"Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy."
-- Dan Gable, NCAA and Olympic wrestling champion
VINCENT GOMEZ PORES OVER a bowl of fettuccine and ponders this quote from perhaps the most famous American wrestler, a line that has been reprinted on posters and T-Shirts and signs in wrestling rooms all over the country.
But it gives Gomez, a senior at Frontier High, pause.
It's not that Gomez disagrees with Gable; it's just that he's not so sure it applies to him.
"Almost everything else is easy," Gomez says. "I mean, wrestling has definitely helped me get through the bad things that have gone in my life."
Gomez is all about wrestling these days.
The CIF State Championships begin this morning in Rabobank Arena, and if all goes according to plan, he'll be wrestling for the 126-pound state title at 7:15 Saturday night.
"Whenever I'm at school, it's hard to pay attention," says Gomez, whom The California Wrestler website ranks No. 1 in the state at his weight, "because the only thing on my mind is state and how I'm going to do. I'm always thinking about wrestling. I owe it to myself and to my parents that I’m up on that podium.
“I’m so stoked. This is my last shot.”
It’s also the last chapter of a high school career that started with promise — and tragedy. In the middle, there was glory, missteps, heartache and everything in between.
“He’s had a journey that most wrestlers, most people, have never had to deal with,” Frontier coach Kirk Moore says. “There have been a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and we’re kind of back on the right track right now. We’re hoping to end on a good note.”
The journey started with tragedy. Gomez was a month away from entering Frontier on July 23, 2009, when sherriff’s officials found his mother, Andrea Santa Cruz, and stepfather, Angel Santa Cruz, fatally shot inside their home. An investigation later concluded Angel had shot Andrea and then taken his own life.
“There were no signs something like that was going to happen,” Gomez says. “At first it just didn’t feel real. That heartache ... that heartache I felt the first day it happened, it still hasn’t gone away.
“My mom lived for us. She did everything for us. I was a momma’s boy, big-time. It’s still always in my mind. I just try to focus on the good memories of her.”
For a 14-year-old with few other places to turn, Gomez threw himself even deeper into family and wrestling. He and his older sister Alex, a national champion girls wrestler who also wrestled for Frontier, were inseparable. They moved back in with their father, Fidencio Gomez, to the house in which they grew up training. The Titans coaches, Moore and assistant Daniel Chapman, became like surrogate parents.
“All we tried to do is provide a system of support,” Moore says. “We just wanted to allow them to lean on us and use wrestling as a tool to grind their way through it. I think wrestling allowed them to cope with it better than most people would have. It makes you mentally tough. And I think they were able to draw on that — and still do.”
Vincent has no doubt: The mat was a place where things made sense.
“Wrestling helps more than anything else I try to do to cope,” he says. “I was kind of in shock for a long time. After something that traumatic happens, it’s like nothing else feels real. But in wrestling, I knew what I needed to do.”
In fact, wrestling was always the easy part for Gomez.
He started when Fidencio enrolled him in club wrestling at 3 years old.
“The youngest age group for wrestling is 5-6 years old, but he caught on real fast,” Fidencio says. “I had people coming up to me and accusing me of cheating on his age. And I would say, ‘He’s actually so young he’s not supposed to be wrestling.’ I got in the habit of carrying around his birth certificate.”
Fidencio and Andrea, who divorced in 2000, took Alex and Vincent to wrestling tournaments all over the state — and eventually all over the country.
“We’d do a tournament here in Kern County or Tulare County on Saturdays, then shoot over to Los Angeles for their tournaments, which were on Sundays,” Fidencio says. “When he got to be older, we’d do tournaments in Tulsa, Okla., in Reno, other places in Nevada, Arizona. That was basically our life.”
Fidencio speaks from an RV outside Rabobank Arena, where he’s preparing to watch Vincent at state for the final time. He chokes up at the thought of Andrea.
“His mom was a big part of his wrestling life,” Fidencio says. “She would set up all those trips. She would get us the hotel rooms, for my daughter and for Vincent. I still get a big lump in my throat, just talking about her. It still affects me.”
Fidencio says if Andrea were here, she’d have an RV next to his at Rabobank. The state tournament has always been the ultimate goal for a family that so loved wrestling that Fidencio converted his garage into a wrestling room for Alex and Vincent.
But here, too, Vincent’s story is star-crossed. For him, the state meet hasn’t been kind.
Gomez finished his freshman season ranked No. 2 in the state at 103 pounds and thought he was ready to take Rabobank by storm. He cruised to the quarterfinals, where Poway’s Victor Lopez awaited. Gomez had defeated Lopez earlier in the season and seemed to be controlling this match early, but he made one misstep. Lopez flashed Gomez onto his back, and the referee quickly slapped the mat. It took 36 seconds, and Gomez still remembers every detail.
“The ref called a real fast pin,” he says. “I didn’t think he had me down. And it tore me up.”
Unable to recover mentally, Gomez slipped to sixth place. The funk lasted through his sophomore year, when Gomez won another section title but was unable to place at the state meet.
Then, as a junior, Gomez was suspended from Frontier for disciplinary reasons and transferred to Shafter High for the rest of the year. He couldn’t compete in any activities.
“I lost a whole year,” Vincent says. “Who knows what could have happened, and I didn’t give myself the chance. It’s my fault; I never should have allowed that to be in my truck.”
That left Gomez, who once dreamed he could match Darrell Vasquez’s unparalleled mark of four state championships, with one last chance to win gold.
“That mistake, no matter how little he thought it was, cost him dearly,” Moore says. “At that point, for us, it was like we had already lost him. We just had to hope he would find his way back. And sometimes you have to hit bottom to find your way back.”
This season, Gomez (36-3) lost close early matches to Porterville’s Mason Pengilly, who has since dropped to 120 pounds, and to Judson Preskitt of Kingston (Pa.)-Wyoming Seminary, but he dominated the rest of his weight class.
“As far as pure talent, he might not be as talented as some of the kids who have come through, like Darrell Vasquez, Nathan Morgan,” says Moore, who won a state title for Foothill in 1998. “But you measure him on toughness, and there’s not many people who are just that tough. If you’re in a streetfight, he’s going to fight his way out of it. He’s as tough as anybody who’s ever wrestled in Bakersfield.”
Gomez has won two of three bouts with state No. 2 Michael Knoblauch of Clovis West, the only wrestler in his bracket to beat him. But Gomez says he won’t overlook any opponent, a mistake that might have cost him in his freshman season.
“He’s a lot more mature now, and I just see him being a lot more focused,” says sister Alex, who attended Point Loma Nazarene University for a year before transferring to Cal State Bakersfield and moving back home. “It’s his last year, so we all realize how important it is.”
Wrestling has always been the easy part for Gomez, but state championships don’t come easy. Either way, his high school career, for all its ups and downs, is about to come to a close.
As he reflects on that, Gomez, normally a whirlwind of activity, takes a long pause.
“I owe it to myself, and that’s number one, but I owe it to the people who have invested in me and put in time for me,” he says. “That’s a big deal to me. That’s a very big deal. And this is my last shot.”