Missouri wrestler J’Den Cox seeking gold at Summer Olympics

Cox: “Go out, do your best, have fun and wrestle. I’m not going there to try and take third.”

J’den Cox grew up around the Missouri wrestling room, accompanying his older brothers, who were part of the Columbia Youth Wrestling Club.

Cox wasn’t allowed in the actual wrestling room at 4 years old, so he passed the time reading books in coach Brian Smith’s office.

That’s where their bond was born — in an office, 18 years ago, with the young boy reading Junie B. Jones.

“I would just come in and see this little fat kid reading books and thought he probably sat on his butt all the time,” Smith said in a press conference last week. “But he would just sit there and we would have these little talks, and I knew he was bright for his age.”

Cox wasn’t there because he wanted to be; he had to go because his family was involved in the wrestling club and he couldn’t be home alone. One day, however, he stepped onto the mat and started to wrestle.

“He started wrestling and I watched him and I would be like ‘this kid is manhandling all these poor little kids,’” Smith said.

That’s when Smith knew Cox would develop into a special wrestler. Smith hasn’t been disappointed. Cox, now a junior, is Olympics-bound and going for the gold.

“I don’t how to do things halfway,” Cox said. “Go out, do your best, have fun and wrestle. That’s what I think when I win. I’m not going there to try and take third.”

The road to the Olympics started with a 33–1 season record as a Tiger, topped off with a national title in the 197-pound weight class. It was Cox’s second national title, and this year it qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Trials, held in Iowa City, Iowa.

He won the 86-kilogram freestyle division as the ninth seed April 10, which sent him to the World Games Qualifying Tournament in Mongolia. He needed to place top three in his weight to qualify for the Olympics; he won the tournament April 24.

“I told everybody that it’d be an honor to represent the country, and it is,” Cox said. “I don’t take it as just representing Team USA on the mat, I take it as representing them walking down the street, when I go to class, every way in my life. I take it with a lot of pride and I won’t waste the opportunity.”

Cox won’t have to worry about wasting the opportunity, since he’ll have plenty of chances to wrestle on Team USA before even going to the Olympics. An outdoor dual against Iran is up first on May 19 in Times Square in New York City. He’ll head to Colorado Springs for two weeks after that for a training camp at the Olympic Training Center.

The World Cup will be up next in Inglewood, California, on June 11–12. The tournament features the world’s top eight freestyle teams. Less than a month later, he’ll travel with his new team to Dortmund, Germany, for the Grand Prix on July 2–3.

Finally, the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5.

“You have all of the world’s greats in one room doing the sport you’ve done for a lifetime,” Cox said. “There’s so much different culture and language and people all there for one thing. This is just a sport that is so intense and takes so much, and through all the craziness and wins and losses, you just have to call it beautiful.”

Smith isn’t going to bet against Cox when he watches his athlete face the toughest competition in the world.

Cox is the aggressor in every match, always shooting and knowing how to take his opponent down with his quickness.

“A lot of people are not used to wrestling like that,” Smith said. “He has that confidence, and he has the athleticism. He has the tools, and the great thing now is he has the months to prepare. He’s going to be training at a high level with U.S.A. and all of his new teammates, who are pretty high level guys that are going to be showing him tricks and how to compete. That experience is only going to grow.”

Being with a new team doesn’t mean that Cox has forgotten about his Missouri team, who are still training and competing on the fourth floor of Hearnes Center.

In fact, Cox feels a little strange not being with them.

“I’m doing all this stuff for the Olympics, but the team is upstairs lifting and everything,” he said. “It’s just weird being away from the team while they’re still going through the normal grind. It almost doesn’t feel right.”

Even then, though, on a week-to-week basis, Cox makes it a point to let them know their importance.

“I make sure every time I come back from things like this, I let them know that without my team I don’t know where I’d be in any aspect,” Cox said. “As much as wrestling is an individual sport, there’s so much team aspect. And really the team is what makes the individual. So to have that support and love and bond with these guys is awesome and very important, and it has helped me to push myself to be where I am right now.”

Cox has had the dream of going to the Olympics since before he was a wrestler at Hickman High School, and he’s shared that goal with Smith throughout the years. Seeing Cox wrestle in Rio will mean a lot to Smith.

“I’ve watched guys win gold medals from the USA the past two Olympics, and it’s an amazing feeling,” Smith said. “There’s nothing like it, and if I can watch one of my athletes do it, it would be off the charts.”

Smith knows that the talent he sees in Cox on and off the mat will transfer well to the USA team.

“When I handed him over to them I felt like I was handing my son over to them because I’ve known this kid forever,” Smith said. “I told them this kid is special and you’ll know that after this tournament in Mongolia. And of course I texted (USA men’s wrestling coach) Bill Zadick afterwards, and he said ‘Yeah, we have a special one here.’”

Edited by Alec Lewis | alewis@themaneater.com

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