The J’den Cox dilemma: Three USA world champions competing for two Olympic berths
The reigning two-time world champion at 92kg [a non-Olympic weight category] was expected to drop weight and compete for the 86kg title at the US Olympic Team Trials, as he did before winning bronze at the Rio 2016 Games.
Fans were starting to salivate over the prospect of a final between Cox and current 86kg world champion David Taylor,** to decide who would grapple in red, white and blue at Tokyo 2020.
However, Cox announced his intentions to bulk up and challenge for the 97kg title instead, putting himself on a potential collision course with reigning 97kg Olympic champion Kyle Snyder at trials.
The United States’ policy that only the winners of each category at the wrestling Olympic trials - which have now been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 outbreak - will compete at the Olympics, means a world champion from the United States will not make the plane to Tokyo.
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To add even more spice to the 97 kg mix, whoever represents Team USA at Tokyo will also likely have to get past Russian 86kg Olympic champion and current 97kg world champion Abdulrashind Sadulaev, to win the gold medal.
So why did Cox choose to follow the arguably more challenging path towards Olympic glory?
“If I think about why I do what I do, and what I want in my wrestling career, I want to look back and realise that I pushed myself to be the best that I could possibly be,” Cox told Olympic Channel.
“Wrestling is the greatest sport in the world because we don’t get a lot of money, but you get to test yourself, push yourself and see what you're made of.
“I think there would always be a part of me that regretted not giving it a go. And this isn't a disrespect to the guys at 86kg. I just think that the competition at 97kg is what I'm looking for and what I desire” - J'den Cox
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Despite Cox’ 86kg bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, changing weight categories in freestyle wrestling is not as easy as it sounds.
It takes time for the athlete’s body to become accustomed to its new dimensions, and often tries to revert back to its normal weight.
“My body is now getting used to being bigger, because for a long time, actually it was hard to keep the weight on. I'd get up to 211 lbs (95kg), then the next day I'd be down to 201 lbs (91kg), as the weight didn't want to stick.
“Putting more food in my body and getting used to that was hard too. Sometimes I just felt bloated and I just wanted to be done eating. I didn’t want to move! I felt like I was in... what’s that called? A food coma!"
“Then there was a process of getting used to carrying the weight and the process of getting used to moving and manoeuvring the weight.
“I've wrestled a couple of times a couple of guys at this weight and I haven't felt pushed around.”
Isolation and calming down
Changing weight divisions was just another inconvenience Cox had to overcome, following the IOC’s announcement that the Olympics would be postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We only have to give up one moment, so somebody doesn’t lose multiple moments in their life, you know?” Cox said regarding the pandemic.
“A lot of athletes were getting ready for the trials, and were mentally and physically ready to pop off, compete and make the Olympic team. Mentally, drawing back and calming down was probably the hardest thing for me."
“So I’ve decompressed through reading, relaxing. I read the Bible every day.
“I'm excited now because anytime I've spent a good chunk of time off the mat, I've come back so much more energised and excited about it. I’ll be ramped up and ready to go, and also full of appreciation that I am able to do it.”
J'den Michael Tbory COX (USA) df. Reineris SALAS PEREZ (CUB), 3-1
J'den Michael Tbory COX (USA) df. Reineris SALAS PEREZ (CUB), 3-1Men’s Freestyle 86kg - Bronze 2
The form of his life
The Missouri native was in the form of his life this Olympic cycle, and was ready to compete for his place on the team. But a philosophical approach to his sport has helped Cox to ensure he will retain his motivation and form.
“The present is the only thing that counts. I carried this mindset last year and I'm carrying it this year. I have no world titles. I'm not on a team. I have no Olympic medal. I have nothing.
“Why would I focus on what I already have, when I'm looking to gain? You know I think you would lose track of what it is that you’re looking to achieve.
“I always put myself out of my comfort zone and enjoy pushing my limits.”
Harsh beginnings and family traditions
Pushing the limits has been a constant theme in Cox’ career, and he learnt from a young age to challenge himself - even if it wasn’t the easiest path.
“I failed miserably,” Cox admitted of his first year in wrestling.
“I was terrible at it, I got beat up all the time. I cried about it a lot. It was a very, very tough upbringing in this in the start of the sport.
“But think I pushed through that because I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed being around my friends. I enjoyed the workouts. I enjoyed going to practice.
It wasn’t long until practise made perfect, and Cox was allowed to continue a great family tradition.
“My uncle was a wrestler and got me into it. He has a headgear and it has his 1990/91 state championships dates written on both sides of it. My brothers and I used that same headgear throughout high school careers.
“So if you ever won a state title, you got to add your year to the headgear, and I got to add four.
“I probably need to send that back to my uncle because my cousin Gabe [Arnold] I believe just won the state championships in Georgia!”
First encounters with Kyle Snyder
Cox’ progress was quick, and it wasn’t long before he encountered Snyder for the first time on the mat, and a brilliant rivalry was immediately born.
“The first time we wrestled was at Fargo [a national high school wrestling event in the United States].”
“We would just tear through those brackets like it was nobody's business. We were just that much more advanced.
“At Fargo we wrestled Greco-Roman and freestyle, and our first encounter was Greco-Roman, which I won, while he took the freestyle title that year. Then it flip flopped the next year as he beat me in Greco, and then I beat him in freestyle.
“Fast forward into college and he beats me in the semi-finals of NCAA, I think it was three to two. The next time we wrestled was at the world team trials in 2015, and I ended up losing four to three I think. All of them have been real battles. ”
Snyder wins Men's 97kg Freestyle Wrestling gold
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Competition between the two has led some fans to overstate the hostility of their rivalry. Given that the two regularly practise together at national camps, Cox believes his move to challenge Snyder at 97kg shows how much respect he has for the Olympic champion.
“We're just competitive guys, even when we practise. I mean, it's just, I think we enjoy going against one another because we know we're not going to back down, and we look for that push back against somebody else.
“But I think the great thing about us is when we work out together, we're really good about talking through positions and encouraging each other to try different moves. I just think if we're willing to learn from each other, we can complement each other really well.
“Honestly, I just have to go and do my part to make sure this match happens. But if it does happen, you won't see any hesitation from me, either of us, to go out there and put our best foot forward. So there is a ton of respect there."
“No matter what happens, I will shake your hand at the end of it and shoot, if I win, I expect to have your help to get a gold medal. And if you're there on the night, you bet that I'm going to be there to help you get yours.”
Partially losing his hearing
After triumphing past his early struggles on the mat, Cox next had to overcome partially losing his hearing at college.
This had a detrimental affect on his confidence and happiness, as well as his balance on the mat.
“How it actually started is a mystery even to me,” Cox revealed.
“But doctors believe that it was hereditary because my father was born deaf in his right ear, and my sophomore year of college, I started losing the hearing in my left ear.
“That was why I was experiencing dizzy spells and not being able to go up elevators or stairs - I would start feeling like the world was shifting. I was freaking out about it."
“My student advisor at the time put me in ASL [American Sign Language] classes and I started learning sign language, which became a huge part of my life.
“My teacher was a huge inspiration to me because she started deaf at the age of twenty three. And so to see that whatever happens, that this is possible, you can still live a great life, communicate, know about music and enjoy it, that was huge.
Cox also started getting involved with the deaf community, who would visit the mall and practise sign language with him, and help to further ease the anxiety of losing his hearing.
“I used to I need to get back on making sign videos on my Instagram and Twitter. I used to do that loads as I just wanted to share it. I think there's so much beauty in the language, and I’m thankful I had people in my life that helped ease the chaos in my mind.
“I even got a tattoo on my left forearm and it says, 'If not now, then when?' and the letters are in ASL. That question is a big motivation for me.
“I tried to teach my coach, Kevin Jackson. He's still working on it, but right now we definitely stick with him slapping the mat and me turning to him. I can pretty much read his lips, so that is no problem - so it doesn’t give me much of a problem now.
“I actually tried to teach some of the wrestlers the alphabet. That's been a great journey and pretty fun. Jacarra Winchester [the women’s 55kg world champion] is pretty good and learnt the alphabet in maybe five minutes.”
"The matches I wrestle with myself are the greatest victories I've ever had"
If Cox seems like a man that is used to overcoming adversity, he is. And losing part of his hearing isn’t the only battle with his health that he’s been faced with.
“Depression is something that I've struggled with throughout my life slash career,” he said.
“I think that anybody who has a lot going on in life… it’s so fast paced that sometimes it is really hard to take time to slow down, and take time for yourself. I think that sometimes we almost accidentally bury things, which then really bury us.
“I think that it's tough because it's like a constant thing in your mind or in your soul that's just dragging you down. And so I think that each day that you make it through it is a victory.
“Someone can look at me as somebody who’s in pretty good shape, gotten to go to world championships, and been to the Olympics - so you have to fulfil that image. Yes, from the outside looking in, people might look at my life and think I’ve got everything. But depression can affect anyone."
“I think that in talking about these things and putting these things out there, the battles I've had with myself, going into therapy, I can be a voice to say, well, you know, you're worth it. You're enough. You are beautiful. You're capable of making it through. That's what I want people to understand.”
Cox has been facing many challenges both on the mat and off the mat. Not only is he winning these battles, but he is also turning them into positive tools in his life, and providing an example for others to draw inspiration from.
Snyder may be the favourite to represent USA at 97kg, but with his old friend in the form of his life and eager to put his best foot forward at trials, Olympic selection for Tokyo is going to be a mammoth achievement for either man.