Cloaked in red, white and blue, Jordan Burroughs clutched the American flag and scanned the crowd looking for his mother among the sea of fans at ExCeL Exhibition Centre in London. The moment he spotted her, he jumped the barrier and raced into the crowd, embracing her in celebration. At age 24, his dream had come true: Jordan Ernest Burroughs was an Olympic gold medal winner.
A flood of emotions filled him in that life-altering moment. But still, amidst the feelings of joy, accomplishment, satisfaction and euphoria came one feeling that Burroughs never expected: emptiness.
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"There's no other thing in life that's more fulfilling than a relationship with Jesus Christ."
Burroughs’ gold medal dream started 3,500 miles away from London in the small town of Sicklerville, N.J., where, as a boy, he brought home a flyer promoting local youth wrestling.
“I will never forget the day,” he said. “I was intrigued by it. I took it home and asked my mom if she would take me to practice.”
By high school, Burroughs was serious about the sport, and it paid off. He started winning tournaments and was a fierce competitor with Vince Jones, his neighbor and best friend. Still, the teenagers needed more direction than wrestling icons Cael Sanderson, Brandon Slay, Mark Ironside and Damion Hahn could offer from afar. In-stead, they found it in Winslow Township High School wrestling coach Rick Koss.
“He saw two young kids who were hungry to be the best, but we didn’t know what it took,” Burroughs said. “We were going through the motions every day at practice and thought we would improve, but he taught us about work ethic and setting goals. He opened our eyes.”
Under Koss’ tutelage, Burroughs improved his grades and wrestling skills, winning three district titles, two regional championships and a state title. Then, tragedy struck. His grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and died two months later.
“It was a scary time because he was really close to our family,” Burroughs said. “Life isn’t promised; it’s precious and fragile. We got in the church and tried to establish ourselves with Christ.”
He was baptized his senior year at Winslow but, young and immature, it didn’t take long for him to drift from the Lord.
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In 2006, Burroughs accepted a scholarship to the University of Nebraska, the same school that had recruited Jones. His newfound freedom and success on the mat had become a distraction.
“I tried to make a change in my life at that time,” he said, “but I was 17 years old and 19 hours away from home. I got caught up in the college life—girls, casually dating, parties and drinking. I was never a party animal, but I was a guy who liked to have a good time and enjoy being a young man with freedom for the first time.”
Much like Koss, Nebraska coach Mark Manning saw Burroughs as a young, raw talent. Manning, the second winningest coach in Nebraska history, began working closely with his new pupil.
“When he was younger he was all concerned about rankings and who was ahead of him, what the Internet was saying,” Manning said. “Jordan would come to practice and say, ‘This website said this about me.’ To see him go from that to what he is now, I have really seen him grow.”
By the end of his junior year, Burroughs had won back-to-back Big 12 titles and an NCAA championship. He was stronger and wiser on the mat and primed for his senior season; then, another setback.
In a December 2009 match against Central Michigan, an opponent rolled over Burroughs’ leg. He continued for another eight minutes with tears to his lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).
“It was horrific,” Manning said. “I told him, ‘You’re done, Jordan,’ but he wouldn’t let me stop the match.”
Burroughs eventually lost, snapping his 44-match winning streak. His season ended that day, but his career didn’t. He underwent reconstructive surgery and was off the mat for nine months.
“It killed him sitting out that year, but it also drove him,” Manning said. “I saw a drive, a motivation, a recommit-ment to being the best.”
Again, Burroughs tried to reach out to God.
“I was feeling low again,” Burroughs said. “I wasn’t wrestling. I wasn’t with my team. I wasn’t the best wrestler in the country. I tried to establish some Christian friends and started going to Bible study on a weekly basis. It worked out well for a while, but it was just situational.
“My faith throughout my life has come in waves. I’ve been down or thought things were taking a turn for the worse and I’d say, ‘God, I need you now. Please help me out of this place in my life.’ Then, once I got out of that place, I was like, ‘OK, I’m good now. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m wrestling well.’”
In 2010, his redshirt-senior year at Nebraska, Burroughs returned to the mat bigger, stronger and healthy, earning a third Big 12 title, second national championship (including his second undefeated season) and the Hodge Trophy (wrestling's Heisman trophy).
He was back on the winning track. And the wave of faith again came crashing down.
“I was feeling really good, so I felt there was no need for me to have Christ in my life,” he said.
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Fast forward to London. Everyone wanted a piece of the gold medal winner. Interviews, press conferences, autographs—this was the payoff for all the sweat, hard work and extra training.
Burroughs had reached the summit. He was living his dream. He’d accomplished all his goals, and tons of people—including his parents, former coaches, friends and family in both Sicklerville and Nebraska—were proud of him. Heck, the entire country was proud of him for winning the gold.
“I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist,” Burroughs said. “I was extremely successful. I was recognizable to sports fans. I was being blown up by every wrestling fan in the community. My ego was huge. I idolized winning. I believed that all my success was due to everything I had done. I was extremely prideful.”
But then it stopped, and Burroughs was left holding a medal and nothing more.
“That’s it?” he remembers thinking. “I thought once I became an Olympic champion I’d feel complete; I’d feel whole. I’d be extremely happy and joyful and this would be the best time of my life.”
Instead, Burroughs felt empty. After returning to the States, the glory of the gold became an Olympic-sized disappointment.
Brandon Slay, 2000 Olympic gold medalist and current coach of the U.S. national team, knew exactly what Burroughs was experiencing. It was a case of “post-Everest syndrome.”
“After winning the gold medal and becoming the best wrestler on the planet, a lot of athletes feel like this Ever-est experience is going to fulfill them,” he said. “Reaching the Everest of wrestling doesn’t fulfill you. It’s a really beautiful view on top, but you can’t stay there. In the real world, if you climb Mount Everest, you have to go back down or you’ll die from oxygen deprivation. In the athletic world it’s kind of the same. Once you reach this peak, you realize you have to go back down.
“A gold medal is always going to leave you empty. We will always feel emptiness unless we have oneness with the Savior.”
As Burroughs tumbled down Everest clinging to a handful of medals and trophies, he remembered something Slay told him: “He said, ‘Hold on to everything in life with an open hand.’ Whether it’s my wrestling career or the amount of money in my bank account, everything good comes from God. He’s provided me with everything I need to be content.”
Two months later, in October 2012, Burroughs accepted an invitation to attend “24 Hours for God,” an FCA Wrestling Camp for high school kids in Edwardsville, Ill., where more than 60 athletes and coaches participated.
“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Burroughs said. “I’ve never seen so many kids so happy and unashamed. They were less impressed with me being there and more happy that Jesus was in their presence.”
The experience pricked Burroughs’ heart.
“I wanted to be those guys,” he said. “I wanted to live that life. I wanted to be able to sing and praise out loud and know Christ fully and completely. Those kids opened my eyes. Instead of looking up to me, I was looking up to them. I’ve been all across the country and around the world and have met thousands of high school kids, but that was eye-opening.”
In that moment, God revealed himself, and Burroughs let go of his pride. He put his trust in God and his life began to change.
“In our world it’s all about accumulation; people just want to gain things,” Burroughs said. “There’s no other thing in life that’s more fulfilling than a relationship with Jesus Christ. Contentment is one of the biggest things I've learned, knowing that regardless of where you are in life, it’s all about being content with God’s provision.”
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“This guy is definitely going to be the most decorated wrestler in the history of our sport,” said Carl Perry, Executive Director for FCA Wrestling. “But there’s a humility there that is impressive. He’s got this perspective that, ‘I’m not going to be defined by a gold medal, by a world championship. I’m going to be defined by my faith.’ He is special. People are flocking to our sport who never have because of Jordan Burroughs. Because of his faith, he’s bringing awareness to the Kingdom.”
Manning reflected on the attention Burroughs attracts: “When Jordan went to the Olympics, all eyes were on him. Wherever we went, all the teams stopped, all the coaches were videotaping Jordan, watching Jordan warm up, watching Jordan’s matches. It was amazing. Kids from other countries want his autograph or his picture. It’s a frenzy.”
"I think he's humbly confident. He believes in the gifts that God has given him. His attitude has changed, and that's proof of someone who has become a new creation through Christ."
-U.S. national team coach Brandon Slay
Like every professional athlete, Burroughs will experience highs and lows, wins and losses, joy and pain. But he’s a year older, a year wiser, and more confident than ever knowing he’s filled himself and the emptiness that comes with earthly victories with the Spirit.
“I think he’s humbly confident,” Slay said. “He believes in the gifts that God has given him. His attitude has changed, and that’s proof of someone who has become a new creation through Christ.”
Perry agreed, saying Burroughs' mindset has changed: “’My job’s the input, and God’s job is the outcome.’ I think he has that mentality. What that does is take the pressure off. There are athletes who don’t live up to their full potential because of fear of failure. I don’t see that in him. There’s a freedom in that.”
Burroughs is embarrassed by the praise.
“When people call me a man of God, I know I don’t deserve the grace He provides,” he said. “I am a regular guy. I grew up in a non-traditional, middle-class home. My success came later in life through hard work and the extension of grace, but God wouldn’t put me in this place to squander this opportunity.”
Burroughs is back on the mat, chasing another big dream: to become the winningest wrestler in American history. When he’s reminded that he will need to win every World Championship until 2017 and another Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016 to accomplish his goal, Burroughs shrugs.
No problem, he thinks, because he no longer wrestles for medals and praise. He wrestles for something greater than gold—bringing glory to God.
Originally Published: March 2014
Photos courtesy of John Sachs/Tech-Fall