A.J. Guardado pulled himself out of bed at 6 a.m. each morning to meet several other members of the Duke wrestling team at the Duke University Golf Club. But rather than tee off for 18 holes, Guardado and his teammates put in eight-hour workdays at the golf course before heading off to practice.DURHAM -- Last summer,
The demanding schedule was nothing new for Guardado, who holds down three jobs during the school year. Although fitting in work hours around his academic commitments and training schedule presents all kinds of challenges, it is a necessity for him as a member of a nonscholarship athletic program at a prestigious university.
A typical day for Guardado during wrestling season — which runs November to March — includes an early morning practice, attending class and putting in time at one or more of his jobs. He has spent over a year working at a restaurant near campus, and also conducts research with a professor in the history department. With nearly every minute of his day devoted to either wrestling, studying or employment, Guardado has had to learn over his four years at Duke how to strike a balance between his commitments without getting burned out.
“The season is a pretty long grind…Everyone gets pumped up at the beginning of the season, and it’s hard to keep that momentum all the way through, especially when you’re in a routine,” he says. “You try to find a way to keep yourself from not getting sucked into any sort of negative thought or pessimism because it’s really easy to do that.”
This season, though, Guardado says he has been more focused than ever on eliminating those negative thoughts and learning how to motivate himself in each aspect of his busy lifestyle. The new approach seems to be paying off, as he posted a ledger of 18-9 in the 149-pound division during the regular season for his best record during his four years at Duke.
“There was something different this year, I guess, where it was just setting in that it was my last season,” Guardado says. “Any day that I would have some sort of doubt come into my mind about working out or wrestling, lifting, conditioning, whatever, I would just be like, ‘Well, you have to, so there’s no point in having doubts because you’re going to do it anyways.’”
That sort of determination has been characteristic of Guardado’s wrestling career even dating back to his high school days. Tragedy struck his family when his father passed away a week before his first wrestling match during his freshman year at West Covina High School in West Covina, Calif. Although he initially considered giving up the sport, the support of his coaches, teammates and family convinced Guardado to recommit himself to wrestling with newfound drive, knowing that his father would want him to succeed at whatever he put his mind to.
Guardado went on to win a league title that season and became the first freshman in his school district’s history to qualify for the regional state tournament. By the time he graduated from West Covina, he had won four league titles, qualified for the regional state tournament four times, advanced to the state tournament twice while placing seventh his senior year and set school records for the most career points, pins and wins.
What kept Guardado going that year and every year since is the memory of his father, as well as appreciation for the sacrifices his family has made for him. His mother, Terry, works two jobs and cares for Guardado’s younger brother, Lukas, who is in high school and, like his older brothers, is on the wrestling team. The oldest of the three brothers, Gilbert, was enrolled at The Art Institute in Santa Monica but left school when their father passed away, and now works as a personal trainer and a mixed martial arts competitor in Las Vegas. A.J. maintains a close relationship with both of his brothers despite being separated from them by thousands of miles, and he says all three take pride in the others’ successes.
“Me and my older brother, we’re trying to do our best to be a father figure to my little brother, which is hard because neither of us lives at home anymore,” Guardado says. “We kind of feed off each other. (Gilbert) always tells me, ‘You’re doing something I wish I could have done — finished college, doing the sport that you love’…And I’m like, ‘You’re doing something I wish I could do. You’re chasing your dream.’”
With the inspiration of his father and his family in California to guide him, Guardado has found it easier to get out of bed each morning and make it through his busy days of working, going to class and wrestling. He has worked hard in the classroom, on the mat and at his jobs in order to stay at Duke, and in May, he will become the first member of his family to graduate from college. While Guardado is uncertain of the role wrestling will play in his future — he says he would like to remain close to the sport by volunteering with youth or following his older brother into the MMA — he aims to finish out his collegiate wrestling career by giving it his all.
“There are people that wrestle for themselves, and some people get it done that way,” Guardado says. “I’m wrestling for something bigger than myself…For me to not go out there and just fight tooth and nail every match, I almost feel like I’d be disrespecting my family if I did.”