My Stanford Wrestling story is extremely difficult to characterize. I am not in any record books and may not even be mentioned anywhere in the annals of Stanford Wrestling, but I know the impact it made on my life.
In May of 1979, I arrived as one of 7 children to Yakima, WA, a farming community in central Washington that probably had a Vietnamese population of 0 prior to our arrival. With nothing in our pockets, my family was able to navigate this new world around us to succeed on all levels. We did this through sheer will, determination and hard work so it was natural for me to gravitate to wrestling once I discovered it by accident when I joined to stay in shape for soccer.
I was always a small kid. Unlike the other kids around me who developed mustaches by their freshman year in high school, I matured late and was always little. I weighed 62 pounds during my 8th grade wrestling season so it is no surprise that I was picked on as a kid. When my family moved into government housing, we were surrounded by people of all walks of life. Finding common ground with anyone around me was difficult. My first two weeks included daily beatings by my next door neighbors. I think it was the fact that I never ratted them out or complained that they eventually accepted me and we became best friends. Another kid stalked me after school one day and beat me up to see if I knew karate. I was even beat up by an 8th grade girl while I was in the 7th grade because, well, I'm not sure why.
Finding acceptance in this world was always hard for me. When I arrived at Stanford, I thought things would get easier, but that wasn't the case. It was clear from day one that academics would be a struggle for me and finding common ground with other Asians was even more difficult. My SAT score of 1280 was well below average at Stanford and I had to work a lot harder in school than most students. Growing up in a predominantly Mexican community, picking fruit every summer, and wrestling weren't common with other Asian students. I also found that when I went to study sessions and discussion groups, I saw the world totally different from most students at Stanford.
My freshman roommate was on the wrestling team so, again I discovered the team by accident when I joined him at a pre-season workout. I immediately felt at home and joined the team as a walk-on. The impact that one decision made on my life is immeasurable. It was the only place I felt at home on campus. I had so much in common with other students on the surface, but my world view made me feel like I didn't belong anywhere. As freshmen, we are exposed to every kind of club and association anyone could possibly imagine. My experiences with these groups were all superficial as I didn't feel as smart or as cultured as those around me.
I have always been around family. Growing up in a family of 10 (my youngest brother was born in the US), I really only felt at home when surrounded by my brothers and sisters. With my parents both working multiple jobs to provide just the basic amenities, my brothers and sisters were the ones I relied on for everything outside of shelter and food. It wasn't until my last high school wrestling match when I lost in the state finals that my father even saw me wrestle. To this day, they still don't know that I even wrestled at Stanford. I wasn't at Stanford until I found family.
The wrestling team was the only group that made me feel like home. Our team had guys from all walks of life who created an environment of inclusion and acceptance that allowed me to thrive and grow. Dave Nowick was a big brother and gave a me pathway to achieve my goal of getting into medical school. He was a senior my freshman year and was instrumental in laying out all my classes for my four years as a pre-med. I followed the plan to the letter and got into my dream medical school, the University of Washington. Jay Jackson and Jimmy Aguirre were my moral and spiritual guides. Without judging anyone, these guys were both leaders on the team for their wrestling and their moral character. Coach Horpel was my father figure and Tod Surmon was my best friend and cheerleader. I had never had anyone encourage me or make me feel like I was anyone special. Tod, through his positivity and relentless life spirit, made me realize that I was someone special and unique. Without all these elements I would have failed college. An academically weak, physically small, emotionally timid and socially shy Vietnamese kid from Yakima, WA, would not be a head wrestling coach at his high school alma mater, an ER physician who does medical missions in Asia, or a loving father and husband without Stanford Wrestling. There are some who are leaders and command attention and others who follow. I needed those leaders in order to succeed. Those leaders were all on the Stanford Wrestling Team. Please allow others the opportunity to experience what I did. Let's work together to #KeepStanfordWrestling!
- By Pham '96