WWE star Zelina Vega's emotional homecoming on 9/11 anniversary

Thea Trinidad performs in WWE as Zelina Vega. (Photo Credit: WWE)
Thea Trinidad performs during an episode of WWE Smackdown as Zelina Vega. (Photo Credit: WWE)

Like countless Americans on September 11, 2001, Thea Trinidad’s life changed forever.

Trinidad, then a 10-year-old girl from Queens, New York, lost her father, Michael, a telecom analyst for Cantor Fitzgerald, in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Twenty years later, Trinidad is staring down one of the most emotional days of her entire life.

On Friday night, Trinidad, a WWE star, will be at Madison Square Garden for an episode of Smackdown — the first WWE show in the New York City area in nearly two years. Less than 12 hours later, Trinidad will make the commute from Queens once again to lower Manhattan and take part in a somber September 11th tradition, reading the names of those who perished in the deadliest attack in American history.

“I feel a sense of honor, a sense of pride,” Trinidad told Yahoo Sports. “Obviously, we have the choice if we want to read names or not and I felt like this was the appropriate year to do it. I did it once before, when I was 13 years old, and it was a very big responsibility for someone so young. I also felt like I had a duty to represent my father. I feel the same thing for the 20th anniversary.”

As a child, Trinidad, her father and her brother attended WWE shows at MSG — the de facto hometown for Vince McMahon’s wrestling promotion. Now, performing under the ring name Zelina Vega, Trinidad looks back fondly on those outings with her family and cites her father’s fandom specifically as a reason why she ultimately decided to get into professional wrestling.

“It’s weird because any time I have ever performed at Madison Square Garden, I looked for the spot that we would usually go to,” Trinidad said. “I don’t know how my dad was able to get as many tickets as he did, but my brother and I were able to scout out where we’d sit. [Friday is] going to be one of those moments where I’ll have to take it in for a second because through all of the noise and everything going on, I owe it to myself to take it all in.”

As tragic as the loss of her father at such a young age was, Trinidad was able to impact others long before she ever set foot in a ring.

At 12 years old, Trinidad began attending Camp Haze, named for Scott Hazelcorn, a 29-year-old broker for Cantor Fitzgerald who died in the World Trade Center. The camp, specifically put together for children who lost parents in the terror attacks, helped Trinidad through the grieving process, so much so that she eventually became a counselor.

“You feel like no one understands and the world is a scary place at that time, but with them I got to work with other people and kids who understood me and were there for me,” Trinidad said. “ To this day I still talk to people there, the counselors, the kids — who are now grown up — it’s like we built a family out of it. What’s special is that we all remember the time when everyone came together. There was a time where everyone just took each other’s hands — it didn’t matter what class you were in or where you were from, what language you spoke — I really miss that.”

Although she described the fact that Smackdown’s MSG show lining up with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 as “mind-blowing,” Trinidad admitted she does not have anything overtly special planned for the event. Trinidad will be staying with her grandmother — who still lives in Queens — and will pay tribute to her father on Friday night in a subtle, personal way, perhaps with his name on her gear.

“I get to go stay with my grandmother,” Trinidad said. “My husband and I, we already know where our room is and we get to hang out with her, my aunts and uncles, cousins, my mom and step-dad, my brother, we make a big thing out of it. Now for 9/11, it’s interesting because my grandmother’s house is where I was living when it happened and that’s the place that we always go back to.”

Thea Trinidad performs in WWE as Zelina Vega. (Photo Credit: WWE)
Thea Trinidad performs during an episode of WWE Smackdown as Zelina Vega. (Photo Credit: WWE)

Since breaking into professional wrestling in 2011, Trinidad has had the opportunity to work alongside and learn from many, including her late father’s favorite wrestler, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Trinidad has not only become friends with Johnson’s daughter, Simone, but she also played A.J. Lee in “Fighting With My Family,” a 2019 film about former WWE star Paige that was produced by Johnson’s Seven Bucks Productions studio.

From that bond and friendship came a stunning, heartwarming moment for Trinidad that would have been impossible had she not chased her dream of being a professional wrestler.

“To kind of come full circle and have his favorite wrestler know his name, that’s the biggest honor I could have given him,” Trinidad said. “I want to say three years ago, [Dwayne and Simone] FaceTimed me randomly one day and said ‘Guess where we’re at?’ and they were standing next to my dad’s name at the 9/11 memorial site. They took a picture next to his name. I probably cried more than I have in my life that day, but it was really amazing. It’s cool that wrestling got to give me those experiences”

Click and drag to explore the 9/11 memorial.

Trinidad has become one of the standout stars in WWE. Trinidad rose to prominence as a manager for Andrade Cien Almas, a former NXT champion, and even earned praise from Paul Heyman, one of the most influential figures both on and off screen in professional wrestling.

Although now her primary role is as an in-ring performer, Trinidad stops short of calling her recent run with the company as a breakout moment for her.

“I wanted to be the best I could be as a manager, and for someone like Paul Heyman to come out and say that I was the best in the business, to pump me up so much, I appreciated it,” Trinidad said. “It was so important to me to put everything I possibly could into that role and I loved it. It’s something that I hold close to my heart and it’s a time in my career that I cherish greatly. This is a different side of me now, it’s something that is ready to come out and for people to see in its full effect.”

Part of getting people to see and buy into the full effect of her character is exposing the New Yorker in her. Ironically, both Trinidad and Heyman are from New York and have shown a gift when it comes to handling a microphone.

“I feel like the New Yorker in us doesn’t take crap from anybody,” Trinidad said. “There’s no nonsense, no B.S., what you see is what you get. We had to grow up in a place where you had no other options but to be witty, quick and on it before anyone else. There’s a grind in New York that is unlike anywhere else in the world. Being smaller in stature for me as well, I’m not going to overpower anyone, but I know I’m going to be wittier than you and outsmart you. That’s the kind of environment that me and Paul are used to and we excel in other areas because of it.”

Adding a layer of intrigue to Trinidad’s homecoming is the fact that it almost didn’t get the chance to happen.

Trinidad was released from WWE in November 2020 due to a dispute over talent earning money on third-party platforms such as Twitch and Cameo, among others. After nearly nine months away from WWE, Trinidad made a somewhat surprising — and speedy — return. Her popularity became overwhelmingly evident as, despite exclusively being a heel, she was warmly welcomed back, helping to push her back near the top of the Smackdown women’s division.

Thea Trinidad performs in WWE as Zelina Vega. (Photo Credit: WWE)
Thea Trinidad did not expect the reaction fans delivered upon her return to WWE. (Photo Credit: WWE)

“It’s pretty hard to explain because as a bad guy, I expected boos,” Trinidad said. “The way that the fans embraced me was incredible. I remember for Money in the Bank, when I came out and they heard my music, it was like a big hug from the audience. It was the best welcome back that I could have gotten because I wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction.”

Now, two months after her unlikely return and 20 years after experiencing unimaginable tragedy, Trinidad’s professional and personal lives intersect once again, in the most surreal way possible.

“One of the most important days of my career is coming up on Friday and I feel that I have a big duty, not just to the fans and to my dad, but to myself to prove that this is what I was supposed to do all my life and that I was right all along.”