of the most pure Olympic stories," said Darren Goldstein, Rocky Point's wrestling coach and one in a crowd of associates and friends hosting fundraisers to send Escobar's parents to London.
"It's all about having a dream, putting that dream to a test, believing in yourself when others wouldn't," Goldstein said. "And having your preparation meet your opportunity. No one gave this to Brandon. It's hard work and dedication."
Born on Long Island to Honduran immigrants, Escobar lived in Honduras as a toddler when his parents separated and eventually settled in Sound Beach with his mother and stepfather. It was at the suggestion of Nick Catana, a Romanian immigrant who is a wrestling coach for the New York Athletic Club and has worked with Escobar, that Escobar activated a "backup plan" when it became clear he was slightly below the radar for making the U.S. Olympic team.
"I was thinking, 'If I don't get to represent the United States, I can represent Honduras,' " Escobar said. He sent videos and a resume to Honduras national wrestling coach Humberto Trujillo and learned that Honduras "didn't have a guy in my weight class [55 kilograms, or 121 pounds]. They were excited. I don't think they expected to get this guy out of nowhere."
Honduras, in fact, never has sent a wrestler to the Olympics, and since it first participated in the games in 1968 has fielded a total of only 45 athletes in all Olympic sports. The country is slightly smaller in size than New York State and has roughly the same population as New York City (over 8 million, according to census data).
Because Escobar never had competed for a U.S. national team, there are no eligibility issues with his decision to compete for Honduras. So, in January last year, he reported to Honduras -- where he still has family -- and began traveling with the Honduran national team for competitions and training in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Colorado and Cuba.
In March, he earned his Olympic berth by reaching the Pan American Games semifinals in Orlando, Fla. "The guys here [in the States], my friends who wrestle in my weight class," Escobar said, "now they feel less competition because now I can't take their spot on the U.S. team, so they're actually happy about that.
"And, at the same time, I'm showing what the United States has. I'm representing Honduras for my family, but mostly, I'm showing what I've learned here, where the competition is much better."
Started in school
Escobar began wrestling in eighth grade at the suggestion of his stepfather, Ray Costanzo.
Goldstein said he challenged Escobar to prove his toughness in the wrestling room and found he "took to the sport right away. He's a wrestling hound. And he's the strongest person I've seen, pound for pound, in my life, picking up 180-pound people, like they were nothing, when he was in high school and weighed 103."
Escobar attended two semesters of college, at upstate Morrisville and Suffolk Community, but said he left when he saw no competitive wrestling future. He scuffled to raise money to pay for training and travel to competitions, helped coach the wrestling team at Commack High for a semester, and, wherever he went, collected fans.
Catana, who spotted Escobar at a tournament in 2010, invited him to train at the New York Athletic Club, and to save Escobar the train fare to Manhattan, arranged for him to live for periods at Catana's Middle Village home.
Nancy Triosi, whose son, Steven, was coached by Escobar at Commack, organized fundraisers. "We knew him when he was in high school," Triosi said. "He beat our kids. But we didn't know him personally then. He jokes now that we're his second family."
Goldstein, a nationally ranked wrestler in the 1990s, still "opens the [wrestling] room for me when I'm around to work out," Escobar said.
Two years ago, Escobar had been in London, vacationing with his father, "and the day before I left, I was right there at that giant Ferris wheel [the London Eye]. I remember jumping up, screaming, 'London! I'll be back in 2012!' And people were like, 'Huh?' "
Little did he know he would return as another of the Olympics' athletes without borders.