Wrestling is a sport where the preparation is endless, and the rewards are short-lived. As soon as one match is finished, it's on to the next.
"Most people don't start with talent when they walk through that door," Pueblo East sophomore Aaden Valdez said. "It takes lots of dedication and hard work to come in here and do what we do."
In his high school debut, Valdez placed fifth in the 2017 Colorado High School Wrestling State Championships. His eyes were set on making it even further the following season.
"Right now, I'm ranked second in the state," he said. "I'm hoping to be in that state final going for the gold [and] top of the podium."
That feat is difficult enough when you consider the talented pool of wrestlers across the state. Then, you take into consideration Valdez wrestles at one of the most competitive weight classes of 132 pounds. The obstacles were still there, but nothing could prepare Valdez for his biggest battle of all.
Last summer, on July 4, Valdez was celebrating Independence Day as he always did.
"We always have, like, a big block party, that we invite all of our friends and family and neighbors to come," he said.
One of the guests that night, was Valdez's head wrestling coach at Pueblo East, Pat Laughlin.
"As I was leaving, I was walking down the street, and I told Aaden to be careful," he said. "I drove home and about 20 minutes later, I got a phone call that said, 'Aaden was in a terrible accident.'"
Valdez was setting off some of the night's larger fireworks. While holding one in his left hand, the spark from the lighter hit the base of the firework and it exploded right then and there. Valdez was rushed by ambulance, and later helicopter to a Denver hospital where he underwent nine hours of surgery. Doctors had to remove all but his pinkie finger on his left hand in addition to his left eye.
"It did come through my mind at first that I wasn't able to [wrestle]," Valdez said. "I'm not going to be able to do what I love."
But instead, in a moment where doubt held the stronghold position, it was never able to pin his mind.
"When he came out [of surgery], when he was able to talk, he told his mom that wrestling would help motivate him to get through it and also, the injury itself would help him to become a better wrestler," Laughlin said.
The day Aaden was cleared by doctors, he was back on the mat. While he never wavered from wrestling, his technique and moves had to change. In a sport where grip is king and holds are critical, Valdez has had to adapt his style to where his six fingers would be more valuable than ten. Dubbed his "club," his left hand has become one of his biggest weapons.
"I think it's made me stronger, it's an advantage for me because I use it as a club," Valdez said. "I use it to hook, plus wrestlers usually don't know what to grab onto."
"He's much better at the things he can do now because he has to do those things all the time," Laughlin added. "People know what's coming, but they can't stop it, because he's perfected it so well."
Valdez says there was a period of time where he would forget about his missing fingers. When he would go to grab an opponent's arm, it was only then that he'd realize they were gone. But he's made it an effort to keep his left arm just as strong as his right, and in the process, its absence has become more normal. When it comes to a wrestling match, Aaden's lone pinkie is enough to help him tie his shoes, put on his uniform and headgear, but he wraps it down to protect it from getting broken on the mat.
Another change Valdez has dealt with the season is in the bleachers. His already large fan base has grown even more this season.
"It was great to see the outpouring of support from the wrestling community," Laughlin said, "people saying, 'You can still do this.'"
One of them was Anthony Robles, an NCAA champion who was born with just one leg. Valdez says Robles reached out to him following his accident, and it encouraged him to get back on the mat and fight harder than ever. Today, Valdez has become that same source of inspiration for the young wrestlers in Pueblo.
"I coach the club program, La Gente, and all of them look up to me. They always tell me I'm inspirational and they want to be like me," he said. "It makes me proud that I can come out here and do what I love and that nothing is going to stop me."
Nearly seven months to the day following his accident, Valdez will look to climb the podium to the number one block, and no challenge -- no accident -- is going to pin him down.
This past weekend, Aaden placed first in his regional wrestling tournament. Ten of his Pueblo East teammates will also be competing with him in the state tournament. That kicks off Thursday, February 15.