Anthony Giraldo was once your typical grammar school boy. Growing up in Guttenberg, it was only natural that Giraldo would participate in the sports that other kids in his neighborhood did – namely the traditional football, basketball and baseball route.
But then his childhood friend, Luis Gonzalez, told him about the North Bergen Recreation wrestling program.
“I was about eight years old,” Giraldo recalled. “Luis’ father [Howard] told me that I should try to wrestle.”
But there was no instant success on the mat for Giraldo.
“I was pretty bad at first,” Giraldo said. “I was the chubby kid. I didn’t know what I was doing out there. Believe it or not, I was the heavyweight of my class. I was pretty big.”
However, Giraldo was instantly bitten by the wrestling bug.
“I knew I liked it,” Giraldo said. “I knew I wanted to go back.”
So at that point, Giraldo discarded any and all ideas of playing the traditional sports in Guttenberg with his neighborhood friends.
“I liked playing baseball and football,” Giraldo said. “But I loved wrestling. That was it. I gave up the other sports. I started getting pretty good in wrestling. I became like every other wrestler. I worked hard at it. And I had fun.”
Giraldo started winning recreation tournaments all over the map.
“I realized that the better I got, the more trips I went on,” Giraldo said. “I loved that. That was the fun part of the sport, traveling all over.”
He also learned the discipline of eating properly and watching his diet.
“I was about 90, maybe 95 pounds,” Giraldo said. “But I stayed there for three years. I became skinny and tall.”
While he was an up-and-coming wrestler, Howard Gonzalez took his son Luis and his son’s friend to watch the NJSIAA state tournament in Atlantic City.
“Luis and his family took me to watch the states,” Giraldo said. “I basically went to play around, you know, run up and down the stairs.”
However, there was a North Bergen wrestler there who caught Giraldo’s eyes. It was Bobby Dabal, like Giraldo, a Guttenberg kid wrestling for North Bergen.
“He was the only one that I stopped to watch,” Giraldo said. “He really inspired me.”
Dabal went on to become the all-time leader in victories at North Bergen, earning three medals at the NJSIAA state championships in his brilliant career.
“That was it for me,” Giraldo said. “I took the sport even more seriously.”
Giraldo started to win recreation tournaments all over. In eighth grade, he joined a wrestling club that competed in the Junior Nationals.
So by the time Giraldo arrived to compete as a freshman for the North Bergen High School wrestling team, he was ready. Giraldo is a student at High Tech in North Bergen, but competes for the Bruins.
“I could see him coming into the room and I could tell that he knew what it took to be a state champion,” said North Bergen head coach Jerry Maietta.
Giraldo finished fourth in the state as a freshman at 112 pounds, as buddy Gonzalez finished second at 103 pounds.
A year ago, Giraldo was fifth in the state at 120 pounds and Gonzalez was third at 112.
Giraldo had a busy summer, traveling to Venezuela to compete in the Pan American Games, where Giraldo earned a bronze medal against the best competition. He also took second place in a tournament in Ohio.
“I did pretty good over the summer,” Giraldo said. “I was feeling so good. I tried to beat the best in the country because it would help when the high school wrestling season began.”
The two summers prior, Giraldo traveled to the Ukraine to compete and learn there.
“I was also lucky to get that chance,” Giraldo said. “It was a great experience.”
Before this season, the two long-time friends were separated. Gonzalez transferred to Don Bosco Prep, leaving Giraldo to compete on his own at North Bergen.
Remarkably, both friends won state titles Sunday, as Gonzalez came away with the 113-pound state title.
Giraldo defeated Corey Stasenko of South Plainfield, 3-1, to win the 126-pound state crown, becoming the first North Bergen wrestler to win a state championship since John Bott won the 171-pound title in 1983. That’s 30 years of Bruin wrestling and Giraldo is the first to stand atop the podium in Atlantic City.
“We’ve had some really good wrestlers since I’ve been here,” Maietta said. “But I knew Anthony would win a state championship.”
Bott, currently a teacher at North Bergen, has incredibly never met Giraldo,
Bott, would have loved to congratulate Giraldo in person. But Bott had to care for his ill mother, Helen, who died Wednesday in Toms River. Helen Bott was 81 years old.
“I planned to go to Atlantic City to see it, but then Mom was moved to the hospital,” Bott said. “I watched it on the Internet. I was ecstatic. We’re all happy. People asked me if I was disappointed that I’m not the only one. Why would I be disappointed? I got some texts from some of my buddies and that brought back memories of me being on the mat. But I’m proud of Anthony. It’s great. We need more champions. Not just from North Bergen, but from Hudson County. I know [St. Peter’s] Prep has done a great job [Prep had state champions in James Fox and Lenny Richardson the last two years].”
Added Bott, “It’s great for North Bergen wrestling. We have another state champion to put on the wall. Kids need to realize that you can win a state title if you’re from North Bergen. This is proof.”
Bott said that he plans to meet Giraldo in the coming weeks, when he returns to work.
Maietta was asked if he could believe that his program finally has a state champ.
“I knew he had the dedication, the drive, the work ethic and the heart to do it,” Maietta said. “He has the whole package. But the whole thing is kind of surreal. It’s something I knew he could achieve, because he was close the last two years. He was in a loaded weight class. It wasn’t easy. He had a legit chance. It was a great weekend.”
Now comes the hardest part. As a junior, Giraldo will definitely be expected to win again next year.
“I think it’s going to be fun if I can do the same thing,” Giraldo said. “I’m going to work hard, even harder than this year, because everyone will be shooting for me. But I love wrestling. I don’t think it will be a problem.”
Giraldo loves the fact that he can share the state title with two schools and two municipalities.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Giraldo said. “It’s for High Tech and for North Bergen. It’s for all the people in Guttenberg and all the people in North Bergen. I knew it was a lot of years since John Bott won. I heard that all the time. Now, I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.