Aime Mukiza was in tears.
The past year left many in the same position, but Mukiza was at a place that was supposed to provide him focus and direction -- the wrestling mat.
The Des Moines North-Hoover senior 113-pound wrestler was in practice preparing for this year's state tournament when it hit him.
"I just stopped and cried because nothing was working, and everything I had been doing the entire year was not going to work against any guys at state," he said.
The four-time state qualifier finished eighth as a junior, giving the program a state medalist for the first time since 2017. But his senior season began late, included a bout with COVID-19 and a test of his physical and mental strength.
The Des Moines public schools dealt with a truncated sports season because of the pandemic, meaning Mukiza and his teammates did not begin practice until Dec. 23.
"Before my season started I had not been on the mat since my last match at state," he said.
Mukiza participated in a handful of practices before COVID-19 struck on Jan. 1 and sidelined him for two weeks.
"I was just drained and had no energy," he said.
Before he got sick, Mukiza was able to squat 265 pounds, but after finally feeling better and wrestling his first match on Jan. 14, he knew it was going to be a big ask for his body to be ready to compete at a high level by the middle of February. His first time back in the weight room saw him struggle with 135 pounds on the bar.
He would slowly build himself back up and place second at the district tournament to reach state, but it was the familiar voice of a former coach that helped motivate him to make a run up the podium while he was shedding a tear on the practice mat.
"I talked to my eighth-grade wrestling coach that day who has always believed in me," Mukiza said. "He told me 'to go wrestle like a dog.' He knows me and what to say at the right time."
Mukiza took the message to heart, taking the most difficult path to the podium at Wells Fargo Arena. He fell in the first round 8-6 to Cale Seaton of Iowa City High before rallying for four straight victories to finish fourth.
"The way he brought it in competition and the adversity he faced -- it seemed like it was nonstop this year -- when he stepped on the mat he really brought it," said North-Hoover head coach John Bingham, who just completed his second year.
Putting in the work
It was a satisfying conclusion to a trying season for a combined team that still struggles for numbers compared to other 3A programs. It also required Mukiza to find different ways to stay in shape and work with various partners in the wrestling room.
Mukiza, who also took part in cross country, soccer, baseball and football in high school, was not allowed on mat to begin the season because of the pandemic, and the expense kept him from club wrestling, so he turned to Project Onyx. The nonprofit provides underrepresented and underserved youth of color 14- to 18-years-old throughout central Iowa access to health and fitness services.
"I was able to go to the gym and workout whenever I needed," he said. "I don't think I was able to thrive the way that I wanted to, but I think it is what made me hungrier. If I wanted it, I knew I had to go harder."
Bingham credited his coaching staff for helping push Mukiza in the room and find ways to challenge him every day. A program that can struggle for numbers is a hurdle when wrestlers are trying to improve in the room.
Mukiza immigrated to America from Tanzania in Africa at 5 with his parents Mukiza Gahetano and Jacqueline Ndabazaniye and younger brother Champ-Pacifique Mukiza. They are the reason he works hard in the classroom and on the mat.
"If I am being honest, I am not much of a school guy," said the 4.0 student. "I just work hard out of respect for my parents because I am not from America. I want to show my family I can do school and show them I can do it. Knowledge is the only thing no one can take away from you."
Mukiza said he didn't take school as seriously as he needed to at the beginning, but took numerous advanced placement courses to build up his GPA. It also was important to set an example for his younger brother to show regardless of what you do, do it 100%.
Hard work paid off for Mukiza when he made his commitment to wrestle at Iowa State University in late May.
"It has always been a dream for me," he said. "My freshman year I told a teammate if I could wrestle for one team it would be Iowa State."
He joins Deavin Hilson as another North athlete to go Division I after Hilson signed to play football at the University of Iowa.
Mukiza said Iowa State represents home to him and home, and the people who make it, have always driven the 18-year-old. He has been part of the Iowa State program Science Bound since his eighth grade year, and it helped him earn a four-year, full-tuition scholarship as he hopes to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. The program focuses on the STEM and agriculture fields, but it also helped shape the way Mukiza views wrestling.
"I love science and math and why things work the way they do," he said. "I want to know why my body works and moves the way it does, how I am stretching, how I fix my body if it isn't doing something I want it to and that is what science is."