RIO DE JANEIRO — Before every wrestling meet, Jordan Burroughs’ wife, Lauren, writes him a note. I thought he could use another.
I’m sorry for what happened Friday. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, and I’ll be honest: I hadn’t watched a wrestling match in years until Friday. I came to see you. I knew your story. The 130-2 record internationally. The gold medal in London. The happy, smiling family. The hard work. You had made your country proud.
It still is. I know it doesn’t feel like it now. I saw the tears in your eyes. They wouldn’t stop. You walked up to a group of people holding recorders at the Rio Games after you lost a match 11-1. It was your second loss of the day after going years at a time without knowing defeat. I can’t fathom winning like that; I can’t begin to understand what it felt like to lose. Then you talked for 11 minutes, 27 seconds, words as raw and honest as I’ve ever heard from an athlete. It was gutting.
You didn’t skirt responsibility, didn’t blame others, didn’t trot out any of the rote excuses. You owned your terrible day. It takes someone big to do that. It takes someone bigger to do it with such eloquence and perspective. I want you to read your words because I think they’re important.
“I feel like I let my family down, my kids,” you said. “I missed a lot of important milestones in my children’s lives to pursue this sport. I didn’t see my son walk for the first time. I’ve left my wife at home with two kids for long periods of time to go to training camps, to foreign countries. She did that joyfully, not begrudgingly, because she knew on days like these I always fulfilled my end. Now I feel like I let her down. I let her down, I let my family down. This is supposed to be my year. This is supposed to be my breakthrough performance that cemented me as a legend in the sport. And it almost retracted my position in the sport. It hurts me. It hurts a lot, man. It hurts.”
I wanted to address this first because it’s obvious how important your family is. You did not let down your family. Because they’re your family, they understand the sacrifice you made was for their betterment – for the betterment of a sport you love and that loves you back. You may have missed milestones, but they’re nothing more than that. The time you spent with them – those are the moments that matter.
[Featured: The nine lives of Rulon Gardner]
Your purpose was large. One day does not lessen that. You are still Jordan Burroughs. In the end, your name may end up alongside Dan Gable’s and Cael Sanderson’s as the greatest American wrestlers. It may not. That’s immaterial. And if it takes a day like this to lend you that perspective, in the long run you’ll better understand that Aug. 19, 2016 was the beginning of something, not the end.
“I’ve worked hard for four years, man,” you said. “I’ve done everything right. I’ve spent time away from home. I’ve cut weight. I’ve ran. Gotten up early. I sacrificed so much to get here. And I just wanted to show people that. I didn’t want anything from this but for people to understand wrestling’s cool. We work hard. And I wanted to be amongst the greats. I wanted to be a Simone Biles, a Michael Phelps, an Ashton Eaton. I wanted to be those guys. And it’s unfortunate, you know? You watch the women’s soccer team and the women’s volleyball team and Serena and all these amazing athletes and you think, ‘That won’t be me. That won’t be me. I’m prepared.’ And then life shows you otherwise.”
Life is difficult and humbling and excruciating. And then it isn’t. You’re 28 years old. You’re a world-class athlete. You know this. You know the two men who beat you today, Aniuar Geduev of Russia in the quarterfinals and Bekzod Abdurakhmonov of Uzbekistan, wanted to win every bit as much as you did. You know they’ve spent four years away from home, cutting weight, running, getting up early, too. You know they wanted to be revered eternally, and you know they didn’t want to lose, either. Both of them did. Geduev could have won a gold medal. He didn’t. Abdurakhmonov could have won bronze. He didn’t.
Your story may be American, yes, but it’s universal, too.
“I had so many expectations, things that I wanted to do here, records that I wanted to set, precedents that I wanted to be a part of,” you said. “I just feel a lot of disappointment, embarrassment, disgrace. But I let myself down most. I love the sport of wrestling because it’s a testament of your will and what you’re capable of as a man. As nervous and afraid as I was coming into this tournament, I knew that I was equally as confident and prepared. So now I face it. I face the fans, the criticism, the backlash, the trolls. I’ve always made my goals public. The hard thing about being an Olympian is your failures are public, too.”
You’re right. You will face backlash. You will be called a choker. You were on NBC commercials and you modeled Ralph Lauren-designed Team USA uniforms and you hit the talk-show circuit. Being an elite athlete is hard enough. Being an athlete and a celebrity – and one without tens of millions of dollars in income – is especially taxing.
I understand the nerves and fear. The expectations you foisted on yourself were impossible. You never lied about your ambitions. Your vulnerability is one of your finest qualities. It’s also catnip to those in line to tear you down. And they will. They’ll say you’re a fraud, a sellout, every cheap, low insult they can. And they’re allowed. Just know they’re ignorant, that they don’t understand to summit greatness, one must traverse a path laden with nadirs. And nobody – not Simone Biles, not Michael Phelps, not Ashton Eaton – reaches it with falling at least once.
[Featured: Why Phelps is retiring for good this time]
“I thought about it for so long,” you said. “This is the one time, the pivotal moment within my career. You know, there are not a lot of defining moments for a young individual in life. This was going to be, ultimately, a catalyst for propelling me to where I wanted to be moving forward with my life. My life – it’s altered. Be it as it may, you can say, ‘Oh, you can come back, you can return in 2020.’ My life is altered indefinitely. At some point, I’ll find out what I did wrong and learn a lesson from this.”
You will. The 2016 Olympics were a failure. You understand this. You set a goal and you did not achieve it. But that does nothing to invalidate what you did leading up to it. You grew as a man, a father, a husband – a person – because of all those days. They may have not prepared you for the buzzsaw of the 74-kilogram division in Rio. They’ll be the best preparation you could ever have for life after it.
“I’ll get stronger because of it,” you said. “It’s going to hurt, though. For a long time. I spent so much time this year promoting my personal brand, and I said I was capable of being the greatest wrestler ever. God said prove it. And I couldn’t. “
It is going to hurt. It’s going to hurt worse than it did during those 11 minutes, 27 seconds I saw. It’s going to hurt when you see your teammates and your coaches and your parents and your son and your daughter and your wife. It’s going to hurt when you walk around your hometown in New Jersey and it’s going to hurt when you walk around your adopted town in Nebraska and it’s going to hurt because our brains convince us the pain of an opportunity lost is worse than the joy of a goal achieved.
If you don’t realize it yet, you will soon enough that the desire to be the best is a false idol. It can pollute even the greenest mind. And Lauren will be there to remind you of this. She said so in her note to you Friday: “Don’t get so enraptured in each tree that you forget the magnificence of the forest.”
A legacy is ever-evolving; yours does not end in Rio. You’ll always be a great wrestler, one of the greatest the United States has known. And as much as America loves winners, it adores comebacks even more. Maybe yours will be on the mat. Or maybe in another avenue of life. You’ll know what’s right. Of all the things I learned about you here, that’s what I’ll remember most.
Sincerely, your newest admirer,
More Summer Olympics coverage on Yahoo Sports: