My journey to the World Championships.
How about that trip in? To say that my journey to the World Championships in Budapest was filled with adversity is an understatement. Each year brings its own obstacles. In 2011, I was a rookie, fresh out of college, with very little expectations from fans and media to do well. There was a poll in 2011, before the World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, where a panel of writers from different media outlets chose their predictions for the upcoming competition. I believe there were 20 predictions. Of those 20, two chose me. That's right. Two. No hard feelings though, right? In 2012, I was the favorite to win the Olympic Gold. I put an immense amount of pressure on myself to be the champion. I was nervous beyond belief. Those nerves affected my ability to perform at my highest level. Insert 2013. My newest bout with adversity. This is where the story gets tricky.
Each summer, the U.S. National Wrestling Team spends a number of weeks at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO gearing up for that years competition. The last camp is usually held in the second week of August, and is primarily the most intense of the summer training cycles. The camp was to run from August 18th until August 27th, with the best wrestlers our great country has to offer, all in attendance. Senior level wrestlers winding down our year, and college wrestlers gearing up for their NCAA season.
Everything started off great. We were through the first couple of days of camp, and I, as well as the rest of the team were settling in to the grueling monotony of practices. My roommate, and former Olympic training partner, Raymond Jordan, was back on the mat with me for the first time in over a year, and I was beyond pumped. That is until August 23. It was a Thursday morning and we were just finishing up a nice light drill, and our only workout of the day. My parter that day was my good friend Jordan Oliver, a 2x NCAA Champion from Oklahoma State. We needed a light regimen that morning because the next two days held a gauntlet of excruciatingly painful workouts. Friday was to be tournament simulation day, in which we matched up with five different partners, and wrestled matches, simulating the grind of a day at the World Championships. But that wasn't it. Saturday morning we were scheduled to run nine minutes worth of sprints up the infamous Incline trail. A 45 degrees path of pain, built into the side of a mountain. Nine minutes doesn't sound too bad does it? You've obviously never done it. I'm talking about your butt and legs burning so bad that you can hardly walk for days after. Not fun. But I digress, and back to the practice. After we had all finished our drilling, Zeke decided to put the World Team and their partners through a small cardio workout consisting of buddy carries, partner lifts, and sprints at the end. Oh those sprints. Now it's getting super suspenseful! So it's the very last sprint of the day, and Zeke yells "Ok, this is for the World Championship. Who wants to be a World Champion? Ready...Go!" I took off sprinting as fast as I could. Sweat dripping profusely, legs burning, arms pumping. I reached the last tape line, pivoted and exploded back toward the finish. I noticed to my right side, my 55 kilogram teammate Obe Blanc slightly ahead of me. "Not today!" I thought, as I dug down deep and let out a long fierce yell, trying to surface any energy I had left in my legs to beat him to the finish line. I think I won, but he may have a different story. I'm willing to settle for a tie. As we crossed the last mat, I realized that there was not enough room for me to slow down to a complete stop, so I decided to use a maneuver that I was familiar with when running sprints. Jump up onto the wall with one foot, stopping my momentum and land safely back to the mat. WRONG! Bad idea. As I jumped and hit the wall flying at full speed with all my weight on my left foot, SNAP! I immediately knew that something was wrong. I fell to the mat, took off my wrestling shoe and hopped out of the room on one foot to prevent myself from being seen like a wounded animal. As I lay on the ground outside soaking up the bright Colorado sun that day, I thought and repeated to myself multiple times, "It's broken, It's broken. I know it's broken." Coach Manning, my personal coach, was fortunately in the wresting room that day. He came outside to check on me, as well as Resident Coach, and 2000 Olympic Gold Medalist Brandon Slay. "Are you ok?" They asked. All I could say in response was, "It's broken." I was hurt and unable to walk. Slay picked me up on his shoulder and walked me all the way to the training room. No small feat might I add. He got his workout in for the day. As he sat me down on the training table I laid back and tried my best to remain optimistic. Manning was by my side, which was comforting. Ironically, my fiancee Lauren was headed to Colorado Springs to visit that day and had no idea I was hurt. I texted here a simple, blunt and confusing message, which I regret, but I can laugh at now, "I broke my ankle." That's it. So you can imagine her response was "WTH?" I'm laughing as I write this. Needless to say, she got a taste of wifely duties earlier than expected.
MRI. As we sat in the training room, I knew that something was terribly wrong with my foot or ankle, but I wan't sure which. The doctors took an ultrasound, and after seeing some sprained tendons, decided an MRI was the next logical step. We went that afternoon to a hospital a short distance away from the training center. After falling asleep uncomfortably on the MRI machine for 30 minutes, I got my results and took them back to the OTC. When we arrived, we handed them to the doctor and he went into his office to take a look. After about 10 minutes he came back in to the waiting room where me, Zeke Jones, and Mark Manning were waiting. He had a stern look on his face. He called Zeke and Manning back with him. "Oh crap," I thought. Another ten minutes roll by. The doctor steps into the waiting room and finally calls me in. At this point I am extremely nervous, not to mention hobbling around on crutches. As I walk, or crutch, into the room, the look on the coaches faces says it all. I sit down, and the doctor pulls up the MRI of my left ankle. As he points to the screen he says, "Here is the fracture." That's all I needed to hear. At that moment a bomb was dropped on me. I didn't know what to think or how to feel. However, I'm a competitor, so the first question that came to mind was "Can I still wrestle?" I didn't want to hear any other answer but yes. The doctor decided that the following day I would go for X-Rays to get a more detailed look at my ankle, and what procedures would we could take next. That night was filled with uncertainty. Would I wrestle? If I did wrestle, could I compete at a high level? I spent that night in prayer asking God that if this was his will, for the ability within me to accept it. The following day, August 24th, was an eventful day as well. Many of the athletes and coaches at training camp, didn't see me get injured, but the rumors were spreading quickly. In addition, I was walking on crutches, so there was speculation on all fronts. Manning, Zeke and I did our best to keep my injury secret for a number of reasons that I will get into later. That afternoon I went to visit with a surgeon named Dr. Shank, who was an expert in injuries of high level athletes. We chatted for a while, took more X-Rays, and indeed my ankle was broken. He asked me right away, "Do you want to compete?" Of course I replied yes, and he promised to do what he could surgically to make my ankle as stable as possible. The typical recovery period for an injury like mine is 6-8 weeks, and that's just for the bone to heal. Dr. Shank actually was scheduled to leave town that night, but by the graces of God, decided to reschedule his travel and perform surgery on me.
Surgery. I hate surgery. I tore my PCL and LCL in my left knee in 2009, and went under the knife to have those tendons replaced and repaired. The recovery wasn't a fun experience, so I knew what to expect. Dr. Shank placed a metal plate along with five screws, three laterally and two vertically, in my left ankle for stability. Immediately after surgery we decided it would be a good idea to head back home to Lincoln, Nebraska, leaving training camp early, to keep my injury as discrete as possible. Me, Lauren, Manning, and the rest of the Husker wrestling team piled into our vans, and headed back to Nebraska late that night. I propped my foot up on some pillows, took some pain meds, and trekked seven hours back home in a leg brace. Side note: I got out of the five matches and running sprints up the incline! I was pretty happy about that. That would of hurt worse than a broken ankle.
Recovery. This is where it gets tough. I couldn't walk for about two weeks. I was on crutches and in a boot during that time period, and the daily task of live were extremely difficult to perform. I had to bathe with one leg hanging out of the tub to prevent my stitches from being wet, I couldn't drive, and putting on a pair of shorts was like running a marathon. Ok not quite, but it was tough. I knew that I planned on competing, so the first thing on our list was to keep me well conditioned. The air-dyne, which is a bike propelled by your arms and feet was my best friend, and worst enemy. For three weeks, I rode the bike. 20 minutes at a time, with interval sprints of 30, 20 and 15 seconds, with very little rest. In between sets I would do rope climbs, pull-ups, curls, shoulder presses and all types of weighted activities. Our trainer at Nebraska, Tyler Weeda, was a God-send. He helped me countless hours a day to get back on track, in addition to his duties with our collegiate team. As the weeks progressed, I continued to get stronger and my ankle flexibility began to return slowly. I rehabbed twice a day, working on balance and explosiveness. I was determined to be ready for Budapest.
During this entire process, my faith was truly tested. I had to remain content with the possibility that it may not be in God's plan for me to compete. I was at the peak of my athletic performance at the time of my injury, and for me to get hurt so close to a competition of this magnitude was crushing. I had the best supporting cast around me. Coach Manning was by my side in every single workout, whatever I did, he did too. Just a lot slower, and with a lot less style. He believed from Day One that I would be able to compete. Mark never showed a shadow of doubt. At times I thought he was crazy, but that's just how passionate he is; and maybe just a little crazy. Lauren would tell me everyday, you are going to compete, and you are going to win. She took care of me throughout the entire ordeal, without ever complaining; well at least not to me directly. Tyler worked tirelessly for new innovative ways to get me ready in time. He spent about four hours with me a day for three weeks, making sure when I stepped on the mat I would be confident. It was a total team effort, but mostly a miracle and exhibition of God's power. He showed me that with faith and humility, anything is possible. Check out Luke 1:37. My favorite.
Budapest. When we arrived to Budapest I was feeling like the champ again. I had drilled for the first time that week and I knew I would be able to compete. I had spent the last three weeks at home rehabbing and recovering and I wanted to prove to my teammates and coaches that I was ready to go. The last time they had all saw me, I was on crutches. Not anymore! The doctors recommended that I wear a ankle brace, but I wanted to be as discrete as possible, with little restriction, so I decided we would just go with a tape job. Thanks Randy. My primary training partner, Bryan Snyder, and I wrestled live for the first time since before the injury. I felt great. I think he may have let me beat him to boost my confidence. We have wrestled live together for countless hours, and Snyder is 34 years old, and has been out of the sport for years, but he is my toughest opponent in the world no doubt. As all my teammates saw me, they realized that I was ok again, and Team USA was assembled! I was ready to scrap.
I tried as long as I could to keep my injury hidden to protect myself from my opponents. I am not completely sure of their motives, however I was already at a disadvantage by competing at less than 100% and I did not want to give them any more confidence. I love to be honest with my fans about what's going on in my life, but this time was an exception. I had to remain silent. If I wouldn't have won, I may have never told anyone about my injury. I didn't want it to be looked upon as an excuse, but I also never meant to be glorified because of it. When I released the story of my injury post-match, it was simply to inform, not to show off. It wasn't to show how awesome I was, but to show how awesome God is! I couldn't have done it without him. I wanted to share that with everyone.
All in all, this was a tough journey to World Championship #3. I had a great team of people helping me to remain positive, and to whip my ankle back into shape. The support and love that everyone showed me was amazing. I truly appreciate everyone who has taken the time to read this, and hopefully there will be many more Golds in the future! Wrestling is truly the greatest sport in the world, and I plan on doing it as long as my body can take me. Each year brings its own adversity, but sometimes setbacks are just setups! When life knocks you down, get back up and say "Is that all you've got?" Keep pursuing your dreams no matter what the costs.