It hardly seemed possible for the legend of Missouri senior wrestler J’den Cox to grow larger.
During the last six months, Cox won an NCAA title at 197 pounds, stormed through the U.S. Olympic team trials, claimed gold at an international Olympic qualifier and snagged a bronze medal Aug. 20 in the 86-kilogram freestyle competition at the Rio Olympics.
He revealed Wednesday before a Welcome Back Reception at Memorial Stadium’s Columns Club that he did it all on an injured knee.
“I got the final takedown (in the bronze-medal match) with a torn meniscus and tore it up even more trying to get that takedown, but it was totally worth it,” Cox said. “Totally worth it, I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
Cox, who led 3-1 before Cuba’s Reineris Salas Perez forfeited by refusing to retake the mat with 6 seconds left and the bronze medal at stake, said he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee during practice before the NCAA Tournament in March.
“The biggest thing was training smart and not doing anything off the mat outlandish or dumb …,” Cox said of managing the injury during a full summer training slate. “Usually, when I was on the mat, I didn’t think about it. My adrenaline was pumping and I was ready to go. It was something that I just kind of got lost in the match.”
Cox had surgery on the knee last Thursday and will be sidelined for a month, which works out because Tigers coach Brian Smith planned to make his star two-time NCAA champion take September off to rest anyway.
Now, Cox hopes to settle back into a routine as a student after a whirlwind that included stops in New York, Iowa, Colorado, California, Germany and Brazil since the spring.
“It’s nice to go back to classes,” Cox said. “ … I really enjoy being back, and it’s just nice to be home.”
Although, he allows that he’s recognized a lot more when he’s out in public — and for good reason.
Cox’s bronze-medal victory is “probably the most memorable athletic moment” in Smith’s coaching career “just because the Olympics is the highest level,” Smith said.
“When you sit down and realize the enormity of it, that we’re at the Olympics here and a kid I’ve known his whole life has just won a medal ...,” Smith said, “to watch that medal going around his neck, there’s nothing like it. It was awesome.”
While it wasn’t the gold medal Cox dreamed about, he was thrilled and satisfied with the experience.
“I realized I was having a lot of fun,” Cox said of his resilient mood after a semifinal loss. “I really was. If I could do it all over again and come out with the bronze medal, I definitely would. It was just so much fun. I’m wrestling with the best wrestlers in the world, and I’m included in that. I am, and I’m from Colombia, Missouri.”
At least for the next month, a well-fed and recuperating Cox — who devoured a rack of ribs with two sides of fries, a pepperoni pizza, a large ice cream concrete and a box of cookies with milk after returning from Rio — can bask in the glow of his Olympic glory.
He had 226 text messages when he arrived back in the US in addition to hundreds of messages on Twitter and Instagram.
Cox carries the bronze medal with him. It was stashed in his left jeans pocket Wednesday and was tucked into a pencil pouch in his backpack earlier in the week.
“I don’t know what to do with it,” Cox said. “I’m afraid if I leave it somewhere, I’m not going to find it. I’m not sure what to do with it, so I just carry it with me.”
Amazingly, Cox — who said he learned two Portuguese phrases, “I won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics” and “I will break you” — was involved in another heroic moment Sunday after he witnessed a motorcycle wreck near the Big Bur Oak Tree outside McBaine, Mo.
The rider flipped his motorcycle and went off the road, prompting Cox to cast aside his crutches and run to the bleeding stranger, using a brand-new “Team USA” shirt to put pressure on a bleeding head wound as he waited for paramedics to arrive.
Cox also revealed Wednesday that he plans to play football for Missouri next fall — he was a standout linebacker at Hickman High in Columbia — and intends to compete in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Of more immediate concern, Cox hopes to become the Tigers’ first three-time national champion after he gets healthy. He has designs on an undefeated season and the Dan Hodge Trophy, which is awarded annually to the nation’s outstanding college wrestler.
Perhaps the biggest prize for Cox as a senior would be helping lead Missouri to a national title as a team, a realistic possibility given the team’s depth and talent.