J’den Cox stood atop the medal podium at Madison Square Garden.
And a sellout crowd of nearly 20,000 fans stood and cheered.
He had won his second NCAA wrestling title for the Missouri Tigers.
But Cox was just getting started.
In a span of five frenetic months in 2016, Cox won an NCAA title, captured the U.S. Olympic Team Trials championship as a No. 9 seed, traveled to Mongolia and qualified the United States for the Olympics, and then won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“I remember having the time of my life,” Cox said. “It was really awesome.”
So what could Cox possibly do for an encore?
For starters, he capped a superb collegiate career at Missouri by winning his third NCAA title this past March in St. Louis.
Now he takes aim at making his first world team in freestyle wrestling. Cox will compete in the U.S. World Team Trials on June 9-10 in Lincoln, Nebraska. He wrestles at 86 kilograms.
Cox was a four-time All-American for Missouri, located in his hometown of Columbia. He was overcome with emotion when he became the first Mizzou athlete in any sport to win three NCAA titles.
“I had so many different feelings,” he said. “I was very proud of the accomplishment. It was more than just a wrestling match. I had been training my whole life for that moment. And I knew I would never wear the Missouri singlet again. It was an honor to share it with my family, my teammates and my coaches.”
Cox is now focusing on freestyle wrestling. Last year, he made a quick transition while going right from the collegiate style of folkstyle to the international style of freestyle.
“J’den was basically learning on the fly last year,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said. “He is still learning and still improving. He was confident before, but he’s even more confident now after the experience he gained going through the Olympics.
“J’den is a tough matchup. He’s big and strong, but he’s also very fast and explosive. Plus, he’s a lot better at turning guys now.”
Cox’s top challenger at the trials is expected to be U.S. Open champion David Taylor, who has had a superb season. Taylor pinned Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani of Iran at this year’s Freestyle World Cup in Iran.
“We were training partners for the Olympics, and we’ve rolled around and scrapped a few times,” Cox said of Taylor. “He’s a tough wrestler — I respect any opponent that I wrestle.”
Cox has an advantage at the World Team Trials. He has already clinched a spot in the best-of-three match finals by virtue of winning an Olympic medal last year. Taylor would have to win the challenge tournament to earn a shot at Cox in the finals.
“I just have to make sure I’m ready,” Cox said. “I need to show up and have fun and wrestle my best. I’ve never sat out before, so that’s something that is new for me.”
Cox’s talents extend way beyond the wrestling mat. He’s an accomplished musician, and sang the national anthem at a Missouri football game this past fall.
Smith said the outgoing, likeable Cox also is in high demand to make appearances and do speaking engagements.
“J’den is such a special young man who has done so much for the university and the community here,” Smith said. “He has a great personality, and he is so beloved by everyone.”
Cox will remain at his alma mater. He will continue to train at Missouri, where he was recently hired by Smith as an assistant coach for the Tigers.
“I’m really excited to help wrestlers reach their dreams and goals,” he said. “My goal is to help somebody surpass what I did.”
Cox took a short break from wrestling after this year’s NCAAs, but he’s been back training in preparation for the trials. Even on the day he graduated from college.
“I went through the ceremony,” he said, “and then I went to wrestling practice.”
As memorable as 2016 was, Cox did suffer a stinging setback in the Olympics. He lost to Turkey’s Selim Yasar 2-1 in the semifinals in Rio.
“It was another thing to learn from,” he said. “I definitely know it drives me and provides me fuel.”
If Cox wins the World Team Trials, he would earn a trip to August’s world championships in Paris.
“It would be another chance to represent this country on the world stage,” Cox said. “I love what I do, and it would be another chance for me to give it my best.”