There are 86,400 seconds in a day. They come and go. Most often, they are what a single comma is in a thousand-page manuscript; forgettable. But not all commas---or seconds---are created equal. Some become bookmarks that define moments in life. Such was a single second for Pueblo teenager Aaden Valdez.
It was July 4th, 2017, at the Valdez family holiday party. Oldest son, Aaden, had moved away from the party to light what he expected would be one of the evening’s crowd pleasers. “I was trying to put myself away from everyone,” he said after a recent Pueblo East High School wrestling practice. But something went wrong, and awe suddenly became shock.
The firework exploded in his hand but also damaged an eye. Within hours the young wrestler would be airlifted to Denver. Doctors tried but could save neither hand nor eye. How the injuries would impact the promising young wrestler left everyone guessing. But not Aaden.
“It’s going really good,” Valdez said in a phone interview. “I’ve only lost one match this season.” The setback was in a recent tournament. “I lost to a Pennsylvania kid,” in a tournament. Beyond school and league wrestling matches, Valdez is busy on the tournament wrestling circuit. They’re every weekend and are spread across the country. They expose him to the best of the best. He hopes the competition will propel him beyond his fifth-place finish at the state tournament a year ago. This season’s goal, to be a state champion. He’s competing at 138 pounds for the moment.
With a season record of 20-1, his comeback has been impressive. “It was difficult at first,” he said. He admits to “limitations for certain moves,” but his assets on the mat---strength and ability to escape---have otherwise served him well. But wrestling is only a part of his life. His new reality presented other challenges, too.
Little things, tying shoes or buttoning his shirt, for example, are no longer little things. “Sometimes I get frustrated,” he said. “If someone asks if I need help, I try to say no,” he said, because “I may not always have someone around.”
Like his wrestling record, Valdez is doing fine in the classroom, too. “My grades are mostly ‘A’s and ‘B’s,” he said. But there are also some new challenges in school. “Seeing the board is a little harder,” but teachers have been understanding “if I need a little help.”
One of the first things Valdez did after the incident is read Anthony Robles book, “Unstoppable: From Underdog to Undefeated: How I Became a Champion.” Robles, who was born without one leg, was a three-time All-America wrestler and NCAA champion. The former collegiate wrestler also reached out to Valdez during the recovery. “He told me to stay positive and keep moving forward,” he recalled. The book and the conversation “inspired me,” said Valdez whose goals have not changed. Valdez long-range goal is to wrestle one day for Oklahoma State, a perennial college wrestling powerhouse. If not Oklahoma State, Valdez said he’ll look at other Division I programs.
He’s a “‘no-excuse’ wrestler,” said Pat Laughlin, his high school coach. “He never complains” and “never asks for anything.” The long-time East Eagle coach calls his young charge a kid “with a great personality.” He’s also a young man willing to make the commitment to reach his goals, said Laughlin.
High school wrestling has changed dramatically from just a generation ago. “Twenty years ago, kids would wrestle the season and maybe a couple of tournaments,” said Laughlin. Not so for wrestlers like Valdez who has competed against the country’s best at tournament meets for years. “When you have kids who don’t do that,” he said, “they won’t be very good.” Laughlin’s estimated Valdez “had over 150 matches” coming into high school.
Laughlin has known the family for years. In fact, he was at the party the night of the incident. He had just left when he got the call. The family called and said, “they were flying him to Denver. I was kind of in shock.” But following the recovery and return to school in the fall, it was the same young man. “Within a couple of weeks, he was back in the (wrestling) room trying to do stuff. He wanted to get back at it.”
The transition from victim to, once again, top-flight wrestler has been aided by a supportive family and good friends. Valdez said he plans to spend the holiday vacation doing what kids do; hanging out, playing X-Box and not worrying about his weight. “I love Wendy’s ‘Baconators,’” a nearly thousand calorie sandwich.
Valdez has been nominated by his school and the Colorado High School Athletic Association for the prestigious Spirit of the Sport Award. Eight regional high school athletes and one national winner are acknowledged for their “success, their refusal to accept defeat or their unquestionable contribution to the enjoyment of the game.”