At the ripe age of 11, South Forsyth student Felipe Hayes decided he wanted to wrestle more than he wanted to suit up to play on a baseball diamond or the gridiron. A New Jersey native, moving to the Atlanta area, he was more familiar with wrestling—a sport with greater popularity back home.
It’s not the sport of choice for most kids, nor is it easy, but that’s what made Hayes’ decision at such a young age stick out.
“I liked it because it was the toughest of all of those,” Hayes said. “I liked the grind of it, the workouts, and what it does to me.”
Not many middle schoolers make such absolute choices, and not many middle schoolers face the challenges Hayes would soon after his decision to fully commit to the sport he loved.
Hayes would go to club gyms four days a week, practicing two hours in speed and agility drills, in addition to technical practice to build his fundamentals. He had already eliminated other sports from his routine, devoting hours of energy to the mats. His invitation to fatigue, a result of his drive to succeed, for a short time masked a significant problem—one that he briefly thought might derail his athletic future, altogether.
“I just wasn’t wrestling the same,” Hayes said. “I was losing a lot of weight and looking really sick.”
Hayes made a visit to the doctor to address concerns with his condition before and after matches. The diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes.
Initially, Hayes feared he wouldn’t be able to continue wrestling. So did his mother, but after three months of learning to control his diabetes, Hayes adapted and continued to compete. Ever since then, his exploits at meets have been a fight—not just with the opponent, but his own body.
“I could possibly pass out on the mat while wrestling,” Hayes said. “Thankfully that has never happened, but it’s a challenge I face.
“I’ll be going into a match, my blood sugar would be high due to anxiety. I’d have to focus, relax, and just wrestle the way I wrestle. I’d have to take 15 minute breaks in practice when my blood sugar dropped.”
Often times, the physical toll of competing and managing his blood sugar levels, simultaneously, would drain Hayes, even discouraging him. But there was one thing that kept him going: when he first moved to Atlanta, Hayes would go watch the wrestling state finals at Gwinnett Arena. He imagined his name being called and taking the floor in front of hundreds of fans and fellow competitors.
“I just have to work harder in practice and think of myself in that arena,” Hayes said. “At the state finals. That’s the motivation. I do have moments but I have to get over it, and it makes me a better wrestler.”
His motivation is prevailing.
As a freshman, Hayes joined the varsity team at South. He was 13, and getting beat by much older competitors.
“I was wrestling 18 year old kids with tattoos and hair on their chest,” he joked. “I would get thrown around. I had like a .500 record, but still, I was hoping I would place in state and that was a reality check to work harder.”
In his sophomore season, Hayes tried to lower his weight to 138 pounds but diminished his health and complicated his diabetes management in the process, so as a junior he went back up to 152. That’s where he found his equilibrium and burst onto the scene.
Hayes went 28-8, won a county title, an area individual title and came within a match of making the state finals in Class AAAAAA at 152.
So far this season, he’s showing off his caliber. On Dec. 29, Hayes placed third at the Takedown Invitational at Archer High School, a tournament he described as tougher than state itself.
“There, you’re not limited to guys in one classification,” Hayes said. “The best wrestlers from the area all go there. Honestly, I felt like it was harder [than state].”
He says just making the semifinals as a junior was exciting, but it won’t be this year. His goal is to place—better yet, to win it all.
“If I finished the same as last year I’d be devastated,” Hayes said. “I’m working 10 times harder to win the state title.”