In a time of upheaval, when everything for Axel Muller was changing, he grasped onto the one thing that he could always rely on — his athleticism.
He had to leave behind all that he had come to know — friends, teammates, roots — in Ahwautkee that he worked so hard to establish after moving to the area from Argentina in 2002.
The former Desert Vista student found comfort in one of the most physical and demanding sports out there in rugby after his family moved back to Argentina.
“It was pretty hard, especially leaving behind so many good friends in Phoenix,” Muller also said in an email. “I grew up, in Ahwatukee, with the same group of people from elementary through high school. It took a while to adjust to new customs.”
Muller, 20, moved with his family from Argentina in 2002 when he was only 9 years old when his father’s job had moved to the area. The family lived in Ahwatukee until 2010, when the family was faced with a crisis.
A sickness had developed within the family and Muller’s father, Jose, had a tough decision to make. Whether or not to move his family back to their native Argentina, or stay in the place where his children were starting to come into their own.
“It was not something we wanted, but we have a person in our family with a serious illness so we decided to return so this person would be closer to (their) relatives,” the elder Muller said in an e-mail. “Due to (the fact) Axel and Dana (Muller’s sister) were too young they could not decide for themselves to stay or move back with us. It was probably the toughest decision I ever made.”
Axel Muller returned to Argentina, and fell on his athletic prowess to help him cope with moving somewhere so far removed from where he had been.
Muller ran track for the Thunder and the Arizona Cheetahs Track Club in high school and had planned to continue pursuing track. But, as seems to be a recurring theme in his life, plans changed.
“When we moved back, I had no idea I would be playing rugby," he said. "I thought I would be in track and field, it was my off-season sport in the U.S.”
Muller had also played cornerback and running back at Desert Vista at the lower levels and Thunder coach Dan Hinds felt he lost a varsity contributor when Muller left for his homeland.
“I was very disappointed when he left,” Hinds said. “He was tough, multi-talented, and could have played several positions. He was a good kid, too.”
The Thunder’s loss was Team Argentina’s gain as he gravitated toward the rugby pitch. Muller started playing rugby as a substitute for football and, like seemingly every other sport he touched, he was good at it, very good.
He soon began attracting national attention. Muller was recognized as one of the best players for his club team, Marista RC, and was presented a special offer — a chance to try out for the national team.
After being evaluated at the state level, he was invited to a scouting scrimmage that was supervised by members of the Argentinian national team.
The cycle of practices, scrimmages takes around two years, a process Muller says is “similar to the ‘American Idol’ show process.”
After the long wait, Muller, whose position is a wing, found out that he had made the Under 20 national team. Some of the things he had learned while playing football in the United States helped.
“The tackle technique I learned in the States was way much better than they teach here,” Muller said.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Muller contributed immediately, playing in a match against South Africa, one of the strongest teams in international rugby, and scoring a try against Uruguay in the South American Championships.
For his father, hearing that his son had made the team after the long tryout process helped make amends for the hardship he’d already endured.
All of it — moving back to his old country, learning a new sport, embracing new customs — could have deterred Muller, but instead he flourished.
“It was a long process, since he started going to the State team, then to those National tryouts, then the South American championship, and finally the World Cup,” Jose Muller said. “I told him that having this chance of participating in the World Cup is compensation for the sadness of having to leave the U.S. I am immensely proud of him.”
• Eric Smith is a junior journalism major at Arizona State. He is a summer intern at the AFN.