This was no sports do-or-die situation - it was real life - and Saia Lotulelei was on the path toward the latter.
Lotulelei was just the second Maui Interscholastic League wrestler to win three state titles when he followed a 215-pound crown with two heavyweight titles from 1999 to 2001 for Maui High School.
He enrolled at William Penn University in Iowa out of high school, but quickly found out school was not for him as an 18-year-old.
York College’s Saia Lotulelei, shown getting the advantage on an opponent during a recent meet, will be competing in the NAIA National Wrestling Championships today.
RAMON DIAZ photo
A dozen years - and in reality, a lifetime - later he will compete in the NAIA National Wrestling Championships that begin today in Des Moines, Iowa, for York College of Nebraska as a 29-year-old redshirt freshman.
"I decided to go back to school and I didn't really think about wrestling any more," Lotulelei said via phone this week. "I was back on Maui and about five years ago, I was partying and I just took everything to another level. I was looking into the future and I didn't know what the future held for me."
A call to his former personal coach from his days as a Saber, Bob Anderson, who had moved to California, led to a life-changing decision and path to the Midwest.
Anderson "introduced me to Christ," Lotulelei said. "He showed me you can do all things through Christ."
Including going from 350 pounds to 235 and into a national college tournament, 12 years after his last competitive match.
"I was thinking of trying MMA to pay for my schooling, so I was training back home and I had a date to fly to California to live with my coach and train," Lotulelei said. "As I was flying, coach Bob was already thinking ahead of me trying to get me back to wrestling, so he called (York) coach Ramon (Diaz) and apparently he needed a heavyweight.
"When I got to California, I got the news that I was going to York. We got here and wrestled a couple of York College wrestlers and coach Ramon liked my style. That's kind of the short story of how I ended up here at York. . . . It has definitely been difficult coming back to the mats."
After becoming eligible for the Northern NAIA National Qualifier just two weeks ago, Lotulelei drew the top seed and was pinned in his first match. He won five consecutive bouts to grab third in the 285-pound weight class and make it to nationals.
"I am not going to lie, there was a lot of anxiety and I wasn't really known," Lotulelei said. "So they put me with the No. 1 guy in our region and I went in there rushing and kind of left my leg open. When I lost that first match I kind of calmed down and was able to wrestle my match."
Diaz, who won the 1992 Olympic trials at his weight class before being beaten out for a spot in the games by two later losses, said it was in the cards for Lotulelei to find his way to the tiny Christian liberal arts school. Lotulelei has a double major is business and accounting and also sings in the school choir.
"I think this story is like a divine intervention type of thing how that all worked out," Diaz said. "I think God brought him to us, that's the truth. He wasn't doing so great and he wanted to refocus his life and he touched base with an old coach, Bob Anderson, who was my Olympic coach."
After nearly a decade of stagnating on Maui - "I was smoking cigarettes for like 10 years and when I started working out, I just stopped," Lotulelei said - he had to battle through eligibility issues after having enrolled at William Penn and later at UH Maui College after a redshirt season last year for York.
"I just got eligible two weeks ago and I am pretty fortunate to participate in nationals this weekend," Lotulelei said. "It is definitely pretty shocking. My path wasn't even directed to wrestling. Bob introduced me to wrestling again and it is pretty shocking that I am going to nationals 10 years later. I am just going to go out there and do my best. I am living the miracle of coming back to school and doing the sport that I love."
He has the support of his new Mainland family - girlfriend Bethany Miller, York choir conductor Dr. Clark Roush, Diaz and Anderson head that list - and his Maui family of 10 siblings, including recent Nevada-Las Vegas football standout John Lotulelei, current Rebel linebacker Tau Lotulelei and sister Christina Lotulelei, a standout basketball player for the Sabers.
Tau was a state runner-up at 189 pounds last season, John just finished performing at the NFL Scouting Combine, and Christina recently finished her senior season by leading Maui High to the state tournament.
Now, they have their big brother back in the saddle to guide their paths. Saia Lotulelei said it is a two-way street.
"I actually started training when John went off his first year, when he came back," Saia Lotulelei said. "I think I was about 290, 300 pounds at that time. When I started training, I realized how out of shape I was. I have done a lot of helping out with my younger brothers and sisters, but they actually encouraged me to come back. If it wasn't for my brothers and my sisters encouraging me to come back, I don't know what would have happened."
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org