After 21 years of being involved in man’s oldest sport, most practices for me are now a mental battle to recapture the feeling of innocence and newness that I initially possessed when I laced up my first pair of Asics wrestling shoes as a boy. I began wrestling as a 45-pound, six-year-old, completely unaware that two decades later I would be forged and developed into the best wrestler in the world. As the Olympic games approach once again, this time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I wanted to touch on the challenge to keep the sport new and fun after you’ve been in it so long. This has to do with “why” you do what you do. “Why” do I step on the mat every single day? The answer to that is my “why.”
Life and sports are much simpler when you’re a kid. I just wanted to be like my two favorite guys in the World Wrestling Federation -- Macho Man Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior. But instead of throwing guys through tables, I would be shooting double legs. In those days, the best part of practices were the games at the end (they still are actually). They were the days when even if you didn’t do well in a tournament, you still received a shiny participation trophy at the end for your efforts. Having fun and winning medals, was, and still is, part of my “why.” Being a kid was a much less complicated time, with no regard for protecting your body, no winning reputation to protect, and an obliviousness to what legacy actually even meant. Ah, the good ol’ days. Things change as you grow in age and stature though, but it’s important to keep having fun as you grow in the sport. Part of your “why” should always be the simple joy in doing what you do.
When I think about growing as an athlete I’m reminded of a quote by the band Switchfoot from a song titled, “Love Alone is Worth the Fight.” To me, the most profound lyric from the tune goes:
“The funny thing about a name is, that you forget what the reason you were playing the game is.”
How closely related is that statement to the careers of many high-profile athletes? Once you’ve arrived at a certain level of success, and earn a “name” for yourself, expectations arise, contractual commitments multiply, and the sport that seemed so pure at one time now seems dutiful and more obligatory than opportunistic. That’s why what Friedrich Nietzsche once said is so important:
"He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."
It’s going to be tough. It takes little effort at all to be normal and unrecognizable, with no pressure, and plenty unlimited leisure time, along with the freedom to eat anything that you want. That’s why you need a “why.” What is worth the sacrifice of all those things? Your “why” defines who you are, and where you will go.
What a tremendous opportunity to be a provider! I get to do what I love and bring my family along for the journey. As a father, I hope to be the living embodiment of hard work for my son Beacon, and child on the way to follow. Every day that I wake up, I have a little pair of eyes watching me closely, learning to become a man, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. My success has become much bigger than myself, and my family and close friends never miss the opportunity to see me compete. Because of my hard work and dedication they’ve gotten to travel the world, attend the Olympics, and go to countless engagements. When I win, we all win. Family is another part of my “why.”
I’m a natural competitor and explorer at heart. I love to compete, and the challenges associated with wrestling have been essential to my growth. Talk about adventure -- I’ve been introduced to my wife, traveled to more than 20 countries, went to college thousands of miles from home for free, and met some lifelong friends through this amazing sport. Call me crazy, but I believe that my best days are still ahead of me, and that journey into the unknown generates excitement for me like very few things can.
I’ve been blessed with tremendous gifts, and it’s my job to use those gifts to inspire others. As a man of faith, I take great responsibility in being a good steward of my talent. This is a major “why” for me. God has created unique and very specifically avenues to allow me to glorify Him. The platform I’ve attained through hard work and sacrifice can help motivate others to reach deeper within themselves and achieve their dreams. If I can do it, so can you. Like I say, “Dream it. Do it.”
I love a legacy. When it’s all said and done how do you truly want to be remembered? Being legendary goes beyond just getting your hand raised. I would like to leave the people I meet and the sport I love better because of having been involved in it. That is important to me. I enjoy reading about the greatest athletes of all time, and through those vivid stories, I’m reminded of the quote from the Great Bambino himself in the movie Sandlot:
“Heroes get remembered but legends never die.”
Because of my commitment to the sport, I’ve been blessed with a number of life changing opportunities that have helped shaped me into the man that I am today. I value wrestling itself and the blessings that have come because of it. I think of lions on the safari -- the most majestic animals in all of Africa. As leaders of their pride, they’ve been entrusted to provide. It is a responsibility, absolutely, but with it comes great privilege. In the process of risking their lives and comfort to feed others, they’ve learned to enjoy the chase as much as the feast. They know in their hearts that everyone eats, but not everyone hunts. What truly makes you a beast isn’t always the destination, but the pursuit. If the chase isn’t part of your “why,” it needs to be.
So I vow to never forget my reason for playing the game. My why. I wrestle because I love it. As an athlete you need to immerse yourself in whatever it is you do until you’ve given all that you’ve got. Make competition about the hunt, not the catch. Think of the great responsibility afforded to you. Everyone is watching, and the legacy you’d like to create is sitting there waiting for you to take it. Remember, your best days are yet to come.
So… What’s your “why?”