For most wrestlers, competing at the USA Wrestling Olympic Team Trials would be the experience of a lifetime, but Missouri junior J’den Cox isn’t going for the experience.
“I’m coming to wrestle hard and score points and try to win,” said Cox, a two-time NCAA champion at 197 pounds. “That’s the only reason I’m going. I’m not going for the experience.”
One of the perks of winning an NCAA wrestling title in an Olympic year is a berth at the U.S. Olympic trials, which Cox secured with a 4-2 win March 19 against Penn State’s Morgan McIntosh in the 197-pound championship bout at Madison Square Garden.
Cox, who also won the NCAA crown as a freshman in 2014 and finished fifth at nationals last season, understands that the Olympic trials are a different beast in terms of competition and special event for any wrestler.
He just figured he might as well shoot for a free trip to Rio de Janeiro if he’s going to do a 250-mile journey from Mizzou to the University of Iowa this weekend.
“Although it will be a great (experience), that’s not why I’m going,” he said. “I’ll get the experience no matter whether I do well or not, but I’m going to win. That’s my goal. That’s everyone’s goal. You don’t show up to a tournament like this and say, ‘Oh, it’s nice to be here. It’s a really nice day and the sun’s out.’”
Cox cut weight to compete at 86 kilograms, which is roughly 189 pounds, during Sunday’s freestyle tournament at the Olympic trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
“I think that’s a good weight for me and a great opportunity,” Cox said. “It’s sweet, and it’s awesome to think about being 21 years old and on the edge of my dreams. They’re in reach.”
Freestyle wrestling differs from folkstyle wrestling, which is the style for high school and college. The scoring system, which devalues control and emphasizes back points, and structure of matches, one 5-minute period rather than three periods totaling 7 minutes, are the primary differences.
Cox has limited international experience, but he isn’t too worried about the nuances between folkstyle and freestyle.
“The big thing is I know how to wrestle,” he said. “I’m a wrestler, and that’s what I do. I’ve been turning (opponents for back points) my whole life.”
The entire 86-kilogram bracket, which includes Liberty High School graduate Deron Winn and four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake, will be wrestled Sunday.
Cox opens against former Oklahoma State star and two-time NCAA All-American Clayton Foster. The winner faces top-seeded Jake Herbert, a 2012 Olympian and four-time NCAA All-American from Northwestern.
Cox knows he’s not the tourney favorite, an unusual position for him to be in, but that doesn’t matter to Cox.
“People have been asking me, ‘J’den, you don’t seem to have the same fire,’ and I say, ‘Well, I don’t need to,’” Cox said. “People don’t expect me to win. It makes it easier on me. If you don’t expect me to win, there’s no shame if that does happen. But we’ll wait until we get there. I’m going to train my butt off, and I’m going to go and compete like I do everywhere else.”
That has seemed to work out quite well for Cox in the past.
“I used to tell myself that the day I’d be done wrestling is the day I had nothing left to prove to myself,” Cox said. “The thing that’s really cool is that, and it’s something I realized this year, I don’t have anything to prove to myself anymore. I’ve got nothing to prove, but I’m not done.
“The cool thing about that is now it’s all about having fun. It’s all about enjoying what I’m blessed to be doing and going out there and wrestling my heart out. This tournament is exciting, and I hope you stay tuned for it.”
The winner of Cox’s bracket on Sunday doesn’t automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics in August, because the U.S. didn’t place high enough at the weight in the 2015 World Championships.
Instead, the winner advances to the Olympic World Qualifying Tournament on April 24 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The final chance to reach Rio for those athletes is a second Olympic World Qualifying Tournament on May 8 in Istanbul, Turkey.