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RAREFIED AIR

—Messenger photo by Britt Kudla 2021 FORT DODGE SENIOR HIGH SCHULTZ WINNER DRAKE AYALA is pictured at his home with his parents, Sam and Angie.

If it seemed like Drake Ayala made it look easy, he did.

Behind the confident, stoic demeanor and the unrivaled high school wrestling career, though, stood a Fort Dodge Dodger who poured his heart and soul into the sport when no one was around to provide added motivation.

All of that came from within.

Ayala was named the 2021 Henry W. Schultz Award winner — an honor given annually to Fort Dodge Senior High’s top senior male athlete. The University of Iowa recruit gained national recognition and became a household name during his four years as a local prep.

What we saw in public was the payoff. What Ayala had sacrificed in private became the process.

“I’m not perfect. No one is,” Ayala admitted. “Not everything will go your way. I’ve lost. I’ve faced adversity. I still do. But I’m not going to let that slow me down or get in my way. You just keep working, become mentally tough and build your mindset. You fall down seven times? Stand up eight.

“If you do things the right way, it adds up. The payoff comes with patience and consistency. So many people, especially (in the age of) social media, are looking for short cuts or quick fixes. It complicates things. I’m more about simplifying it all.”

Ayala’s basic rules for development have paid striking dividends. Not only was he a three-time prep state champion and four-time finalist in a Dodger singlet, but Ayala took the United States AAU circuit by storm, capturing three titles at the prestigious Fargo Nationals tournament, a Super 32 Challenge crown, and a win at the “Who’s No. 1” event over the country’s top pound-for-pound high school competitor. He accumulated 171 victories at FDSH, earned two Dan Gable Iowa Mr. Wrestler of the Year awards, and was named an academic All-American.

It seems almost unfathomable that an athlete from the heart of Fort Dodge could rise to such esteemed prominence. Ayala became the nation’s top-ranked 126-pound wrestler, and was a Top-10 overall prospect for the 2021 class. He is a cornerstone recruit for Tom Brands’ defending national champion Hawkeyes.

Yet through it all, Ayala kept his cool. He’s as approachable as ever, both in professing the love for his community and the loyalty he feels toward those who helped make it all happen.

“When I think of Fort Dodge, I think of family. This is — and always will be — home,” said Ayala, the son of Sam and Angie Ayala. “There’s no real secret to how I’ve been raised. My (younger) brothers (Dru and Knox) would say the same. We’re held accountable and to a higher standard — not necessarily in what place we get in a tournament, but the expectations for how we treat ourselves and other people.

“You have to always look for ways to improve and evolve. You don’t waste much time celebrating, because there’s always another challenge to take on. You get right back to work. I think that’s a good way to keep a good perspective and your ego in check.”

Ayala hesitated to give specific advice to future Dodgers, noting that “everyone has their own behaviors, their own niche — their own way of going about things.” He did offer a glimpse into his personal routine, which he has fine-tuned and narrowed down through the years.

“I start by making my bed,” Ayala said. “That may sound kind of obvious, but it’s a good way to start (moving forward). I set three athletic goals every morning. I’ve talked to (Sebolt Wrestling Academy owner) T.J. (Sebolt) a lot about this — waking up with a purpose, knowing what you are trying to get out of each day. No wasted minutes or opportunities. I’ve actually really been concentrating on that for about a year, and wish I had started a lot sooner.”

Ayala’s brilliance has almost been taken for granted, thanks in large part to his unassuming nature. As the wins and championships accumulated, Ayala’s focus on school never wavered. He graduated with a cumulative grade point average above 3.9.

Ayala never expected added attention or preferential treatment, despite becoming the kind of student-athlete most schools only dream of producing.

“It was exciting to be recognized (with the Schultz Award) as a part of (FDSH) history,” Ayala said. “Any honor that dates back almost 100 years…you see some amazing names on that list, guys who have gone on to do great things both in sports and in life. I’m thankful and grateful that coaches and teachers saw me in this light.

“And I’m in an incredible class of athletes. Plenty of guys worthy of something like this. I won’t even name names because I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. And for as good as they are athletically, they’re even better people. I think that’s what Fort Dodge does really well — most of our most talented (competitors) are also strong (in the classroom and in the community). Friends I’ll always have. As we get older, we’ll be there to support each other.”

Ayala is the fourth Dodger state wrestling champion in the last six years to receive the Schultz Award, joining Sam Cook (2016), Triston Lara (2017) and Brody Teske (2018). Fort Dodge won both the 3A traditional and dual title during Ayala’s freshman season, and also brought home trophies in 2019 and 2020 as Ayala ascended into greatness.

“Coach (Andi) Adams touched on it during softball (as the Dodgers recently captured state gold): it’s Fort Dodge vs. everybody,” Ayala said. “That’s not a bad thing or meant to be seen in a negative way. It’s just that mentality, where it’s you against the world. You’ll always have doubters and you’ll deal with struggles you have to overcome. To me, that’s what being a Dodger is all about. Keep fighting, keep pushing until they can’t keep you down. It’s a great way to look at not just sports, but life.”

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