Favorite numbers. Whether it’s a relative's birth date or your lucky jersey number, each of your favorite digits have profound meaning to who you are. Here are some numbers that are significant to me, especially after this year’s world championships:
1 -- I was a one-time state champion in high school. Consider that, if you’ve seen me compete in the last five years, you’d probably think that I was born an absolute beast bearing these physical gifts and talents since birth, and I’ve pretty much been ‘the best’ all my life. Quite the contrary.
0 -- That is the exact number of NCAA coaches that called me on the first allowable call date after my junior year of high school. As a potential recruit in 2005, college coaches weren’t allowed to make first official contact via telephone until July 1 after your junior season. I remember being extremely excited, thinking I would get a number of phone calls from prospective colleges dreaming of having me be an integral part of their program. This was during the days of cordless home phones, and I made sure to carry our house phone (fully charged) in my hand the entire day. I was convinced it would be a great day. As the hours rolled by, void of even one ring (except for telemarketers), I kept checking to see if the ringer was on, and if I was within range of the base, because someone had to be interested...right? Hours passed, and I began to lose hope, until around 6:00 p.m., when I made the realization that no one would be calling. I felt like a groom that was stood up at the altar or that young man in a tuxedo for prom with no date. That may have been the most humiliating day of my life.
52 -- I was the 52nd ranked senior in the 2006 Top 100 High School Senior Recruits heading into college. No wonder no colleges were knocking on my door. There were 51 other doors they had to knock on first. I began to realize that as most collegiate rosters were filling up, I was about to lose my place in this game of wrestling’s musical chairs. I knew I had what it took to get to the next level. I just needed a chance.
1 -- The number of official college visits I went on. As most seniors were preparing to visit some of the most prestigious universities throughout the country with their parents during the fall of 2006, I was at home, in Sicklerville, NJ. No one had asked me to come see their school. For a long period of time I thought I may be forced to go the junior college route, create a name for myself, and finish my next two years of eligibility at a university. I didn’t visit Nebraska until April of my senior year, and since it was the only major program to show me any interest, I signed right away.
13 -- The number of losses I accumulated during my freshman campaign in college. To me it was then obvious why coaches were reluctant to look my way. I wasn’t very good, and my work ethic was average at best. I spent that entire year trying to fit in, while still wanting to establish myself as a leader. I began wondering if I was really cut out to compete at the highest level.
2 -- The number of times I’ve lost since 2009. This is where the significance of my favorite numbers flips to the positive side of the spectrum. (and yes losses can be positive things). During my junior and senior year of college I found my identity -- a wrestling style that suited my abilities -- and the confidence to impose my will on my opponents.
4 -- The amount of World Championships that I have won. My most recent being on September 12, 2015. Think about this: I’ve been the best wrestler in the world more times than I’ve won State and NCAA Championships combined.
Of all these numbers, it’s very hard to feel as though any singular moment defines me. It is the culmination of all these events that have molded me into the man and wrestler that I am today. I don’t believe that any one day or singular performance, as a man or competitor, can define you. There is freedom in knowing that.
About a month ago, my wrestling coach, Mark Manning recommended that I take a two week period of time before the Worlds to stay off of social media completely. I needed clarity. For a long period of time I was a slave to expectations, both negative and positive, and immediately after all of my competitions I would hop onto the internet and see what the world thought of my performances. The response from thousands of people I didn’t even know controlled my thoughts, clouded my judgement, and effectively negated my gratefulness. I wasn’t wrestling because I loved to, but simply to prove everyone wrong, and it became a heavy burden to bear. Too much positivity can be dangerous, too. On the flip side, if you are not careful, you will quickly adopt a false sense of invincibility from the continuous praise from fans. I like to be in control of my own emotions, and open to receive honest and accurate feedback from trusted and respected individuals within my inner circle. So I stayed off, and it payed off.
After last year’s bronze medal finish in Uzbekistan, I dealt with a lot of self-doubt as well as internal conflict, and I struggled to regain the confidence that was a staple of my wrestling for so long. It would be a lengthy road back to redemption, and I realized that course would be paved with daily battles like focusing on improving in positions, bringing a consistent mindset to each match, and controlling the life factors that I had the power to influence.
This year was extremely demanding. I held the titles husband, father, coach and wrestler, and many times I felt as though I was doing a lousy job at all four. In order to be great at any singular endeavor, you have to make sacrifices in other areas of your life. In an attempt to do each thing just well enough, I felt drained and burdened by them all, and that left very little energy or sanity for myself. That is exactly why I smiled so much this year. I was humbled, grateful and just genuinely excited to be back. After a difficult year, mentally, I was performing at my optimal level, and I was overjoyed to be back on top of doing what I loved.
My fourth world championship was much different than any of the others. I had a centralized focus that I was able to acquire with the team of people around me. The people I surround myself with are dedicated to helping me win. This year’s addition to my circle included a functional medicine doctor named Dr. Greg Mongeon. Greg has been important in helping my body perform at its best level, and for longevity in the sport as I attempt to surpass John Smith as the winningest American wrestler of all time. He adjusted me, prayed for me, and prepped just about every meal that entered my body for the two weeks leading up to Vegas. My body and mind were working like a finely tuned machine. I woke up the morning of weigh-ins only two ounces over, and feeling like it had been my least strenuous weight cut...ever. Changes in nutrition and mindset were instrumental to my approach this year.
And to put the sprinkles on your ice cream, we were in Las Vegas. If that doesn’t help you than I don’t know what will. As I was called to the mat for each bout and emerged from the tunnel I could feel the overwhelming love from the home crowd, I had no choice but to smile and be thankful. Here I was ranked number one in the world, everyone in the arena was excited to watch me, and for the first time my Dad, and my son, were in the crowd to watch me win a World Championship. There was an enormous sense of pride that would overcome me whenever I stepped to the mat, and that feeling is indescribable. We knew what to expect, but hoping for it and actually receiving it are two different things. All year, every American wrestler was enthusiastic about the opportunity to wrestle at home, and to win. My dream came true.
As I reminisce on the numbers that started off this blog, number 4 is so critical to me. It spells redemption. I believe I was built and forged into a champion. It’s true, “some champions are born, and others are built.” This past year’s world championships were the result of a lifetime of effort, realized in one day. They all are. That’s why they are so special. With God’s grace I was able to finish an undefeated season, and become the best wrestler in the world for the fourth time in five years, with my family beside me every step of the way.
As some unknown, but very wise person once said, “It’s never too late to be great. It never gets easier, you just get better. Sometimes God calms the storm, and other times he calms the sailor.”