The 18-year-old Airica Zayas, better known as Airica Demia, makes her debut for the Columbia-based Palmetto Championship Wrestling. (Photos by Raymond Escoto)
When you see a larger-than-life fictional character, it’s easy to forget a real person is behind the costume.
And yet, sometimes, the real person is just as interesting as the character.
On weekdays, Airica Zayas is a normal, 18-year-old high school senior from Lincolnton, North Carolina.
On the weekends, she becomes Airica Demia, a professional wrestler and “a real-life superhero.”
She has performed across the Carolinas since debuting last January. On April 15, she wrestled for Palmetto Championship Wrestling in Camden.
“I want to be that person that shows that you can literally do whatever you want,” she said. “You can be whoever you want to be because you’re the only person stopping you.”
For her, that’s no small task.
Zayas has been balancing studying and homework with training to be a professional wrestler since the age of 14.
What inspired her desire to become a wrestler? Her father.
Chris Baldwin has been a North Carolina-based independent wrestler since the 2000s and has wrestled part time as a variety of characters.
“One of the first shows that I remember, (was when) I think I was 7 years old, and I told my dad that I wanted to try it,” Zayas said. “And he was like, ‘No, absolutely not. You’re too clumsy. You’re too young.’ ”
A reason for Baldwin’s hesitation was his own experience with training.
“I’m pretty sure I got concussed on my tryout,” he said.
Zayas continued her schooling and took up choir as an extracurricular. A self-described nerd and lover of anime and video games, she was the “weird kid” growing up, she said.
Because of that, she was bullied, Zayas said.
“There was this one girl that constantly called me ugly all the time,” she said. “When I was in fourth grade, I started getting into like wearing makeup a lot more. … One day when I was on the bus, she said, ‘You wear all that makeup acting like it makes you pretty, even though you’re still ugly.’”
Zayas said the world of wrestling became an escape for her.
Eventually her father changed his tune.
She had some missteps in her personal life and needed something positive to focus on, he said.
“At the time, I was like, ‘You know what? Maybe I should let her try this and just see how she does,’” Baldwin said.
Jessica Baldwin, Zayas’s mother and Chris’s wife, had concerns but trusted her daughter. While not a wrestler herself, Jessica had been around her husband’s career for most of their relationship.
“I was a little worried, but I knew that (Chris) would have the safety conversation with (Airica),” she said. “Obviously, I still worry about her getting hurt, but I’m not not going to stop somebody from doing something that makes them happy.”
Learning the ropes
Zayas started her training at the local wrestling company her father wrestled for.
Learning how to wrestle was the first major athletic activity she was involved in, she said.
“I was one of the least athletic kids you would ever meet in your entire life,” Zayas said.
But that didn’t stop her, her father said.
“She took to it fairly quickly,” he said. “She ran the ropes, and she seemed like she was having fun.”
Shortly after she began training, she met her best friend, Logan Marshall. Marshall had recently moved to Lincolnton and shared Zayas’s interest in wrestling.
“I could tell by the first moment I saw her training in that kind of beat-up ring that she was serious about it,” he said.
Then COVID-19 caused the company she was training with to close.
The Palmetto Wrestling Academy, a Columbia-based wrestling school affiliated with Palmetto Championship, was recommended to her by a friend of her father.
Despite the two-hour drive from her home to Columbia, Zayas and her father made the journey weekly.
There, they met Ethan Case, the Academy’s head coach and an independent wrestler, who agreed to teach Zayas one-on-one.
“It was tough,” he said of when she started. “She definitely didn’t believe in herself.”
It took her time to build up her self-confidence. Something that helped her was joining the group classes.
“She started blooming,” Case said. “She’s actually the reason why we don’t do one-on-one training anymore.”
Case’s training also differed in a positive way from her original training in North Carolina.
“The best thing about the Academy is Ethan never let any of the guys treat me like a girl,” Zayas said. “If they did something to treat me differently or give me a move differently than any of the guys, he would stop and be like, ‘Absolutely not. You will do that again. You will treat her the same as everybody else.’”
A problem with some wrestling trainers is they treat female students “like babies,” and then they don’t know what they’re doing when they graduate, Case said.
Overcoming a roadblock
In March 2021, Zayas’s hands slipped off the ropes while she did a move during training. She fell onto a concrete floor.
The fall fractured her pelvis and put Zayas on the shelf until June.
PWA’s Case said the biggest piece of advice he gave her during recovery was “don’t rush back.” Case broke his ankle in 2016 and came back in three months instead of six.
“It’s one of the biggest regrets that I have because I know my ankle’s still messed up,” he said.
While she couldn’t do the physical side of training, Zayas kept coming to classes just to listen to everything, Case said.
When she returned, she felt different.
“I felt like I was behind,” Zayas said. “I had lost all the confidence I had at that point. … I gained weight. … And I lost all of my conditioning and a lot of my footwork.”
But what was the first thing she did when she stepped back in the ring?
She did the exact same move that injured her.
“When people get injuries in wrestling, the best thing for you to do is conquer your fears,” she said.
Despite that, Zayas struggled with confidence issues for a time.
“I genuinely hated myself at that point because I felt like I couldn’t catch up,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t worth the time and effort that (her father and Ethan Case) were putting into me.”
Her father and Case supported her the entire time.
She was hard on herself, but the time frame to get back in the swing of things wasn’t as long as she probably thinks, Case said.
Yet the journey to regaining her confidence was a rollercoaster.
The first time she remembered feeling like she had her confidence back was when another wrestler who helped coach sent her a message about a match idea.
“It made me feel like, oh, these people like me,” she said.
Zayas had her first practice matches at the Academy. At the same time, she befriended Dennis Parker, who had moved up to the advanced classes she was in.
Parker, a high school student in Columbia, became Zayas’s best friend at the Academy. He credits Zayas and her father with helping him during training.
“Our first match was … was one of my favorites that I’ve ever done with her,” he said.
Becoming a hero
Last summer Zayas crafted her wrestling persona: Airica Demia.
Her character and ring gear are based on the main character of her favorite anime show, “My Hero Academia.”
“Watching the first episode, I related so hard to (the main character) because he was a crybaby who wanted nothing more than to be exactly like his hero,” she said. “My dad is my hero, so it was like I wanted to be exactly like my dad.”
Another motivation for her persona was to be a role model for kids.
“Sometimes it’s hard for a little girl to find another girl to look up to,” Zayas said.
She said the lack of women in the media who liked the “nerdy stuff” she was into as a kid also influenced her.
Before Zayas had graduated from the Academy, she already had one fan.
“Ethan (Case)’s daughter Lili,” Zayas said. “She bought one of the little dolls that I have, and he sent me a picture.”
When he sent the picture, Case told Zayas that Lili sleeps with the doll every night. He also told her to never second guess herself.
“Airica has been around Liliana for more than half her life,” he said. “It started small, where Liliana would do poses that Airica would do in matches, and she’d be like, ‘Look, I’m Airica!’”
Zayas still looks at the photo whenever she doubts herself.
“Hearing that children can look up to me and find someone to call a hero in me makes me feel really good about myself, because that’s all I want to be,” she said.
Zayas finished most of her training at the Academy last year .
But she had to wait until she was 18 to officially graduate due to licensing laws. She is the Palmetto Wrestling Academy’s first female graduate in its seven-year history.
She made her first appearance on the independent circuit last January, supported by her friends and family.
Being told she was going to debut was the happiest she had ever felt, she said.
“I remember driving (to the show) and trying not to cry,” Zayas’s mother said.
Zayas’s friend Parker remembered playing her music during the debut. He also remembers accidentally starting the audio too early.
“I just pressed her music,” he said. “She looks over to me and gives me a death stare.”
Her success is only motivating his own, and they keep challenging each other, Parker said.
“It’s just awesome seeing her get the opportunities that she is getting,” PWA’s Case said.
Zayas said her primary goals are to wrestle in Japan and, eventually, to get signed by the world’s largest professional wrestling company, WWE.
“I like to say that I’m supporting a winning team, because I know nothing is going to stop her,” said Marshall, her high school friend. “I know if she plans on going to Japan, she probably will. And she’s going to actually make a name for herself in the wrestling industry.”
Zayas’s father couldn’t be more proud.
“If my epilogue is setting up her success, I’ve succeeded as a father,” he said.
Zayas shows off her wrestling gear, including a cape she made herself.
Zayas and her friend, Logan Marshall, do their homework on a normal school night.
Zayas listens to her father, Chris Baldwin, better known as Chris Solar, before a match.
Zayas poses for a photo with two young fans after a match.