Abidan Duarte is still in his teenage years, but it seems like the senior at Granger High School has already experienced two lives.
At present, he is a district and regional wrestling champion with a 33-4 season record and 103 career victories. Foremost on his mind, however, is doing everything in his power to help the top-ranked Spartans win the school’s first state championship in any sport this week at Mat Classic XXV in Tacoma.
But for Duarte there was an earlier life that now feels disconnected and distant in some ways, and yet it nearly precluded all things since from ever happening.
When you haven’t even started fourth grade, what are you supposed to say or do when told you have a 25-percent chance of surviving cancer?
“I was just doing what I could to get through it,” he said. “That’s too much to think about because, well, I was only 10 years old.”
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That summer between his third- and fourth-grade years, Duarte’s biggest concern was being surrounded by sisters — a number that has grown to seven. Then one day his mother, Maria, asked him about a lump on his neck.
“I didn’t think anything of it because it didn’t bother me,” he recalled. “We went to a clinic and they said not to worry, it was just my glands fighting a virus so I got some medicine.”
But it didn’t go away. A CT scan in Toppenish indicated trouble and at Children’s Hospital in Seattle it was confirmed — cancer in the lymph nodes and aggressive.
There would be surgery to remove cancerous tissue on both sides of his neck — the left side still bears a purple scar — a year’s worth of chemotherapy and an extended stay at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle.
That was the plan only if all went extremely well and the odds were turned around.
“I would see my mom cry every now and then because she knew what was going on, that I had a 25-percent chance of living,” he said. “She told me that and I thought about it a while. At first it seemed like too much to deal with, but then I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to get through this and live my life. I’m going to reach old age.”
Duarte stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for nearly two months after the surgery that fall, starting to learn his fractions and reading books while enduring heavy chemotherapy. He responded favorably at every turn and soon Duarte was home again. Every two weeks through the next summer he returned to Seattle for further treatments, but at least he was home.
“The original plan was to stay in Seattle for a year, but I wanted to go home so bad,” he said. “I made good progress and we got to do it. It made a big difference.”
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Today, aside from his annual check-ups and that scar, you’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence of Duarte’s childhood battle. He knows some have not been so fortunate, but perseverance saw him through it and a lifelong appreciation has been instilled.
Which is part of the reason he enjoys sports so much. The hard work, the dedication — it all feels so satisfying.
Duarte played football all through high school and was an all-league offensive lineman and linebacker last season.
But wrestling, which he started in seventh grade, has been his athletic calling. He has ascended the postseason ladder nicely, reaching regionals as a freshman, qualifying for state as a sophomore and then placing fifth last year when Granger earned a fourth-place team trophy.
At 5-foot-8, Duarte is a sturdy figure in the 195-pound division and he ranks third in the state in Class 1A — exactly his goal for Mat Classic.
“Last year’s goal was top five and I was excited to make that. Now the goal is top three and, possibly, get in the finals,” said Duarte, who could meet top-ranked Caleb Johnson of Blaine in the semifinals. “But those are personal goals.”
Meaning they are secondary to his desire for Granger to win the team title, an effort that will require beating rival and neighbor Zillah to do so. Coach Ruben Saldivar is taking a crew to 10 to Tacoma, including two-time state champion Joshua Salcedo, and the time is ripe.
“Our coach has said we haven’t won a state championship in anything and this is our big chance,” Duarte said. “We have to take this opportunity and make the most of it.”
He knows better than anyone what that means. And when you hear Duarte talk about digging deep and intensifying will power, there are undeniable echoes from his past.
“I just have to be aggressive and not be afraid of pushing the limit,” he said. “Don’t stop, keep pushing forward. Just keep on going.”