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'I was going to quit': How Richard Figueroa persevered to become a national champion

Just 35 days before Richard Figueroa won a national championship, he was seriously considering quitting

Then ASU redshirt sophomore wrestler Richard Figueroa flexing after winning his match at Desert Financial Arena on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023. ASU wrestling lost to Cal Poly 19-18.

"I'm done. I quit. I want to go home."

Those were the words a sobbing Richard Figueroa confessed to his mother after an uncharacteristic loss to Stanford on Feb. 17. 

Figueroa's sophomore year was shaping up to be anything but perfect. He had been battling injuries from the start and could not return to the mat until late January. However, that return was hardly a re-entrance into the upper echelon of college wrestling. From his debut on Jan. 19 to his loss against Stanford on Feb. 17 this year, Figueroa had gone 3-3.

It was a stark contrast to his undefeated freshman year. 

"You start the year, and you got it planned out in your head how it's supposed to go," assistant coach Lee Pritts said. "Then all of a sudden, you get an injury, and things aren't going how you planned for them to go. It starts to play tricks on you a little bit."

Figueroa's struggles were deeper than wrestling. His story was less about injury and losses and more about his fear of failure and need for immediate results.

"Even when I lost in high school, It would just get to me," Figueroa said. "I'm a winner, and losing doesn't comprehend with me. I just can't do it."

When Figueroa called his mom, begging to return home after his loss to Stanford, he felt the world's weight on his shoulders. He needed help, and that began with leaning into his support system. 

Frances Barocio knew what was best for her son. So when Figueroa urged her to help him come home, she refused. She knew her son needed help, but quitting wouldn't solve his problems. Quitting wasn't ever a value in Barocio's household, and it wouldn't become one now. 

Figueroa hung up. 

"He realized that quitting wasn't going to be an option, that he had to face his fears and go full throttle," Barocio said.

Growing up in the small town of Selma, California, Figueroa lived an adversity-stricken childhood. His mom constantly worked two jobs to support the family while, in the house, he slowly watched his parents' relationship erode into a divorce. When Figueroa reached the later stages of adolescence, he lost his best friend, Jacob Rivera, in a car crash.

Compounding with his shortcomings on the mat, these struggles brought Figueroa to seek counseling.

The weekend after his loss to Stanford, Barocio visited Figueroa in lieu of his upcoming matches against Lehigh and Nebraska. She didn’t know what to expect. But when she saw her son with a smile, inquisitively asking how she was doing, she knew he was alright and the counseling had been working.

And boy, did it work.

That weekend, Figueroa rattled off two wins against the country's No. 2 and No. 5 wrestlers, effectively turning around his season. Just seven days before, Figueroa wanted to quit. Now, he was in contention for it all. 

During his next competition, the Pac-12 Championships, Figueroa kept his momentum going, rattling off multiple wins against some of the conference's best wrestlers en route to his first career conference title. 

By the time Figueroa reached Kansas City, the site of this year's NCAA Championships, it all seemed simple. 

"Once I got to Nationals and walked around the arena, I was like, 'This is easy money. This is what I live for,' and I knew I was going to do it," Figueroa said.

Shortly after that moment, Figueroa went on a historical run, defeating No. 25 Ethan Berginc from Army, No. 9 Patrick McKee from Minnesota, No. 1 Braeden Davis from Penn State, No. 12 Anthony Noto from Lock Haven and No. 3 Drake Ayala from Iowa. 

Everyone's harped on the opponents already, but it was never about who stood across from Figueroa. It was the man inside. What allowed Richard Figueroa to win a national championship was Richard Figueroa. 

He had finally given himself permission to win.

READ MORE: Figueroa wins national championship as Sun Devil wrestling place sixth at NCAAs

Figueroa knew this better than anyone, so when he sat at the podium after the high point of his young career, he couldn't help but focus on his lowest.

"I hate saying it, but I was gonna quit," Figueroa said. "Losing just wasn't for me. Going through that made me like, 'Damn, should I even keep on going?'"

In the moment after he won, Figueroa did two things: he hugged his mom and break danced on the mat. The hug was an expression of love and acknowledgment for all the sacrifices his mom had made. The dancing was an ode to his friend Rivera.

"We loved break dancing together," Figueroa said. "If you came to our room after practice, we would dance and hit windmills."

Figueroa’s celebration was an expression of himself to the world. He was no longer a wrestler but instead a warrior, fighting and persevering through the most challenging chapter of his life.

"I kept thinking our debt was fulfilled," Barocio said. "There were a lot of people that invested in my son. I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and Richie felt like that, too."

But his story isn't over. Figueroa's title gives him an automatic bid to the 2024 Olympic Trials, and according to him, that's the next goal. But when asked for further details about his Olympic future, Figueroa admitted that he needed to spend some time back home before he made an official decision.

"Right now, I'm just going to go back home, see my family and spend some time for a little bit before I make my decision," Figueroa said.

Despite the remaining freshness of the title, Figueroa's coaches can't help but consider his potential in upcoming years. Pritts says he's only at 75% of his capabilities, while head coach Zeke Jones believes this is only the beginning.

"You didn't see the very best Richie," Jones said. "He still got another five to 10 points he can put on all those guys out there, and that'll be the next mission for him: Going from winning to dominating."

Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Walker Smith and Caera Learmonth.

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