by Meghann Garcia & Pete Luna, Leader-News staff
Minutes after clinching her third state championship in wrestling, Adelyhda “Lala” Perez leapt into the crowd at the Berry Center in Cypress to embrace her father, John Perez, who has been her lifelong trainer. She was processing a jumble of thoughts – a promise to a late friend, prospective tattoo, and college plans – as she soaked in the closing moments of her final school wrestling trip.
Her state tournament experience started on a high note last Friday, with a pin 12 seconds into her first match, marking her quickest win ever. From there, she bested two of the other top four girls in the 138-pound weight class before winning 2-0 in the championship match and, for the second consecutive year, ripping apart Frisco Liberty star Ashley Cook’s dreams for a gold medal.
The two met in the title match last year, then competing in the 148-pound weight class of the University Interscholastic League’s Class 5A. It did not come as too much of a surprise to Adelyhda this year when she learned Cook had also dropped weight and landed in her new division.
“I wanted to look better in my uniform,” Adelyhda said, breaking into a smile, when asked why she changed weight divisions. She hoped colleges would see she could lose weight and still be as effective.
Before the championship match on Saturday, Adelyhda knew she had to win, to keep a promise as well as further her career aspirations. Still, she was slightly nervous as the returning champion, knowing Cook had more to prove.
“I thought she would come back hard and stronger because of redemption,” Adelyhda said, acknowledging that was true. She dedicated this championship to John Van Meter, a Uvalde boxer who was killed at his home in January. The two were close from years of sharing the same training space at Uvalde Memorial Park, where the Uvalde Wrestling Club and Tree City Boxing Club both meet.
“He really motivated me to be the best,” Adelyhda said, steadying her expression to fight back tears. “When the season started, he asked me if I would win state. I said yes. He said I could do anything I could ever dream of.”
After funeral services for Van Meter, Adelyhda returned to the training gym. “I sat there and bawled my eyes out.” Her father reminded her that Van Meter would want her to work hard and keep the promise she made about the state championship.
“Then I went out there and I did it,” Adelyhda said, adding that Van Meter was her first thought when the official raised her arm in the air.
Afterward, as she fist-bumped her coach, Nicholas Hernandez, and greeted the people around the mat, she imagined the tattoo she would get in honor of her win – a colorful feather adorned with the names of her brothers.
She climbed into the stands for a hug from her father and grinned as she looked out over the competition floor.
Two days later, inside the hot, noisy confines of the wrestling gym, any signs of a celebration were long gone. The Uvalde High School senior was helping her father train young children. Sharp blasts from her ear-piercing whistle abruptly halted giggles that erupted when holds turned into horseplay as John diverted his attention to answer questions about his daughter’s accomplishments.
Adelyhda has competed at the state level all four years of high school, winning runner-up honors in her sophomore year and the title every other year. She was undefeated in her freshman and junior seasons with an overall record of 152-6, but her experience on the mat precedes high school by more than 10 years.
John, a former wrestler himself, was reading about Texas wrestling online when a young Adelyhda, perched on his shoulders, caught sight of a championship belt.
“Buy me that, daddy,” he recalled her saying.
“You don’t buy that. You earn it,” was his reply.
“And here we are, 15 years later,” John said Monday, with a laugh as he gestured toward his daughter who was commanding four groups of young trainees. “Her first year, she won only one match.”
After the first year, John’s list of students grew to include Adelyhda’s cousins and his co-workers’ children.
Adelyhda’s youthful endeavors gave way to six state championships and two Texas Wrestler of the Year awards.
Her father’s work to train her, and now her younger brothers, includes practicing every day, even on weekends. Before each 90-minute training session, she runs and warms up for half an hour.
“If we’re not in here working out, we’re chopping wood, camping,” she said. “My dad always has us busy.”
Since she started wrestling, she has been dedicated to the sport day-in and day-out for all but one year. Fearing burnout, she and her brother took a year off. For her, she said the result was weight gain and boredom. She wanted to wrestle.
She went into her freshman year with a determination to prove naysayers wrong. Adelyhda kept hearing that she wouldn’t make it to state because the UHS wrestling program was too new – it was reinstated the year before she entered high school – and its athletes had not performed well.
Her passion for the sport has only intensified. Her goal, as it has been for years and chronicled in multiple features in this newspaper, is to be an Olympic wrestler. Now, she is looking forward to state competition in Greco-Roman-style wrestling and national competition set March 21-24 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
With her high school wrestling career behind her, she has great enthusiasm for the future of UHS wrestling, pinning its success on the shoulders of her younger brother Reynaldo Perez and teammate Dominique Quiroz.
“I want everybody to make it to state,” she said. She also wants Reynaldo to shine.
“I don’t ever want him to feel like he’s living in my shadow. He’s the best boy wrestler I’ve watched, and he’s so humble,” she said. “He won sixth at state last year as a freshman.”
She is also thinking about college, with her top two prospects being Presbyterian College in South Carolina and Colorado Mesa. She wants to study biology and eventually become a physician assistant. Just like dad.
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