Before this week, Missouri junior J’den Cox had never traveled farther from home than Reno, Nev.
His world is suddenly a whole lot bigger.
According to Google’s calculations, Reno is 1,713 miles from Columbia, where Cox grew up and blossomed into a four-time Missouri state wrestling champion at Hickman High School.
In his quest for an Olympic berth, Cox flew last weekend to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — some 6,317 miles from home — for the first of two World Olympic Games Qualifying Tournaments.
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He’ll wrestle against an international field Sunday for a berth at the 2016 Olympics, which take place this August in Rio de Janeiro.
Cox, a three-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion at 197 pounds, made it this far by winning the USA Wrestling U.S. Olympic Trials freestyle title April 10 at 86 kilograms in Iowa City, Iowa.
The United States didn’t have an automatic berth at that weight for the 2016 Olympics, so Cox must finish in the top three in Mongolia to earn his spot.
“He’s the American rep, and America has great tradition in wrestling,” Mizzou head coach Brian Smith said after Cox’s victory in the Olympic trials. “J’den is the guy now, so he’s got to go out and have that confidence that he’s representing the U.S. and go qualify that spot.”
Failing that, Cox would have one final chance to reach his sport’s grandest stage during the second last-chance World Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament from May 6 to 8 in Istanbul.
Two days after his victory at the Olympic trials, Cox flew to USA Wrestling’s Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., to get his passport expedited. He didn’t have one since he’d never been out of the country before.
Neither Cox nor Smith, who did not travel to Mongolia, knew what to expect from the competition in Mongolia, but history is on Cox’s side. The United States has never failed to qualify for any freestyle weight class, men’s or women’s, since the sport was added to the Olympic lineup in 1996.
The national team has only failed to qualify twice in men’s Greco-Roman —74 kilograms in 2008 and 60 kilograms in 2012.
Cox already proved that his relative lack of freestyle experience isn’t a hindrance.
“Everybody he had to face (at the Olympic trials) had years and years of experience,” Smith said. “J’den hadn’t wrestled a freestyle match in a year, but every match he got better and got better. Unfortunately, he was learning on the run and learning on the job, and it was a tough draw, but J’den just wrestled great matches.”
Cox focused on refining his freestyle technique over the last two weeks of training. It differs slightly from folkstyle, which is used in high school and college competition.
“I knew that given J’den’s athleticism and explosiveness, if he would use it and have the confidence to use it, he’d have a chance to win,” Smith said of Cox’s Olympic trials victory.
The same logic, Cox hopes, will hold true with the World Olympic qualifier meets.
“My confidence throughout the (Olympic trials) continued to grow,” he said. “The big thing for me was trying to avoid too many mistakes. I made a few, but I think I did a pretty good job. The good news is I have a lot of room to improve.”
Tigers assistant coach Joe Johnston, a Prairie Village native, accompanied Cox to Mongolia. He was a two-time state champion at Shawnee Mission East and later became a two-time All-American at Iowa, reaching the 157-pound championship match in 2005.
Competition in Cox’s weight class, which includes wrestlers from 29 countries, begins at 7 p.m. Central time Saturday. Ulaanbaatar is 14 hours ahead of Central time, so it will be 9 a.m. Sunday there.
The championship match is slated for 4 a.m. Central on Sunday, and United World Wrestling is planning to stream the entire tournament live with video archives available. The event schedule and a full list of competitors also can be found at the organization’s website.
For those who are curious, Rio is only 5,322 miles from Columbia, so an Olympic trip would no longer seem quite so far away for Cox.