Richard Belmonte just couldn't avoid the wrestling bug. After all, the 24-year-old known to everyone as 'Ricky,' grew up in Gilroy, a city rich in wrestling tradition. And, of course, he wanted to do just what his older brother Steve did, which was wrestle.
But because Ricky has Down syndrome, he wasn't able to compete at the level his big brother did.
He's still found his niche in the Gilroy wrestling community.
"He loved it," says Ricky's mother, Sandy Belmonte. When asked how long her youngest son has been wrestling, Sandy Belmonte pulls out a small, slightly faded photo of two young boys wearing wrestling headgear and roughhousing on the floor.
The one flashing a wide smile at the camera is Ricky, just a toddler.
Since 2001, Ricky has been practicing twice a week with the Gilroy Hawks club team and Hawks coach Armando Gonzalez, who also coaches wrestling at Gilroy High.
"Ricky's not like most kids who come into the program," Gonzalez says. "But he's a high performer. He really does know the art – he does, without a doubt."
Because of his disabilities, USA Wrestling does not allow Ricky to compete in tournaments with the Hawks. He's getting to the point where he's too strong to wrestle younger wrestlers, but not advanced enough to wrestle competitors his own age. However, some younger members of the Hawks, who have grown up knowing Ricky, volunteer to wrestle him in exhibition matches. His latest competitor has been 14-year-old Hawks member Benjamin Torricer.
All for one
One match in particular stands out in Sandy Belmonte's mind.
It was at last year's Gilroy Freestyle Tournament at GHS when the Belmontes first found out that Ricky would not be able to compete, even in the "cadet" age group, which is for 14 and 15-year-olds. Sandy Belmonte went all the way to the president of USA Wrestling to plead her son's case. However, no exceptions could be made to the organization's bylaws because of liability issues.
"They don't have a special division for Ricky," Gonzalez says. "He has to wrestle in the open division, which is same as the Olympic division and it's far beyond his limits."
That day could have ended in disappointment for Ricky, his parents and his teammates. But because they are his teammates, the Gilroy Hawks didn't let him down. Gonzalez's son, Armando – who placed third at this past season's wrestling State Championships – and two other wrestlers volunteered to wrestle Ricky in exhibition matches.
"(Armando) wrestled (Ricky), let him win and then presented him with his own medal," Sandy Belmonte says, referring to the trophy the younger Gonzalez had earned earlier in the tournament. "I cried when he did that. It was very touching."
Always on the go
Part of what makes Ricky able to participate in wrestling is his high level of energy.
"He keeps in good shape. Ricky is just an active person," Gonzalez says. "We don't have him doing long-distance running, but he does a lot of short-burst stuff and exercises. He works on technique and wrestles live, which is how he gets physical conditioning. And he does push himself, always."
Most importantly, Ricky always has his eye on the ultimate goal of wrestling.
"He just wants to get them down and pin them," his mother says.
Even when he's not wrestling, Ricky continues to push himself. He participates in a work program through the Hollister-based Social Vocational Services. One recent morning, Ricky, clothed in dress pants and a shirt and tie, bustled around the Belmonte home, preparing for work.
"He absolutely loves it. He never wants to miss work," Sandy Belmonte says. "He's up in the morning, usually earlier than me. He showers, eats breakfast, gets dressed and comes to me and says 'How do I look?'"
While it has been hard to find a spot for him to fit in wrestling-wise, Ricky has certainly found a permanent spot within the Hawks community. Ricky and the younger Armando Gonzalez have grown up together and they've maintained a friendship over the years.
"Ricky has a relationship (like that) with 30 other wrestlers," coach Gonzalez says. "When they see him out, they always call him over. He's always treated like one of family. That's important for Ricky and the kids because it gives another perspective that even kids with Down syndrome can function and can relate in society.
"I hope Ricky continues to put forth a good example."