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Pueblo East sophomore Aaden Valdez used the weeks following his horrific Independence Day fireworks accident — in which the wrestler lost his left eye as well as four fingers on his left hand — to assess his future.

After only seven days in the hospital he came home, at which point he made a daily routine of going into the basement or to his local gym to exercise however he could with his still-healing wounds — air squats, lunges, sit-ups galore. Then he’d run his usual 3-mile route around his Belmont neighborhood, deep in contemplation about what it was going to take to regain the form of a wrestler who finished fifth in state at 132 pounds in Class 4A last season.

“I really thought a lot about NCAA champion Anthony Robles and how he had one leg, and that just because I lost my fingers and my eye doesn’t mean it wasn’t still possible to win titles,” Valdez said. “Nothing was going to hold me back, and this accident wasn’t going to change who I was — those runs made me realize that.”

  • Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden Valdez, who was seriously hurt in a fireworks accident over the summer, practices with his teammates on Nov. 22, 2017 in Pueblo. He lost four fingers and one of his eyes in the accident.

  • Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden Valdez, who was seriously hurt in a fireworks accident over the summer, tapes his hurt hand before practice on Nov. 22, 2017 in Pueblo. He lost four fingers and one of his eyes in the accident.

  • A photo of Pueblo East High ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    A photo of Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden Valdez hangs on the school hallway taken before his accident on Nov. 22, 2017 in Pueblo.

  • Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden Valdez, who was seriously hurt in a fireworks accident over the summer, practices with his teammates on Nov. 22, 2017 in Pueblo. He lost four fingers and one of his eyes in the accident.

  • Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden ...

    RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

    Pueblo East High School sophomore Aaden Valdez, who was seriously hurt in a fireworks accident over the summer, tapes his hurt hand before practice on Nov. 22, 2017 in Pueblo. He lost four fingers and one of his eyes in the accident.

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It was almost as if his body knew there was a title pursuit to chase as Valdez healed quickly enough to be cleared for full contact about a month after he had a firework explode in his hand, likely due to a faulty fuse.

Equipped with a prosthetic eye, and a glove to protect his stray left pinkie, Valdez competed in several national tournaments this fall, including last weekend’s Flo Kickoff Classic in Tulsa, Okla., where he took third on a national stage at 138 pounds.

“I’m getting better in my technique with each match and I’m getting stronger every day to try to get back to where I left off,” Valdez said. “With my hand, it’s a little different with locks and different moves, like takedowns and stuff where you’re trying to grab the leg. But I haven’t changed too much — just small adjustments here and there.”

Valdez’s biggest asset remains his work ethic, one that sets the example for the rest of the Eagles, who are coming off a best-ever fourth-place team finish at state.

“His drive is amazing — he got back from Tulsa on Saturday night, and was here in the room on Monday morning,” Pueblo East coach Pat Laughlin said. “It would’ve been easy for him to give up and say, ‘Wrestling’s tough enough with two good hands’, but the day he got his pins out he was in the room, and he’s willing to work harder than ever before.”

The sophomore’s quick recovery is also a credit to the support system around him, his mother, Laurie Valdez, said. She organized a GoFundMe page that raised almost $40,000 for medical expenses. The wrestling community, meanwhile, reached out to help the family in ways measured beyond dollars and cents.

“The support we had was completely overwhelming,” Laurie Valdez said. “It brings a tear to my eye, because the wrestling community in Pueblo, all over the state and all over the country supported us. Aaden makes a lot of friends wherever he goes, and the support that poured in helped us all emotionally in getting back on track.”

With the Eagles opening tournament looming with the Battle of the Beast at Pine Creek next weekend, the Valdez family is simply grateful to have a reason to be excited about wrestling again.

“I’m just really happy to be back on the mat,” Valdez said. “I won’t take one second for granted this year.”


Pueblo East wrestling at-a-glance

Key contributors as the Eagles make a play for their first state title this winter

Name, Year, Weight (Notes)

Saige Gallardo, Sr., 106 (2017 state qualifier)

Andrew Lucero, Sr., 113 (3-time state placer)

Ryan Roth, Jr. 120, (2016 4A state runner-up)

Jace Trujillo, Jr, 126 (2016 4A state champion; 5th in 2017)

Aaden Valdez, Soph., 138 (5th in 2017)

Zion Freeman, Jr. , 182 (2-time state placer)

Dominic Robles, Jr., 220 (4th in 2017)

Andy Garcia, Soph., 285 (2017 4A champion)

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