Soria brothers have overcome tremendous odds on their path to success
Max (right) and Mike (left) Soria are identical twin wrestlers for the Bulls whose competitive nature has helped them overcome adversity. Andy Koniuch, The Spectrum
Doctors said the Soria brothers wouldn't survive on September 13, 1991.
But at 10:19 p.m. in Stony Brook Hospital, a miracle happened. In fact, two miracles happened.
Maxwell and Michael Soria - identical twins - were born on Friday the 13th.
After their mother's legs were crushed in a hit-and-run accident, the boys were born three months premature. At their first 'official' weigh-in, Max was 2 pounds and 3 ounces. Ten minutes later, Mike was born at 1 pound and 9 ounces.
Since then, the two have done what few could have expected that September evening - become Division I wrestlers.
Max and Mike were juniors on the Buffalo wrestling team this season. Max is first on the active roster with 59 career wins, while Mike ranks fourth with 30. These numbers, however, are far from their greatest accomplishment.
Their fight began three months before they were even born.
Karen Soria was picking up a friend from the Kings Park Clubhouse. A routine walk from her car drastically changed when a gray truck veered from its parking spot in reverse, crushing Karen's legs.
The driver was never found.
"I don't remember much of it," Karen said. "I was in shock. I felt my leg right away and knew it was broken."
Karen was rushed to Stony Brook Hospital's emergency care center in an ambulance. To her surprise, doctors informed her that she was two and a half months pregnant. One month later, she learned she'd be delivering twins.
Karen's doctor wished to insert steel rods into her broken legs, but because of her pregnancy, the operation was not permitted.
For the next three months after the accident, Karen was in and out of the hospital. She would spend a week in the hospital, be released, but then have to return due to urinary tract infections.
"I remember asking the doctor, 'How do I get rid of the infection?'" Karen said. "The doctor said, 'The babies must be born.'"
Karen was told if her babies' umbilical cords were cut, the twins' chance of survival was slim.
Karen only had two vessels in her umbilical cord compared to the normal three. Because of this, the probability of the boys' hearts and livers failing were high.
But three months after the accident - Max and Mike were born.
Karen and Robert, her husband, didn't get to celebrate the birth of their children for long.
Shortly after, the twins were placed in incubators after experiencing severe breathing problems. They were transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
"To feed them, I'd have to stick a tube through their nose which led to their throat," Karen said. "If they'd stop breathing, alarms would go off, their faces would turn purple."
Two months later, Max and Mike were released from the hospital after reaching Stony Brook's requirement of 4 pounds and 7 ounces.
About five months after the accident, the entire Soria family returned to its Kings Park home.
Growing up, breaking bad habits
Max and Mike didn't allow early hardships to dictate their athletic futures.
They excelled on the basketball court in middle school and often led their team in scoring. The twins would be seen regularly doing back flips off buildings. They were the epitome of athleticism.
They often played football at Memorial Field in Kings Park.
"We'd always have Mike and Max cover each other because no one else could keep up with them," said childhood friend and former high school wrestling teammate Tom McGuire. "We'd say you two cover each other, but don't fight. They'd usually fight."
In eighth grade, the Kings Park varsity football coaches saw Max and Mike playing flag football and wanted the two to play for the team. Karen wasn't sure about the idea because of their size.
"I told [the coaches] they were crazy," Karen exclaimed. "They only weighed 80 pounds, they'd get crushed. [The coaches] would respond, 'But no one can catch them.' They were quick little boogers."
But as their peers outgrew them, it was difficult for Max and Mike to find a sport they could compete in.
That's when Kings Park High School's wrestling coach Brian Lopalo contacted Robert and Karen.
"[Lopalo] came to us with an idea," Robert said. "All the other children their age were becoming much bigger. They started out as peanuts. They played ninth-grade basketball, but everyone else was over a foot taller. There's no such thing as a 4-foot point guard. Little by little, we got filtered into wrestling."
Max and Mike barely stood 5 feet tall as high school freshmen. That is when the boys met the biggest influence of their wrestling careers, Jack Mangani.
A former wrestler at Iowa, Mangani's teachings went well beyond the wrestling mat.
"I loved having Mangani as a coach," Max said. "I can't explain it, but just the things he said - the things he taught me, the things I got out of him, the way he'd push us. Being with him for four years in high school was just beyond the sport of wrestling. He taught life in general, how to be a good person."
A way Mangani pushed the boys was kicking them off their inhaler dependence.
Since they were born, Max and Mike had chronic asthma problems and heavily relied on their medicine. Mangani trained the boys so hard that eventually, the two began to grow out of it. "As many as one in five youngsters with asthma may grow out of the respiratory condition as they age,"according to U.S. Health News.
Max and Mike still take pills every day to monitor their asthma, but no longer need an inhaler.
"After I worked [with Max and Mike for] one year at the high school level, I told them to throw [the inhaler] out," Mangani said. "It's important to get in such great shape that you don't need them anymore."
The Soria brothers didn't experience instant success when they stepped onto the mat.
They weighed only 80 pounds and were wrestling against kids 18 pounds heavier. In high school competition, the lowest weight class is 98 pounds. It was difficult for Max and Mike to add weight.
"There was a rule that you can't wrestle unless you weighed 88 pounds," Mike said. "We had to gain weight every time just to compete. We'd drink massive amounts of Gatorade before weigh-ins and wear heavy clothes."
Mike once vomited on Mangani's shoes during weigh-ins because of the excessive amounts of water he was forced to drink. The extra clothing to add pounds caused him to undergo heat exhaustion.
They would sometimes resort to illegal measures to make weight.
"We'd fill up water bottles and stuff them in their pants so they'd be able to make weigh-ins," Mangani said. "One time, the refs let them wrestle despite being underweight. We had to beg."
Freshman and sophomore years were a struggle for Max and Mike.
Competing against heavier opponents left the twins beat up, but not discouraged.
The constant beatings only drove the brothers to train harder.
"Struggling as babies and growing up struggling as teenagers wrestling, it's honestly what helped us in this sport," Mike said. "Getting through all those adversities, that's what this sport is really about: learning how to deal with problems and battle through. That definitely helped us as kids, at least from a wrestling perspective."
Success, sportsmanship, and dimes
It wasn't until their junior year of high school that the Soria twins started to excel.
The brothers bulked up to 98 pounds and both qualified for states in 2009.
After winning all of their preliminary matches, Max and Mike were scheduled to wrestle each other in the quarterfinals.
"I'll never forget when we found out that they had to wrestle each other," Karen said. "When they came out, the coaches were in tears. I was in tears, but it happened."
What happened next was unprecedented.
The two took their positions on the mat. But instead of squaring up with one another, they pulled out a coin and flipped it.
That coin - a dime - has been viewed as a token of good luck in the Soria family since their grandfather, also named Mike Soria, passed away from Mesothelioma in 2007.
Since his death, the Sorias have found thousands of dimes lying around their home and in public. "It's never quarters, nickels or pennies - only dimes," according to Karen.
It was because of this that a dime was chosen over any other coin.
"I'm very proud of that moment," Robert said with tears in his eyes. "That's rare. That's love. Those are two of the most competitive guys you'll ever see."
When the boys first started wrestling, the Soria family made a mutual decision that the brothers would never compete against one another in live competition.
The agreement was made after Max and Mike became heated with one another after a match.
"It all started back in seventh grade when we first started [wrestling]," Mike said. "Max actually won. I was angry. It brought the family down; we were fighting each other in our own house and didn't talk for a week. Ever since then, there was a rule we wouldn't wrestle each other."
Mike won the toss, resulting in Max's only defeat of the season. The dime was later engraved into the Soria family's living room floorboard with polyurethane, right beside their fireplace.
Mike shut out his opponent in the state championship, 7-0. Max never lost again in the tournament and finished in third place.
The following season as seniors, Max and Mike added weight to compete in the 106-pound weight class. Both brothers again advanced to the state tournament. This time, however, a faulty bracket resulted in Max and Mike competing on the same side of preliminary matches.
The bracket seeding is determined by points earned from the success of previous seasons. The Sorias won every tournament for two years and their only losses came due to 'forfeiting' to one another in tournaments. They did not lose to anyone else during their junior or senior seasons.
Because of this, a competing coach forged one of his player's stats, giving him more wins than he actually had. After becoming aware of the situation, Mangani notified league officials and had the bracket changed.
Max and Mike finished third and fifth, respectively. They were eligible to compete in the national tournament, where Max took first and Mike fourth.
"That was probably one of the greatest feelings," Max said of winning the championship. "After losing at states senior year and not getting my state title, it was crushing. Winning nationals was kind of a sense of redemption and a great way to end my high school career."
Mike became the first junior from Kings Park High School to win a state championship, and Max became the first national champion. Their wrestling singlets hang on display at KPHS and will never be worn again.
Who is who?
If you can differentiate Max and Mike without guessing, kudos.
They're identical twins, but mirror opposites. Mike is a righty and Max is a lefty. Whatever one does, the other does the opposite.
Their wrestling styles are a reflection of their personalities off the mat.
Max has always been more of a brawler, according to Mangani, whereas Mike is more of a technical wrestler, paying more attention to detail. If confronted with a problem, Mike might try and fool you with his words, where Max will probably put you in a chokehold.
The two often used their indistinguishable appearances for a laugh.
In high school, they frequently switched classes with each other and teachers were completely unaware.
It's almost as if Max and Mike are the same person.
When Max obtains a bruise on one side of the body, Mike will receive an identical wound in a similar spot soon after, according to the brothers. If one has pain in his wrist, so will the other.
"I don't know if it's ironic or we feel each other's pain," Mike said.
On the wrestling mat, the Soria brothers are warriors. They will devour you.
Off the mat, they strive to help those that are less fortunate. The two had an internship with the UB Child Care Center earlier this year, where they taught early childhood developmental skills to kids with learning disabilities.
They are soft-spoken, but that doesn't mean they aren't leaders.
Max and Mike battle during training. Unlike live competition, the brothers go at each other's throats at practice. Their goals are to achieve top physical performance.
"Imagine strapping headgear on and kicking your own ass," Mangani said. "It's kind of poetic to watch when they battle and train together."
Mike's ability to overcome adversity was again tested Christmas night of 2012.
What he thought was a stomachache proved much more severe: kidney failure.
"I went two days thinking it was a stomachache before going to the emergency room." Mike said. "Doctors think it was because I was dehydrated and taking too much protein and ibuprofen after getting banged up. I didn't realize until a year later that I was taking a pre-workout that had creatine."
The dehydration and excessive creatine intake stunned Mike's kidneys, and doctors suggested a kidney transplant.
The Sorias needed a miracle - or good luck.
"We ripped that dime out of the floor and brought it to the hospital," Robert said. "I put a butter knife underneath it and popped it out. There's still a dent in our floorboard."
Max was supposed to be in Buffalo for a wrestling tournament but would not leave his brother's side. If a kidney transplant were necessary, it would only be from him. Mike ultimately didn't need the operation and was released from the hospital nine days later.
But six months later, during the summer of 2013, Mike experienced more problems. This time, it was viral meningitis.
Viral meningitis "is an infection that effects the covering of the brain and spinal cord caused by a particular virus," according to UB's Director of Health Services Susan Snyder.
Because viral meningitis can have a range of symptoms, from as little as a headache to nausea, it often goes unnoticed. It is less severe than bacterial meningitis - in which amputations can be fatal - but is still very dangerous.
Doctors believe the infection was obtained through contact with wrestling mats, according to Mike.
"I don't know how I got it, but I was in the hospital for another week," Mike said. "You work so hard and train to get in shape, but you take 10 steps back and have to get back in shape, heal, feel good again. It's been a constant problem the past four years."
After another nine days spent in the hospital under intensive care, Mike was released.
Grandpa Mike's good luck dime had worked its magic.
Since transitioning to college, Max and Mike have fused Mangani's philosophies with Buffalo head coach John Stutzman's mentalities.
It hasn't been easy, though, as the Bulls have gone through a coaching change since the pair arrived at UB in 2010.
The two were recruited by and wrestled for 16-year head coach Jim Beichner. Beichner was fired in 2013 and Stutzman was hired less than six weeks later.
"It's hard for them because the philosophies are so different," Stutzman said. "[Previous head coach Jim] Beichner was a great coach and had a great staff behind him. Max and Mike also had a bunch of different assistant coaches, so you're never getting the same message. I think that's what's hardest on a kid's development."
Despite the coaching changes, Max and Mike have experienced successful careers at UB, but Mike couldn't escape the risks every athlete faces.
To add to his list of injuries, Mike "tweaked" his knee the last month of the 2013-14 season, pulling him out of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
The cause of the injury: wrestling his brother at practice.
Because the NCAA limits teams to one wrestler per weight class, Stutzman had to decide which brother would put on the UB singlet come game day.
"Mike has done a phenomenal job with his work ethic this season, but unfortunately that's been his forte the last four years - he's been banged up," Stutzman said. "Max is a super competitor, and losing the spot to your twin brother is nothing to be ashamed about. Max wouldn't be where he is today without Mike and vice versa. Mike needs Max and Max needs Mike; that's what's unique about it."
Despite Mike's junior wrestling eligibility due to redshirting as a freshman, he is undergoing his final undergraduate semester. He is unsure if he'll be returning to UB for graduate school in the fall.
"It's been a constant [struggle] for the past four years," Mike said. "You don't have a love for the sport anymore after constantly being hurt."
Recently, he was offered a scholarship to Seton Hill, a Division II university in Pennsylvania, which has agreed to fund his tuition and allow him to compete in his final year of NCAA eligibility for free.
But Mike doesn't know if his body can handle the beatings anymore.
"I've been having a great season. I thought this was my shot to go to the [MAC] Tournament and do some damage and qualify for nationals, but the day before our last match I end up hurting my knee," Mike said. "I've been hurt every year. This year, though, I've been fairly healthy and having a good season, so it's kind of depressing."
Mike finished the 2013-14 season with a 13-5 record. If he decides to part ways with Buffalo, his career record as a Bull will stand at 30-18.
Max will be returning to UB next year as a senior in his final year of eligibility.
During the 2013-14 season, Max had a 13-10 record with a team-leading 28 takedowns, but he did not qualify for his third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Max ranked No. 2 in the MAC for 125-pounders from October to November and leads Buffalo's active roster with 59 overall wins, 24 dual meet wins, 71 takedowns, 70 escapes, seven two-point near falls, nine three-point near falls and three falls.
The Sorias have been fighting for 22 years. Despite the severity of their battles, however, one presence has remained constant: family.
"They weren't really supposed to be here - born under two pounds," Robert said. "These types of things are what bonds a family. I think that's what made us so close. The struggle they had, the empathy we had for our children. In the long run, it all worked out for us."
When it comes to the Soria brothers, miracles happen.
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