J’den Cox has one objective for the 2016 Olympics.
Cox — who leaves Tuesday for Rio de Janeiro, where he’ll compete for the United States as an 86-kilogram freestyle wrestler — intends to return with a gold medal draped around his neck.
“I don’t think anyone trains for third,” said Cox, a Missouri senior. “I don’t know what that looks like. I sure as heck don’t know what it’s like to train for second.”
It may seem strange for Cox, 21, to declare championship intentions given his relative lack of freestyle and international experience, especially considering the Olympics represent the greatest test in wrestling.
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Tigers coach Brian Smith doesn’t find Cox’s confidence odd at all.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, he can beat anybody in the world,” Smith said. “That’s the way he thinks, too. He’s going there to win a gold medal.”
Five months ago, Cox wasn’t even sure if he wanted to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials, which he qualified for by winning the NCAA title at 197 pounds.
It had been a long, grueling season for Cox and he contemplated taking a break.
“We sat down and talked about what an opportunity it was and the chance to compete in the Olympic Games,” Smith said. “I told him, ‘You may not be around in four years health-wise or wrestling-wise. You may get a job and move into a career or get married. You never know where you’ll be in four years. You are good enough to do it now, so this is the time to do it.’”
It’s been a whirlwind, but Cox couldn’t be happier with the journey.
“I got to experience things I never thought I would …” he said. “Now, it’s the greatest decision I’ve ever made.”
Some have been thrilling, like watching soccer with passionate fans in Germany, and other experience have been frustrating, like when his carry-on was stolen as he slept at the Beijing airport en route to Mongolia for an Olympic qualifier.
Cox lost all his warmup and Team USA gear and his favorite pair of compression shorts, but he was able to smile about it three months later.
“I’m going to carry (my team USA singlet) with me and not put it in a bag,” Cox said. “That one’s just going to be strapped to me. We’re not having that problem again.”
Cox also faced a steep learning curve on that mat, but he’s proven adept and even entered the United World Wrestling rankings at No. 10 last month.
He breezed to gold in Mongolia and won three of four matches during June’s United World Wrestling Men’s Freestyle World Cup in Los Angeles.
Cox also claimed the bronze medal in July during the German Grand Prix, rallying after a second-round loss against 2012 Olympic 84-kilogram gold medalist Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan.
“I made little mistakes, but it was a great match because I learned a lot from it,” Cox said. “It made us have to get better.”
Cox has grown by leaps and bounds as a freestyle wrestler, which is different from high school and collegiate competition, since winning the U.S. Olympic Trials in April at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
“Confidence-wise, it’s gone up immensely (since the Trials),” Cox said. “I watched film from when I wrestled in Iowa to now and it looks almost like a completely different wrestler. The mindset behind what’s happening now is completely different.”
Cox said he isn’t ignorant of the plethora of issues that have dogged the 2016 Games, including dire warnings about the Zika virus.
“People have got to understand that those things are serious matters, but at the same time I’m not going there to be a normal person,” he said. “I’m going there to be a wrestler. … If they have wrestling mats and other people have wrestling shoes and singlets, we’re going to do what we always have done.”
Cox, a four-time Missouri state champion at Columbia’s Hickman High, is 108-5 at Mizzou with NCAA titles as a freshman and junior, so he hopes to keep doing what he’s always done.
Smith will travel to Rio a few days before Cox competes with Mizzou associate head coach Alex Clemsen, assistant coach Joe Johnston and the Tigers’ team doctor, Bus Tarbox of the Columbia Orthopaedic Group.
“J’den, knowing him his whole life and now knowing I’m going to be sitting there watching him compete at the Olympic Games, it’s pretty overwhelming,” Smith said.
Cox’s favorite Olympic memory is watching Michael Phelps win an historic eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, including Jason Lezak’s scintillating comeback in the 400-meter freestyle relay.
“I was going kind of crazy for that,” Cox said.
On Aug. 20, he hopes to author his own gold-medal moment.
“Your dreams come down to one day …” Cox said. “This is what you live for. This is what I live for and trained for. I’m not going to let nerves be the reason that I don’t perform to the best of my ability.”