“I hope I have not let Mr. Koury down, who is my coach. I have gone to college and now I will help him produce champions,” Sammy Chagolla said.
“He did this for me, now it’s my turn to give back. I hope God will help me get past the failure of the Olympic trials,” Chagolla continued. “It’s tough writing this, but I hope it will help me heal. I will always be an athlete, but helping others will be my life goal.”
Chagolla is reading a letter he wrote to himself after placing fourth in wrestling at the Olympic trials in April 1988.
“It was devastating as a little kid, just training and you think about a gold medal,” Chagolla said. “No matter what anyone says when you’re training for so long and you think this is what it’s all about. It’s difficult to explain, but when you don’t get what you’ve been doing your whole life, it takes a lot of time to recover,” he continued.
Chagolla picked up his love for wrestling in the second grade.
He went on to win many tournaments, including four state championships at Peoria High School in the early ’80s.
Chagolla even made the cover of the Wheaties box.
“So once again a lot of feeling went in the letter, basically saying I was going to put away wrestling and start to coach and help out Mr. Koury win some state championships,” Chagolla said. “That was my goal.”
A Northern Arizona University graduate, Chagolla went on to become a teacher and assistant principal and helped Mike Koury, his longtime coach, lead the wrestling program at Peoria High School to four straight team championships in the ’90s.
But the letter Chagolla was reading talked about more than just putting wrestling on hold to help others.
It was about to change the life of the assistant principal at Marshall Ranch Elementary School when the letter was found more than 20 years after Chagolla told his mother to put it in a safe place.
“It just so happens that my wife finds this letter,” Chagolla said. “It says, ‘Do not open until after the age of 40.’ At the very end of the letter, ‘If I’m healthy at the age of 40, I would like to compete again and wrestle in front of my wife and share that part of my life with her,'” Chagolla continued.
The journey toward fulfilling his childhood dream began in 2008.
“She said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to start training and go to nationals,’ and it started then,” Chagolla said.
At the age of 45, Chagolla, with his wife, Carrie, and Coach Koury by his side, took second at the Veterans National Freestyle Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas and qualified for the World Championships in Turkey in 2009.
“I took my wife and she got to see me wrestle in the world championships,” Chagolla said. “It so happens I fell a little bit short. I went into overtime with a guy from Iran and was second place in the world.”
While Chagolla fell a little short of his goal, he still wasn’t ready to hang up his wrestling shoes, even when he knew he had to have surgery on both of his shoulders.
Chagolla turned to Dr. James Davidson at OrthoArizona.
“So you want to move as quickly as we can, on the other hand if you move too quickly, you could tear something and you’re starting from scratch,” Davidson said. “So we have to balance the rate of healthy, which is Mother Nature kicking in, plus how quickly he wants to go.”
Rehab was critical to Chagolla’s recovery.
“We pushed Sammy,” said Paul Nelson, OrthoArizona physical therapist. “When you’re being stretched out from something that has injured tissue, it’s hard to get stretched out, never fun.
“So he had a lot of muscular imbalances and disfunctions we had to get rid of as well as let the repair heal,” Nelson continued.
It took 16 months for Chagolla to get back on the wrestling mat, but it paid off.
Five years after competing in the Veterans National Freestyle Wrestling Championships, he won this past April.
But this time Chagolla had another supporter in the crowd, his 4-year-old daughter, Chloe.
“I hope she is going to remember this and realize it doesn’t matter the age, it’s what you have in your heart,” Chagolla said.
At the age of 50, Chagolla will compete once again in the World Championships this August in Serbia.
“I want to finish the dream I’ve been chasing,” Chagolla said. “So I’m chasing it all the way down and hopefully it works out.”
But Chagolla’s goal of bringing back a gold medal is a reminder that it’s never too late to go after your dreams, just read his letter.
“Whatever I do from this point forward, I just hope that I motivate people to try and accomplish their dreams because you’re never too old and you have to reach for the stars,” Chagolla said.