Rivera making strides toward national title

Tyler Rushmeyer

As he wipes away the sweat dripping into his eyes after another tough practice, looking as though he might collapse onto the mat, it’s obvious this particular wrestler does not skimp on effort.

Manny Rivera, the junior from El Monte, Calif., is in the midst of his third winter in the North Star state, and he’s racking up wins faster than his team dismantles Big Ten opponents.

At 33-0 on the season, Rivera, who is second-ranked nationally in his 141-pound weight class, was surprised when Minnesota coaches approached him in 2003 after taking the National High School Coaches Association Senior National Championship crown.

The decision to leave the Golden State and move north was easy.

“I was a little caught off guard when they expressed interest,” said Rivera, who placed third in the 2003 California state high school championships. “As soon as they started talking to me, I knew this was the school to wrestle at.”

Gophers assistant coach Joe Russell said he distinctly remembered Rivera from his attendance at the J Robinson Wrestling Camp.

“When I first met him, he was just a little kid with a big smile on his face,” he said. “You couldn’t help but like him. He had a smile on his face no matter how hard you worked him.”

Rivera’s father, Manuel, who resides in El Monte with his wife Oralia, said his son started wrestling when he was about 10 years old and was influenced by his three older brothers – all wrestlers.

Manuel Rivera said his son’s decision to attend Minnesota was exciting for the entire community.

“One thing I warned him about was the weather; I said, ‘Once you go, there is no turning back,’ ” he said. “To his credit, I’ve never heard him complain.”

As his wife wonders how her son can be so mentally tough to stand the Minnesota cold, both of Rivera’s parents try to take in his matches any way they can, whether it be on television or a webcast over the Internet.

Manuel Rivera said his son has created quite a buzz in his hometown.

“Everywhere my wife and I go around town, people will come up and congratulate us or ask how Manny is doing,” he said. “This year in particular has been very exciting.”

That’s because the junior has now won 33 consecutive matches – the fifth-longest streak in the nation.

But the success on the mat all begins in the practice room, where coaches and players alike said that no one practices as hard as Rivera.

Junior Mitch Kuhlman, one of Rivera’s roommates, said his teammate makes everyone around him better.

“You’ll never get the guy to quit,” he said. “He’s always pushing himself and pushing those around him.”

Rivera’s winning percentage has moved from .520 in his freshman year to .651 in his sophomore year to 1.000 this season.

But the junior had just this to say: “I feel like I’ve improved a bit.”

And it’s this modesty that teammates respect.

“He’s not arrogant,” Kuhlman said. “He just goes out and takes care of business.”

With Rivera’s perfect season still in tact and both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments approaching, the area around El Monte is already getting prepared.

“Friends, family, coaches, those in the wrestling community, they’ve all got their tickets booked,” Manuel Rivera said.

But the continued buildup of hype and national recognition is something that will not sway the wrestler with his grey Minnesota shirt soaked with sweat and an exhausted look on his face every practice.

Only one thing matters.

“National championship,” he said. “That’s why I train every day.”