RIO DE JANEIRO – One thing you notice at an Olympics is how much the American athletes root for one another, how genuinely thrilled they are to see their countrymen perform astonishing feats in their various sports.
Social media exploded on Tuesday when the U.S. women’s gymnasts put on a dominant show in the finals, and when Michael Phelps won his record 20th gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly a few hours later in the pool.
Jordan Burroughs is the best wrestler on the planet, but he marvels at the other athletes, too. He’s a big admirer of LeBron James and Serena Williams, and he was awestruck by what Phelps did the night before.
“He’s unbelievable,” Burroughs said Wednesday during a wrestling media session at the Main Press Center. “You just watch him in awe. I’m very happy that I’m in his era. I love legends. I love reading up on the greats in their time period. I think, ‘Man, what it would be like to live when they were competing and see them at their best!’ ”
Burroughs, who won gold at 74 kilograms (163 pounds) in London, makes no secret of his desire to be in their company, to go down as one of those sporting legends and be one day regarded as the greatest wrestler who ever lived.
It’s a rare athlete who declares such lofty goals to the world. Most are happy to hide behind the veil of phony modesty. But Burroughs is a bright and outspoken man whose sport commands the world’s attention once every four years and is determined to take advantage while he can.
“I’m not afraid to tell people what I hope to accomplish and what I believe I’m capable of,” he said. “I’m ready to take the backlash if I don’t accomplish my dreams. There’s no failure in not being the greatest wrestler of all time or a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“We are heroes not because we hide and put ourselves in a position to be comfortable,” Burroughs said. “Every single time I get on the mat, every tournament, I get to see what I’m made of, how tough I am, where my desire is and how hard I’ve worked.”
Generally, the result is a convincing win. Burroughs, 28, is 124-2 in his international career, which began soon after he won his second NCAA title at Nebraska. He began his career with 69 straight victories, going 3½ years without a loss before losing in early 2014.
Wednesday was the four-year anniversary of Burroughs winning gold in London. On Aug. 19, he will try to become the first U.S. wrestler to win consecutive Olympic gold medals since John Smith in 1992. He has won three World Championships, one shy of Smith’s record.
So there’s justification for believing that he could one day be considered the best ever. Burroughs is 28. He plans to be in the 2020 Games in Japan. He has earned enough money through endorsements, prize money and coaching to support himself and continue competing into his 30s.
“I’m still young,” he said. “I’m a 28-year-old veteran, which is rare. After I won the Olympics in 2012, I knew I wanted to come back. We planned for this. This was expected. I wanted to be here. I knew I was capable. The hard part was continuing to evolve over the last four years.”
He paused, considering the gravity of his words: “You could consider me the best wrestler of all time if I win next weekend. You could.”
The important thing, he agreed, has been not to take anything for granted, to continue striving for this Olympics as if it were his first.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s so crazy. I am who I am and who I’ve always been. But people recognize you more when you win. I’ve been sponsored by Polo Ralph Lauren and I’m in ads throughout the country. And I’m not a model. The more you win, the more handsome you get, I guess.”
The room cracked up at that one. You don’t come across many athletes this articulate and engaging. Burroughs has come a long way. He grew up in the small New Jersey town of Sicklerville, a late-blooming athlete who was lightly recruited out of high school and wound up at Nebraska.
It was while wrestling as a senior at the 2011 NCAA Championships in Philadelphia that Burroughs met a young Buffalo News reporter named Lauren Mariacher, an Elma native who was there to watch her younger brother, Matt, and submit a couple of short reports on some wrestlers from UB.
They later connected on Facebook. Burroughs invited her to a clinic he was conducting in Warsaw. They became good friends and married two years later in Buffalo. By then, Burroughs had won an Olympic gold medal and embarked on his fabulously successful wrestling career.
“As a young kid, I think he lacked confidence,” Lauren said from their home in Lincoln, Neb. She will fly to Rio next week, as will a dozen other family members. “He was a small kid and he was lightly recruited. But his confidence built in college and in London it was high, to the point where he was pretty cocky.
“Four years later, he has confidence, but it comes with a lot of perspective,” she said. “He’s got two kids and he thinks a lot about his legacy. I think in London he was trying to prove he was as good as he thought he was, where now he’s trying to cement his legacy.”
Jordan and Lauren have a 2-year-old son, Beacon, and a 2-month-old daughter, Ora. Beneath the swagger and bravado is a well-grounded young father who is competing for family, for something beyond himself.
“It’s the hardest job in the world,” Burroughs said. “It’s harder to be a dad than an Olympic champion. First of all, it also takes a really good wife, which I have with Lauren. Secondarily, it takes extreme focus, and third, it takes selflessness.
“I like to take my kid to the park and put him on the slide,” he said. “I like mowing the lawn and picking the weeds out of my yards. I like the domesticated lifestyle. This is who I am to everyone else in the world, but to my wife I’m just Jordan .
“I have a family now, so I appreciate them more than I appreciate this. But that doesn’t affect who I am as a competitor. I’m still ferocious. I want to win. If I’m wrestling and tying on my shoes and stepping onto a mat with a singlet on, someone’s getting their butt kicked.”
Lauren grew up in an athletic family, a wrestling family. Her aunt Patti is married to Thurman Thomas (and yes, she turned Jordan into a Bills fan). She says she’s been around a lot of mentally tough people.
“But Jordan takes the cake,” she said.
Burroughs is an avid reader, as Lauren will attest. He knows his history. He’s well aware there are no secrets in wrestling nowadays.
“More opponents are preparing,” he said. “The internet’s changed the game. Back in the ’90s, you couldn’t watch and scout and see videos. Now, I’m at your fingertips. You’ve got 100 matches to watch, to see my tendencies and what I’ll probably do next week.
“But there’s a difference between intentions and executing, and that’s what’s made me a legend in this sport, the ability to continuously evolve and stay one step ahead of my opponents. I think my best stuff is better than anyone in the world’s best stuff.
“Everyone has to offer themselves an out, so they won’t be devastated if things don’t go according to plan. But I’m not afraid to make my goals public. I’m not insecure. I’m in a happy place, content with my abilities and who I am as a man and a wrestler. I think that’ll show in nine days.”