RIO DE JANEIRO — A champion wrestler stood before the media Friday afternoon, broken. Jordan Burroughs lowered his singlet to his hips. He dropped his head. His body shook from weeping.
“I’m sorry, guys,” he said.
He wiped his tears and sweat. So much wet stuff. You would have thought he placed his hand under a faucet.
The man who had dreamed out loud now suffered with an audience. Of all the great athletes on the U.S. Olympic team, no one had spoken about his aspirations with more eloquence or conviction than Burroughs. The reigning Olympic champion in the 74-kilogram weight class declared long ago that he was here to cement his legend. He wanted to be an icon. His mission was so transparent, so consistent in every facet of his life. Even his Twitter and Instagram handle shared the goal: @AllISeeIsGold.
Now all he sees is devastation.
Burroughs entered the Olympics with a 130-2 record in international competition. Then he lost twice in one day at Carioca Arena 2. Aniuar Geduev, a Russian rival and the second-ranked wrestler in their class, beat Burroughs, 3-2, in the quarterfinal round. He had a chance to get through the consolation bracket and earn a bronze medal, but he lost his first match in repechage, 11-1, to Uzbekistan’s Bekzod Abdurakhmonov.
Now, all he sees is a dream shattered on the mat.
“I had so many expectations, things that I wanted to do here, records that I wanted to set, precedents that I wanted to be a part of,” Burroughs said. “And now I just feel a lot of disappointment, embarrassment, disgrace. But I let myself down most.”
This is another side of the Olympics, a side often stuffed into the background while the medalists are congratulated. For all the quadrennial obsession over magnificent athletes standing on a podium, for all the exploration of what they represent to a race or a country or a social movement, the Olympics are mostly about competing without ceremony. The Games are mostly about losing, at least as it relates to our frustratingly narrow parameters of athletic success. More than 11,000 athletes came to Rio. There are 306 events, which means over 900 opportunities to win a medal. And Michael Phelps already went home with half of them.
Of course, there are Olympic successes beyond the medals that should be celebrated more often. And then there are thousands of disappointments. Burroughs is merely a man who can speak for all of them.
He’s not a disappointment, an embarrassment or a disgrace. One day, he’ll realize it. He’ll kiss his wife, Lauren, and he’ll hug his 2-year-old son, Beacon, and his 2-month-old daughter, Ora, and his life will feel right again. But on Friday, the emotions were raw, and as Burroughs cried through the losses, he spoke about the agony of defeat with heartbreaking honesty .
“I feel like I let my family down,” Burroughs said. “I missed a lot of important milestones in my children’s lives to pursue this sport. I didn’t see my son walk for the first time. I’ve left my wife at home with two kids in Nebraska for long periods of time to go to training camps and tournaments and foreign countries. She did that joyfully, not begrudgingly, because she knew on days like these I always performed.
“Now I feel like I let her down. I feel like I let her down, and I let my family down. This was supposed to my year. This was supposed to be my breakthrough performance that cemented me as a legend in this sport. And it almost retracted my position in this sport. It hurts me. It hurts a lot, man. It hurts.”
He ignored the gash on his left ear flap and kept talking through the tears.
“It’s so long, man,” Burroughs said of the four-year Olympic journey. “It’s overwhelming to think about. In 2012, I was only one year out of college. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. This one’s been strategic. I’ve worked hard for four years, man. I’ve done everything right. I’ve spent time away from home. I’ve cut weight. I’ve ran. I’ve gotten up early. I’ve sacrificed so much to get here. And I just wanted to show people that. I didn’t want anything from this but for people to understand that wrestling is cool. We work hard.
“And I wanted to be amongst the greats. I wanted to be a Simone Biles, a Michael Phelps, an Ashton Eaton. I wanted to be those guys. And it’s unfortunate. You watch the women’s soccer team and the women’s volleyball team and Serena [Williams] and all these amazing athletes, and you think, ‘That won’t be me. That won’t be me. I’m prepared.’ And then life shows you otherwise.”
Burroughs will heal. He’ll realize that he is just 28 years old. For disappointed Olympians, the concept of waiting and training another four years is too hard to take right now. But Olympic history – heck, sports history – is full of athletes who faltered in what they thought was their moment, only to turn the setback into a better moment.
In 1992, Michael Johnson suffered food poisoning and failed to reach the final in the 200 meters, his signature event. Four years later, he was obliterating the world record in gold shoes. Burroughs can’t see gold anymore, but let the tears dry.
Please, let the tears dry.
“This is revealing,” Burroughs said. “This is revealing, and it’s necessary. And I’ll get stronger because of it. It’s going to hurt, though, for a long time. I spent so much time this year promoting my personal brand, and I said that I was capable of being the greatest wrestler ever. God said prove it. I couldn’t.”
Before his Friday turned dreadful, Burroughs read a note from his wife. Lauren, a former sportswriter, pens a message before all of his matches. In this one, she told her husband not to get so enraptured in each tree “that you forget the magnificence of the forest.”
A second gold medal would have been a big tree, but just a tree nonetheless. For four years, that’s all he saw. Then it was chopped down.
When will Burroughs remember the magnificence of the forest? There is no schedule an athlete must follow to get over defeat. But Burroughs promises, “Something good will come out of this.”
After the heartbroken champion wiped away more tears, he lowered his right arm, no longer obstructing a tattoo on his right shoulder. As he walked away, I was able to read it clearly.
It said, “Believe.”
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.