Written by: Lexie Churchill
J’den Cox hung from a tree, handcuffed and harnessed in. The timer was ticking. Unfortunately for his older brothers’ satisfaction, Cox’s expertise in escaping these situations had increased tenfold. After all, practice makes perfect. He broke the metal bracelet and got away, to the displeased looks of his elders. They liked to instill toughness early, but Cox was showing them up.
Competition began early in the Cox family and never quite went away. Now, the Cox brothers compare their success: the superiority of Drae’s Master’s degree to J’den’s Olympic Bronze Medal to Zach’s healthy happy family. Tough argument.
Growing up, the tiffs were slightly less mature and more overtly physical. Besides being linked to a tree, his older brothers dared Cox to take on the classic cold surface-tongue-stick test; a bit less of an extremity in the haze of brotherly roughhousing. Throughout his brothers’ elementary school years, Cox found himself on the sidelines of their wrestling meets with an early passion already developing. “Maybe I didn’t know it 100 percent, but I fell in love with the sport before I even started doing it,” he says.
The curiosity drove him to try the sport when he was only four years old. Before each and every match he would meet his father in the corner and go over the goals of the next few minutes. There were always two: Have fun and do your best. Simple enough.
Adding to those two, Cox adopted the mindset that he had to give everything all the time, an attitude his entire family encouraged and exemplified. This brought unparalleled success by the time he reached high school. After winning his first state championship in his freshman year, dropping only three matches during the season, he didn’t lose a single match during the following three years, including state title matches. Although he was proud of each one and understood the dedication put into the four medals, they didn’t move him emotionally.
THERE WAS MORE TO BE DONE. When choosing among his top collegiate contenders, Mizzou was always on his radar. As the high school senior narrowed down his future path, he received letter after letter. They were the same ones all other recruits were receiving, only with his name at the top. Mizzou stood out by putting pen to paper.
“If someone takes the time to write you a letter it means they’re willing to put time into you… You can get more out of a letter than just the words,” Cox says. So Cox followed the paper trail across the mid-Missouri town, bringing bold expectations with him. It was no secret Cox’s goals were parallel to his high school success: four national championships.
At any sign of outside doubt and disapproval, he had one reaction. “Apparently nowadays it’s bad to dream big.” Luckily, he’s never been one to listen to criticism. Cox knew what he was there to do, and right off the bat, he did it. He won his class at nationals as expected his freshman year.
“I was training to be a national champ. I was training to be the best I could be,” he says. “I think that ultimately led me to starting my freshman year and getting to the top of the podium.” Wrestling wasn’t the only aspect of his former life that carried over into his collegiate one. A tradition of music, sharpened by the gospel of his church, had continued through high school in a solo type of way. Then during summer training Cox met Kevin Kaifer, and their interaction grew into a fulfilling collaboration in the realm of music.
The songwriting duo hit it off and discovered how their passion, voices and styles blended in perfect symphony. During their first night discussing the topic, they ground out two entire songs. Eventually, they found themselves writing the majority of each other’s personal anthems, like best friends telling each other’s stories in perfect harmony.
However, sophomore year did not see the same balance, and it showed on the mat. The national
titleholder got relaxed. He got overly comfortable. And that just wasn’t his style, not the kind that won anyway. “I knew how to cut weight; I could tell you how to cut weight. I just didn’t do it,” Cox says. “The same goes for my faith. I know God. I could tell you about God, but I wasn’t walking with him. There are a lot of people who get the first two steps then forget the third one, which is living it out.”
Cox had never been surprised with his success — not his nearly flawless four years in high school nor rookie national championship. He had fulfilled what he knew was within his capability. However, he surprised himself sophomore year as a semifinal stunner. His shock didn’t come from how far he’d fallen, but that he placed at all. “It was a blessing that I took fifth that year because I wasn’t doing things right,” Cox says. “In my mind, with how I was doing things throughout the year, I don’t think I should’ve been on the podium at all.”
He took time to reflect. Cox didn’t want to end up in the same place again, but he could not go back to his earlier form. “I had to take time to take a look at my life and what I was going through and what I needed to figure out to get back to — I don’t want to say the old Cox because I look to evolve — into a better one; into someone who is unstoppable.”
So he held himself accountable, admitted his faults and sought to redeem himself. He met with his coaches, and invested time in the process to bounce back. He found the change seep into all other aspects of his life. His teammates saw the transformation and so did the podium. His junior year, he climbed right back up where he belonged.
He was once again a nati
STILL, THERE WAS MORE TO BE DONE. From there a new opportunity loomed, an Olympic one. His initial automatic response rejected the idea of the Olympic trials. His knee had been injured under the radar for months and he needed time to recover.
Coach Brian Smith gave him a wager and convinced him to take advantage of the opportunity, then decide based on the results. Cox agreed.
There, he was an underdog. The two-time national champion was ranked ninth in a bracket of the top 12 wrestlers in his weight class. He wasn’t supposed to do anything.
“You got guys who’ve won the Hodge, who are two time national champs, three time national champs. You got guys from all over who you’ve watched as you’ve also grown and gone on your journey,” Cox says. “You not only get to be a part of it, but get to be thrown in the mix of it. That, to me, is exciting on its own. I was ready to go. I was ready to scrap with anybody.”
Knowing the outcome wouldn’t affect him in a monumental way, he took on match after match with the same two goals from his dad’s corner speeches and a “whatever happens, happens,” mindset. At the end of the day, he was not surprised by his first place finish. Others could not say the same.
However, he didn’t have time to absorb the shock as he was soon shipped off to Mongolia to qualify in his weight class for the big games. According to Cox, he wrestled “pretty well.” He went 36-3 against his five competitors combined for a 5-0 record. Pretty good.
Upon returning to the States, he visited Colorado a few times where he grew with the Olympic coaches, although the majority of his time was one-on-one with Coach Mike Eierman. The adaption of “folk style,” the version of wrestling used in the Olympics, was a new challenge and frustrated him with a flurry of new techniques and rules. He converted his vexation into will and drive.
A few weeks later, Cox stepped into the “jittery” Rio atmosphere ready to go. He then waited another 20 days before it was his time. Following nearly three weeks of additional training and viewing other Olympic events via his hotel television, Cox took the mat. By that point, he had calmed the nerves and developed a serene mindset.
“I wrestled with more confidence than I ever had,” Cox says. “I accepted the fact that I could lose and I was capable of losing, and that made me try that much harder. Since I already knew I could lose, it didn’t mean I couldn’t win.”
He showed his capability throughout his first and second matches, taking down Amarhajy Mahamedau and Alireza Mohammed Karimimachiani, with 11 family members cheering him on from the side. They called themselves the “Fierce 11.”
Then came the confusion of the semifinals. With the clock quickly winding down, what Cox thought to be a lead he suddenly realized was the smallest of deficits. He immediately went in for a takedown with only seconds left. Alas, the clock proved a few too short. “I was training for a gold medal. I don’t think you train for anything less. I don’t think Coach Smith trains anyone on the Missouri Tigers team to take sixth place or top 10 as a wrestling team at a national tournament. That’s not what we do,” Cox says, looking back on the results. “We train to be the best we can possibly be, and the best I thought I could possibly be was a gold medalist.”
After a silent coach lunch and the realization of lost aspirations, the unit recuperated and accepted the situation for what it was. The new goal was set. Although it lacked a gold gleam, it still came with a ribbon tied around it.
The script of his third-place match was all too familiar, this time coming down to six seconds. A time period his opponent, Salas Perez, would refuse to take advantage of. What Cox would’ve given for those few moments during the previous match! Nonetheless, the final two points clinched a place on the podium.
AND WHAT HE’S GOING TO DO NEXT Although the Olympian didn’t reach his initial goal, he doesn’t consider the tournament or himself a failure.
“The Ws and the Ls aren’t what has made J’den Cox who J’den Cox is today. I am who I am because I’m loved by my family and I love my religion. I am who I am because I know I have a heart to do what’s right and what’s good and be the best I can be,” Cox says. “The best that I could be at that moment in time and continue to strive and be who J’den Cox is and always will be was to go and get bronze and wrestle my heart out for the next match. That’s what I planned to do and that’s what I did.”
The Olympian’s return to normalcy included a line full of fans ready for a bronze medal photo op in the student center, a newly acquired fifth-year football prospect and a performance of the National Anthem on Faurot Field.
For his performance of the patriotic tune, the stadium-goers stood and applauded with an overwhelming sense of familiarity as if each set of clapping hands had shaken the same set that was holding the microphone. Cox left people wondering, “Is there anything he can’t do?”
In Cox’s mind there is, at least for future prospects including his high aspiration to be an evangelist, motivational speaker or a creative writing teacher for the deaf. On the Olympian’s path to live out his life with the utmost happiness, there will always be more to be done. •