RIO DE JANEIRO – After his shocking elimination at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Jordan Burroughs tearfully recounted all that he lost in trying to become the greatest freestyle wrestler of all time.
It added up to much more than the two defeats in one day that cost Burroughs a second straight Olympic gold medal and doubled the loss column in his 130-4 record.
To his dismay, Burroughs missed important milestones in his children’s lives and perhaps saw his legacy slip away.
“I didn’t see my son walk for the first time,” said Burroughs, who lost in the quarterfinals of the men’s freestyle wrestling 74 kg. category Friday, erasing his gold-medal hopes, and then lost again in the repechage match that could have paved the way to the bronze medal.
“I left my wife at home with two kids in Nebraska for long periods of time to go to training camps and tournaments in foreign countries,” Burroughs said. “But she did that joyfully, not begrudgingly, because she knew on days like these I always performed. Now I feel like I let her down and I let my family down.”
Burroughs arrived in Rio as a three-time world champion and defending Olympic champion who made no secret that his goal was eventually winning three Olympic gold medals to surpass the legendary Team USA wrestler John Smith, who won four world and two Olympic titles.
“I wanted to be amongst the greats,” Burroughs said, pausing often to take deep breaths and compose himself as he gamely faced reporters. “I wanted to be a Simone Biles, Michael Phelps.
“It’s unfortunate, you watch the women’s soccer team and the women’s volleyball team and Serena (Williams) and all these amazing athletes and you think, ‘That won’t be me. I come prepared.' And then life shows you otherwise.”
Due to a random draw, the No. 1-ranked Burroughs, who came in considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the world, faced a formidable opponent in the quarterfinals. Russia’s Aniuar Geduev, ranked No. 2 in the world, defeated Burroughs 3-2, giving him a bloody cut on the forehead in the process.
Burroughs, 28, was then in the uncomfortable position of pulling for Geduev to advance to the final, which he did, putting Burroughs into the repechage. However, Burroughs lost convincingly to No. 10 Bekzod Abdurakhmonov of Uzbekistan 11-1, and suddenly the Games were over for him.
“This is supposed to be my year,” Burroughs almost whispered, a tear streaking down his cheek. “This is supposed to be my breakthrough performance, cementing me as a legend in the sport. And I almost retracted my position in the sport. It hurts me. It hurts a lot, man.”
Burroughs has been the face of USA Wrestling since winning the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, thanks in part to an avid social media presence. Recently, he has touted a documentary about him called “My Name is Jordan.” His Twitter handle is @alliseeisgold.
“I had so many expectations, things that I wanted to do, records that I wanted to set, precedents that I wanted to be a part of,” Burroughs said, “and now I just feel a lot of disappointment, embarrassment, disgrace. But I let myself down most. I love the sport of wrestling because it’s a testament of your will and what you’re capable of and what you can do as a man. As nervous and afraid as I was coming into this tournament, I knew that I was equally as confident and prepared.
“And so now I face it. I face the fans. The criticism. The backlash. The trolls. I’ve always made my goals public. That’s the hard thing about being an Olympian. Your failures are public.”
Prior to Friday, Burroughs’ only loss at either an Olympic Games or world championships came in the 2014 world semifinals to three-time world champion Denis Tsargush of Russia. Burroughs was injured at that tournament, yet still wrestled back for the bronze. Then he won his third world championships gold in 2015.
Burroughs said at the London 2012 Games, just a year out of college, he was too young to know what he was getting himself into. This time, he knew. Even after marrying his wife Lauren and having two children, and becoming assistant coach at the University of Nebraska, he kept his goals in sight.
“I felt ready,” Burroughs said. “I felt good, my weight cut was good. That’s the hardest part of this. I live my lifestyle the right way. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t go out and party. I’m a family man. I take care of business, I train hard, I’m an ambassador for the sport of wrestling and a lot of people were counting on me today.
“This is the pivotal moment within my career. There’s not a lot of defining moments for a young individual in life. This was going to be ultimately a catalyst for propelling me for where I wanted to do. You might say, ‘You can come back in 2020.’ My life is altered indefinitely. At some point I’ll find out why, what I did wrong, learn a lesson from this.”
Burroughs said he couldn’t even remember the last time he lost twice in one day, but it had to be 10 years, maybe longer.
“I lost a lot of things today, but my integrity and my character remain,” he said. “Until 48 hours ago, I had done a good job of handling the pressure and the burden and the responsibility of being the face of USA Wrestling. And I’d like to continue to do so, but this today isn’t indicative of who I am as an individual, as an athlete, and I think anyone who knows me truly understands that.
“That’s the difficult thing about this. ‘You say, ‘OK, you didn’t win gold and achieve your ultimate goal. You come back and you finish bronze.’ It’s not that easy. These guys are good. I’m still Jordan Burroughs, whether it’s in the quarterfinals or the repechage. People want to beat me and it’s a big victory for those guys.”
Burroughs said if the quarterfinal had gone differently – he scored two points late, then ran out of time – perhaps he would have gone on to the gold medal “and I wouldn’t be crying and we’d be in a different room (for the championship press conference).
“The Olympic Games is (held in) such high esteem and shame on me for thinking that what I had done would be enough. Obviously I wasn’t prepared.
“This is revealing and it’s necessary. I’ll get stronger because of it. It’s going to hurt though for a long time. I spent so much time this year promoting my personal brand. And I said I was capable of being the greatest wrestler ever. God said, ‘Prove it.’”