Teen wrestling champion credits his recovery from tragedy

In February, Dunia Sibomana won New York's 102-pound Division I high school wrestling state championship. The 14-year-old, who is still in the eighth grade, beat two undefeated wrestlers in that state tournament before pinning the one-seed in 90 seconds in the championship match.

"I was pretty confident going in," he said. "I'll never forget where I'm from."

Eight years before he became Long Beach's 17th state wrestling champ, a pack of chimpanzees attacked Dunia and two family members in their native Congo, killing his relatives and leaving Dunia with nine fingers and a series of facial injuries that left him struggling to swallow or speak.

"I was attacked but I was the one who survived," he said.

A year later, Dunia moved to the United States, where The Smile Rescue Fund for Kids facilitated the first of 12 and counting facial reconstruction surgeries and Dunia started living with Miguel Rodriguez and his wife Marissa, who officially adopted him in February.

"We just keep reminding him he's perfect as he is," Miguel said.

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Miguel coaches wrestling at Long Beach Middle School but never imagined this then-malnourished 7-year-old constantly in and out of the hospital for various surgeries might one day wrestle for him.

"His face is a million-dollar face," Miguel said. "Anything goes wrong and he has to start all over again."

But Dunia soon started following his dad to wrestling tournaments.

"While we were coaching, he'd be messing around on the side, just fooling around with the other kids," Miguel said. "And we noticed that he was just very athletic."

So Miguel and Dunia sought permission from Dunia's plastic surgeon, and 10-year-old Dunia started competing. Four years later, he found himself in Albany waiting to wrestle for a high school state championship as an eighth-grader.

"Nervous — just very nervous," Miguel said of his feelings watching those matches. "Butterflies. You can't breathe."

Dunia expressed none of those nerves. He attributes that confidence in part to the attack he survived and which his dad credits to Long Beach's coaches, schools, and community.

"No one even looks at him differently anymore," Miguel said. "Everyone just knows who he is."

"I just have to keep working hard and get ready for the next level," Dunia said.

What that next level is or what all we might watch Dunia accomplish in his next four years of high school wrestling and beyond, he won't say. But his parents, his coaches, and his teachers observe in him a level of dedication uncommon for an eighth-grader — even an eighth-grade state high school champion.

"He cooks, he cleans, he wakes up at five o'clock in the morning to go to the gym with his friend, watches what he eats," Miguel said.

"Now, I have to train harder, get better," Dunia said.