Long Beach wrestler Dunia Sibomana-Rodriguez, who captured the hearts of fans on his way to the 2022 state championship, competed again Friday at the MVP Arena in Albany, defeating Ryan Cieslinski of Spencerport in the Division I 110-pound quarterfinals at the 2023 NYSPHSAA wrestling championship. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.  Credit: Newsday staff

ALBANY -- Dunia Sibomana-Rodriguez captured the hearts of wrestling fans in the MVP Arena in 2022. His story of courage and survival was so compelling it grabbed the attention of the 5,000-plus fans in the arena as he rode an emotional wave to the 102-pound New York State wrestling championship. The eighth grade phenom from Long Beach defied the odds in an unlikely trek to the state crown.

Now, in his freshman season, Sibomana-Rodriguez, is back in the MVP Arena to defend his state title at the 60th Annual New York State Division I championships. The narrative has changed as he competes for the 110-pound crown. He is no longer the underdog. He is the one to beat.

Through the first two rounds, Sibomana-Rodriguez looked like a champion. He pinned Carlos Salazar of Hewlett in 4:58 in the round of 16 and dominated Ryan Cieslinski of Spencerport in a quarterfinal by major decision, 14-2, to move into Saturday morning’s semifinal round.

He will meet sophomore Luke Satriano of Valley Stream, who won by pin in 29 seconds and with a 9-0 decision.

“The road to the championship was difficult last year,” said Long Beach coach Ray Adams. “And this year is even tougher. His opponents all have that added motivation to redeem themselves. There is an entirely different level of pressure on Dunia in this state tournament. He is no longer a secret or a surprise – he’s the one.”

Sibomana-Rodriguez’s incredible story of survival and perseverance continues to gain national attention. An ESPN camera crew followed his every move on Friday. He is the lone survivor of a horrific chimpanzee attack nine years ago. At 6 years old, playing just outside his village of Rutshuru in the jungle of the Virunga National Park, a vast animal preserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, a troop of chimpanzees attacked him and two family members. His brother and cousin were killed in the vicious attack.

Sibomana-Rodriguez was left with disfiguring injuries to his lips, ears and face. His right ear and facial muscles were gone and the middle finger on his left hand was bitten off. The attack made it difficult for him to speak or swallow. He has endured 17 facial surgeries with more to come, as a team of doctors continue to care for him.

Through it all, Sibomana-Rodriguez(29-6) has embraced the media attention and focused on what’s in front of him – trying to become Long Beach’s 18th state champion. Three of his losses have come in national tournaments and three others while competing up in the 118-pound weight class.

“I just continue to get better and wrestle as best I can,” he said. “There are expectations that come with being a state champion. But the pressure isn’t really different.”

Sibomana-Rodriguez beat Satriano, 9-3, in last year’s semifinal round and went on to pin Ryan Ferrara of Chenango Forks in 1:32 in the final. Both wrestlers are looking for payback.

“He’s learned quite a bit this year wrestling against the best competition in the country,” said his adoptive father, Miguel Rodriguez. “He has really challenged himself. I’m very proud of his focus and commitment to the sport. And he knows the road to the title has two very tough opponents left. He has to continue to be aggressive and wrestle smart.”

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