An appreciation for military service has always been one of the key characteristics of Zach Espalin. It’s been that way since living in Washington D.C. and attending school with the sons and daughters of high-ranking military officials.
That appreciation quickly turned into a desire to become a Navy Seal after high school, where he could further his education and serve the country. But Espalin also had other goals he wanted to accomplish when his family moved to Gilbert just before he enrolled at Chandler High School in 2017.
He aimed to win four state championships on the wrestling mat for Chandler High School, which has a storied wrestling program built on a foundation of success. He also wanted to become a Division I college wrestler.
Now just months away from graduation, Espalin has accomplished all of his goals, including the opportunity to become a Seal.
“When I was little, I always wanted to be a Navy Seal,” Espalin said. “When I was little I always kind of played it out in my head that I would go to school and become a Seal. Since then, I just always wanted to go to the Naval Academy.”
Espalin signed his National Letter of Intent to continue his wrestling career at the Naval Academy in February. He was joined by his parents at the signing day event held at Chandler High School.
At the time, he was in the middle of a wrestling season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, which threatened the winter sports season altogether during Arizona’s record surge in cases. When he and his team were officially given the go ahead to begin the season — after it was initially canceled — Espalin knew he had to make the most of it.
After all, not only was it his senior year but his one and only chance to chase a fourth straight state championship.
“When we went on that first lockdown last March that was when I first thought I maybe wouldn’t be able to wrestle my senior year,” Espalin said. “When I first found out the season was canceled, I was heartbroken. It felt like I had tripped and fell at the finish line.
“But I’m thankful we got a chance.”
Espalin burst onto the Arizona high school wrestling scene as a freshman at Chandler. He wrestled in the 106-pound class in 2018 and won the championship. As a sophomore, he won again at 113 and 120 as a junior.
His coveted fourth state title came in the 126-pound class on March 20 at Poston Butte High School — the site of this year’s wrestling championships — where he defeated Boulder Creek senior Noah Kasprowicz. Yet again, Espalin had achieved one of his goals growing up.
“It feels amazing knowing all my hard work towards this one goal paid off,” Espalin said. “It was a dream come true since I was little. Just knowing I accomplished that, it feels amazing.”
Espalin first fell in love with wrestling at a young age while growing up in Texas.
It wasn’t until he reached the fourth grade that he decided to devote all of his efforts to the one sport. It was at that time something clicked for Espalin, and he realized his talent came naturally.
The family then moved from Texas to Washington D.C. and then to Gilbert where he enrolled at Chandler. It was there he began learning under Chandler coach Vidal Mejia, a mainstay in the Arizona wrestling community whose son, Max, is the head women’s wrestling coach at Augsburg University. He also was brought under the wing of Chandler assistant Dalton Brady, who also won four straight championships during his time wrestling for the Wolves.
As he began to see success on the mat, he started picturing the day he would win his fourth straight championship. Often times, he would close his eyes while showering, picturing the moment and the whirlwind of emotions he would feel. Admittedly, his idea of what his fourth straight title would look like differed from reality.
He pictured it happening inside a large venue with thousands of fans like in year’s past. However due to the pandemic, his championship was won in front of a couple hundred spectators in a high school gym. Still, it was a moment he knows he will cherish forever. Especially after the adversity he faced to get to that point.
“I kind of manifested it,” Espalin said. “I would close my eyes and imagine what it would look like. In some ways, I imagined the kind of hard work it would take to get to that point. I couldn’t imagine a state championship being at a high school, so that was a little different.
“But other than that, I kind of imagined how it would go, holding a strong lead and not letting up.”
Espalin plans to head back to the East Coast this summer. He’s still awaiting whether he will head directly to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland or to the Navy’s prep school in Rhode Island.
He said it depends whether Navy head wrestling coach Carey Kolat, who was recruiting Espalin for Campbell University before he was hired at Navy, needs him on the main roster as a freshman to fill a weight class. Regardless, Espalin remains thankful for an opportunity to continue fulfilling the goals he set for himself when he was younger.
“I have a chance to show everyone that I can compete with the best on a daily basis,” Espalin said. “I’ll be juggling a world of wrestling and school on a different scale but being able to train like that is an amazing thing.”