Missouri coach Brian Smith called it “the longest 30 seconds I’ve ever lived through.”
Wrestling in the 86-kilogram division, junior J’den Cox was nursing a two-point lead against Cornell grad Kyle Dake in the winner-take-all finale of the best-of-three freestyle championship series at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
Sunday’s victor at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, would represent the U.S. in a last-chance world-qualification tournament April 22-24 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
On the line: a chance to make the U.S. team for the 2016 Olympics. The loser would get a silver medal, a one-way ticket home and a four-year wait for the opportunity to come around again.
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Cox, a two-time NCAA champion, didn’t flinch despite limited international and freestyle wrestling experience.
“I don’t know what happened, but I showed up for the final and didn’t feel nervous one bit,” Cox said. “Something came over me, just in my head, and said, ‘Win, lose, draw — no matter what — you’re going to have fun. Just wrestle. You’ve been blessed with this opportunity, so go do your best and have a great time with it.’ ”
As Dake ramped up his aggression, those dying seconds of Cox’s 4-3 win were tortuous. But now Cox is prepping for a 6,300-mile journey to the Mongolian capital.
Dake, the first wrestler in NCAA history to win a national title at four different weight classes, cut into Cox’s lead with a push-out for one point at the 19-second mark.
If Dake scored again, he’d win.
Off the restart, Cox circled and defended Dake’s desperate shots as he tight-roped the boundary of the 7-meter circle to avoid another push-out.
Dake threw his arms out to his sides, hoping in vain for a passivity call to save him. Cox scooted from danger one final time and the buzzer sounded.
“It seemed like an eternity,” Cox said. “Those last 19 seconds seemed like it took forever. Usually, 19 seconds goes by in a snap. This was so slow.”
When it was over, Cox dropped to his knees, kneeled forward and buried his face in his hands.
“It was absolute joy,” Cox said. “I worked hard for this. I didn't have the time that everybody else did to prepare for it, but I can tell you that the hard work was still evident there. I just thought about everybody and everything that contributed to this, allowed this to happen, helped this to happen and how fortunate and blessed I am to have that ability.”
Thoughts of family, friends and teammates flooded his mind as he struggled to suppress a smile.
Cox was so overcome with emotion that he barely noticed when Dake’s corner challenged the scoring of the final sequence, triggering an ultimately unsuccessful 90-second review.
As the referee finally raised his arm in victory, Cox grinned again, leaned back and unleashed a scream befitting a U.S. Olympic trials champion.
“This was big,” Smith said. “His first NCAA title, he was through the roof, but when you give yourself a chance to make an Olympic team, it’s an incredible experience. Seeing him on the stage with 10,000 people cheering and he’s got that USA sweatsuit on and he’s got the medal around his neck and is holding the flowers, it's just an awesome thing.
Smith added, “Knowing him since he was a small kid, it was such a special moment. I’ve known J’den since he was 4 years old. It’s just … wow.”
With a top-three finish in Mongolia or, failing that, a top-two finish May 6-8 in the second last-chance Olympic qualifier in Istanbul, Turkey, Cox would join Ben Askren in 2008 as the only Olympic wrestlers in Mizzou history.
“I have a feeling that the competition in Mongolia is going to be extremely tough, but I look forward to embracing that challenge as well,” Cox said. “Of course, I want to go to Rio. I’m happy to have this opportunity and I’m going to take everything I can get.”