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Cuban defector Anthony Echemendia ran, swam, and flew across four borders before landing at Sunnyside High School in Tucson, Arizona. While there, his noteworthy performance at Fargo earned him two championships, which jump-started his recruiting process.
But getting to the U.S. was just beginning. Dominant performances at both Fargo and Who's #1 piqued the interest of some of the top college programs in the country almost immediately. But for Echemendia, the process was always about finding a sense of family — since he had left his blood relatives behind — and a place he could safely call home despite the inherent challenges of navigating the foreign recruiting process entirely alone.
Most prospects are somewhat familiar with common practices of recruiting before they become eligible. They watch their teammates take official visits, sign National Letters of Intent, and post commitments on social media years before it’s their turn to do the same. Most of these recruits also have parents, coaches, and teammates supporting them and sharing their two cents along the way.
Anthony, on the other hand, was alone for essentially the entire process. Between visits, he would return to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with just a few other wrestlers and minimal contact with his family back in Cuba.
NCAA recruiting regulations are notoriously difficult to navigate. Understanding what is considered an unofficial visit or one of the three "off-campus contacts" is tricky for a recruiter to decipher — let alone a kid recently from Cuba like Echemendia. Failure to balance the regulations can threaten an athlete's eligibility, making the process all the more fragile.
Then there are the endless possibilities: Do you want to be within driving distance from home? Does the school offer the major you're interested in? What do the financials look like if you don't receive a sufficient scholarship? These are just a few of the vital questions most high school athletes don’t think to ask on their own without outside support.
Factoring in uncertainty regarding Echemendia’s citizenship only made the things trickier for Coach Ryan and his recruiting team.
This is the type of knowledge Echemendia did not have access to when he began his recruiting process. In fact, he admits that he had no idea how to navigate life in the U.S. let alone the complicated inner-workings of NCAA recruiting; he relied heavily on his gut to guide him. Without any parents in the country, understanding of the looming situation, and a limited knowledge of the English language, Echemendia went in blind.
"I didn't know the process. I didn't know that I was allowed to take five official visits . . . nobody told me that," he told FloWrestling.
His lack of experience in the U.S. is what separated his experience from that of any other recruit. Without knowing what he didn't know, he was nervous and treaded lightly.
Echemendia's family-centered mindset first sent him to Penn State. The thought of going to school with fellow Sunnyside graduate Roman Bravo-Young brought him comfort during an uncertain recruiting process. Nonetheless, he continued his search.
Arizona State, Iowa, and Iowa State were among the other schools he visited.
Echemendia trekked to Scarlet and Grey country for his official visit in late October and announced his allegiance to the Buckeyes just 20 days later.
"Once I visited Ohio State, I just knew I didn't need to take my fifth official visit."
Echemendia’s relationship with the coaching staff, team, and fellow recruits was the deciding factor in his final decision. He found the feeling of home and family he was yearning for. His relationship with Tom Ryan proved to be particularly special.
“Coach [Ryan] was the only coach who didn't treat me as just an athlete,” Echemendia said. “He treated me like a friend, brother, like family."
Anthony grew to trust Coach Ryan and Anthony Ralph, the Buckeyes' head of recruiting. For the first time since arriving in the U.S., Anthony felt as if he wasn't alone anymore.
The feeling was mutual for Coach Ryan, who values Anthony as both an outstanding wrestler and person.
"He's just a good person with a good soul," Ryan said.
There has been much speculation and debate over where he will slot into the Buckeye lineup next season. Wherever he ends up, Coach Ryan knows Anthony will bring hard work, dedication, and most importantly, gratitude to Columbus.
“A lot of people claim that they don’t have anything, but for Anthony, he really had nothing here in the U.S. . . . Trust was always the most important thing in our relationship,” said Coach Ryan.
Molly is a rising junior at The Ohio State University where she works with multiple sports as a member of the Athletics Communications team. Follow her on Twitter.