All he sees is gold: A Q&A with South Jersey Olympian Jordan Burroughs

Sicklerville native and Olympian Jordan Burroughs, America’s most celebrated wrestler of the last decade, looks to 2021, reflects on his journey, and lives in the present, too.

Jordan Burroughs, who won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games and has also claimed four World Championships as the country’s most prolific wrestler in the last decade, had his chance to chase another gold sidelined when the 2020 Olympics were postponed. (Courtesy Team USA).

Jordan Burroughs, one of the most decorated athletes in South Jersey history, is celebrating his 32nd birthday this week. He was supposed to be celebrating much more this summer.

Burroughs won an Olympic gold medal in 2012. He’s won four World Championships, two NCAA titles, and so many more that it’d be tough to list them all on a plaque at his alma mater. It’s a good thing, then, that his alma mater, Winslow Township High School, named the gym in his honor four summers ago. 

Burroughs, a 2006 Winslow grad, has come a long way since a quietly successful prep career that culminated with his first state championship as a senior. This summer, he was supposed to be on a quest to the top of the Olympic podium again after failing to do so in 2016, but the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the games until 2021.

Although most of his family still calls Sicklerville home, Burroughs, who competed at the University of Nebraska, still calls the college town home. He took time out from his suddenly wide open summer to talk to South Jersey Sports Weekly about his historic wrestling journey, how much longer he’ll compete, the ongoing civil rights movement in America, and more.

SJSW: Do you remember where you were when you heard the Olympics were being postponed?

Burroughs: Before the Olympics were called off the trials were. So I was watching the sports landscape and how all of the other major events were being canceled, the NCAA tournament, all of these amazing sport events that are big-time stuff, they’re being canceled. And we’re only three weeks away from the Olympic trials. There’s no way they can cancel the NCAA tournament and not cancel the Olympic trials. We were trying to stay focused and committed to our training, but in the midst of uncertainty, it was a really difficult thing to do. So we were going to the wrestling room, we were getting our drills in, still maintaining our diet and staying healthy. And then I remember it was a Saturday morning at practice, everyone was going through the motions and just saying, ‘This isn’t going to happen. There’s no way.’ And then that afternoon I got a call from Bill Zadick, our head coach for Team USA wrestling’s squad … It was more of a relief for me than anything (when it was canceled). 

Because it was hard to stay committed to our training, even outside of a performance perspective, from a health perspective. It’s like, man if this disease is that potent and as deadly as they’re saying, we probably shouldn’t be in the wrestling room with 15 to 20 other guys. So at that point we were willing to risk it because, if they’re going to have the trials, I have to be prepared. Even if I’m putting my health at risk, I have to be ready to wrestle once this day arrives. This is a big event for me. So it was a tough time. I feel like I was almost sacrificing my physical health to put myself in a position to perform at a high level. It was a tough time.

SJSW: What’s more motivating for you as you look toward the Olympic Games in 2021: the way things ended in 2016 (9th place) or what you achieved in 2012 (winning an Olympic gold medal)?

Burroughs: Definitely being at the top. That’s a much more rewarding feeling to try to pursue. For me, redemption doesn’t have a face. I don’t know what that looks like. So it’s not really a platform. It’s a vindication of spirit and mind, but I think experiencing what I experienced in 2012 was special because it’s tangible. I felt it, I saw it, I experienced the highs of being an Olympic champion. So I know that I’m capable of doing it. I know that I can do it. I still consider myself one of the best wrestlers in the world. 

But, yea, it’s a difficult process. I try to cling to the freedom, excitement and joy — and not necessarily the pressure, anxiety and expectation. I think all of those are things that come along with trying to find some sort of vindication to rebound from what happened to me in Rio. So, at this point, it’s been an enjoyable journey thus far. After 2012, I was first in ‘13, third in ‘14, and first in ‘15. And then in this last cycle I was first, third, and third. So I’ve medaled and have been in the top three in every World Championship since the Olympics in Rio. I feel really good with where I am. 

It’ll be interesting, though. I’ve tried to forget about Rio. Because early on it was not motivating. It was kind of disheartening and discouraging more than anything. So I think I do kind of have a chip on my shoulder. I feel like I have a lot to prove. But I also am resting peacefully on the fact that, regardless if I win another Olympics Games or not, it’s not going to ruin the legacy that I have worked very hard to create. I still consider myself one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. 

And I think (2021) would be a really, really special thing. It’ll make for a great story and a great book. But I think ultimately for me there’s more mental and spiritual things that I’m hoping to accomplish more than the actual medal itself. Overcoming the doubt, overcoming being older in the sport, overcoming whatever has afflicted me over the past 4-5 years, it’s more than just going out there and performing well. I think it’ll be fun though.

Jordan Burroughs, a 2006 Winslow Township High School graduate and U.S. gold medal-winning Olympian wrestler, has more time to hang out with his kids, Beacon, Ora and Rise, after the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed. Although he turned 32 on July 8, Burroughs has no plans for retirement any time soon. (Photo provided)

SJSW: You mentioned getting older. Do you think (2021) will be it for you, your last Olympics? How much longer can you compete at this level?

Burroughs: That’s a really good question. It’s hard to say. I think I’ll know when I start getting beat regularly …

SJSW: [Laughs]

Burroughs: … which hasn’t happened yet. So I feel good, man. I wanted to come into this journey as a guy who could really transcend the sport and really put wrestling onto the national spotlight. I think I’ve been a pioneer for numerous things in the wrestling community, but I still have a lot of things that I’d like to accomplish. When I step away from the sport I want to completely wash my hands from a competitive perspective. I don’t want to be the guy that says ‘Oh I can still be that guy. I can still win that.’ So in order for me to maximize self and then walk away with complete peace, I have to completely exhaust my abilities. 

I think it’s really honorable when a guy competes as long as he absolutely can. I think it would be really easy for Tom Brady to retire as a (New England) Patriot after winning six Super Bowls and go on to rest in the spotlight with his family and try to have a good time. But for him, he loves the sport. 

SJSW: Yeah it’s such a tough balance because when you love something it’s difficult to give it up. But on the other end every athlete has their own expectations for themselves. So it’s a balancing act. 

Burroughs: For sure, that’s the balance: if you feel like you can still do it, then I’m going to do it. But if you feel you’re at the point where you’re getting beat or you’re not performing at the level you once did and it’s really difficult for you to get into a place (where you can compete at that level), then it’s a time to potentially step away. But only each individual can decide that. I am in a place where I still feel like I’m still a really good wrestler and I have a lot to give to the sport. More than that, I’m still eager to learn and work hard. Those things haven’t left me. And the balance that wrestling has provided for me is, you have to operate and live with a certain amount of excellence to compete at the highest level. That means a healthy diet; it means training hard, staying focused; it means pushing your body to maximum levels of completion and performance. And all of those things help me live a better life. And I think that’s why I enjoy the sport so much and why I want to continue to do it for as long as I can.

SJSW: What happened to you in college? Because, let’s get this out of the way first, you were a very good wrestler in high school. You made it to the state finals in back-to-back years and you were a state champion as a senior …

Burroughs: Yeah I was OK, I was OK.

SJSW: But the point I make to current high school athletes is that, throughout your high school career, oftentimes people wouldn’t even have considered you the best wrestler at your own high school because Vince (Jones) was a big name. But what I tell athletes is the journey doesn’t end with high school. You can create an opportunity to compete in college and you can continue to get better.

Burroughs: Exactly. For sure. This thing, it’s a marathon, bro. I always think about that because I have a little boy. He’s turning 6 in a few weeks. And I’m thinking I was 6 when I started wrestling, it’s time to get him started. I need him to be really good at a young age because there are going to be high expectations since he’s Jordan Burroughs’ kid, he’s got to be really good at wrestling.

But I think about my career and how I had more success later. I’ve won more World Championships than I did state championships. Which is a pretty wild thing to consider if you watched me as a high school athlete. 

There was never this epiphany or an ah-ha moment where I was like, ‘Damn, I’m really, really good at wrestling now.” It was just consistent effort over a long period of time and I think my upside was really high. You could see the trajectory I had as a high school wrestler, going from losing in the first night of Districts as a freshman to losing in the placing round at states as a sophomore to making it to the finals as a junior and then finally being a state champ as a senior. I always trended upward. 

I went to Winslow Township High School. Vince and I were the only state champs in the school’s history and there hasn’t been a state champ since. We come from no history, no tradition, no lineage. But that forced us to develop all of these intangibles, to create toughness, a mindset that we were going to put the work in. 

Once I got into the wrestling room at Nebraska, with a bunch of other quality wrestlers, great coaches and a great training staff, and I started to get strong. I just started to physically develop. I was an amazing athlete bubbling below the surface but I also really started to refine my skills. And the toughness that I needed when I was young, that I needed because I was small and I didn’t have a ton of great technique, that really helped me to kind of solidify my place and continue to have sustained success.

I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. 

What’s funny is I wrestled Frank Molinaro in the state finals my junior year (of high school). And so my junior year of college Frank was at Penn State as a redshirt freshman. He was a year younger than me, went to Penn State as a three-time (high school) state champ and I was a single state champ at Nebraska. So I had just made it to the NCAA finals on a Friday night and I remember seeing him in the back of the arena. He came up to me and he said, ‘Dude, how did you get so good?’ And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. The fact that guys that were beating me just 2-3 years ago and now I’m one of the most dominant wrestlers in the entire country?’

It’s really a testament to the coaching staff and the team here at Nebraska. I think I came in at a really good time. A lot of my life has been impeccable timing, a lot of luck, and having great people around me. All I ever had to do is work extremely hard. That’s it. So I don’t take a ton of responsibility for it. All I did was work as hard as I could for as long as I could and things started to work out for me.

SJSW: So I’m curious, as someone who has risen to celebrity status after winning a gold medal, what’s the coolest experience you’ve had? Any ‘wow” moment, or someone you met that you didn’t think would ever happen?

Burroughs: That’s a good question. The biggest thing for me, now that I think about it … I’m a big NBA fan. I’m a huge Kobe Bryant fan. I only have five jerseys at home, and these are my five icons from the sport of basketball: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson. Those are the five. And Lebron James, I’d add him to the group, too. Those are the guys, for me, I wouldn’t wear anyone else’s jerseys but those six guys. 

So I was a big Kobe Bryant fan. I never got to meet him personally but I’d always looked up to him and his Mamba mentality. I really was a huge proponent of everything he taught, the way he operated, the grace and the wisdom that he spoke with. I was just such a huge fan of his. So anyway after he passed I remember wearing his jersey that night. I was going through his Instagram and looking through photos and I had followed him for years, as long as I’d been on Instagram, probably one of the first people I followed. So it was eerie to continue to follow someone after they passed. It’s like an epitaph they created. 

So I went on his page and I clicked on the unfollow button. And as I clicked that tab it turned blue and it said ‘Follow Back?’ For me it was such a profound moment. I remember running upstairs to my wife. I was like, ‘Love, Love, Kobe Bryant was following me!’ She’s like, ‘No way.’ And I was like, ‘Way!’ 

And he doesn’t follow that many people. He’s a guy who’s unimpressed with a lot of other athletes. I think he only follows somewhere in the 300-range. And I was one of the people he followed. So I remember after that I didn’t refollow him because I always wanted to see the “Follow Back?” That was just very special to me. 

SJSW: Yeah, having the respect of someone you looked up to.

Burroughs: Yeah, yeah. And I never met him, I never got the chance to tell him that I appreciated him and was thankful for his guidance and leadership. But, it was a really cool moment for me. Like, wow, everything that I had posted, the captions I spent hours working on, all of the hard work I had put in, he was aware of it. And that was really cool for me.

SJSW: I was looking at your Twitter and Instagram the other day. How much has the last couple of months been, with everything that’s gone on this spring and now summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, to statues being torn down, unrest throughout the country. What’s your reaction? And are you hopeful that things are changing for the better?

Burroughs: I am, I am. It’s a gift and a curse to be an athlete because people want to hear from you, so there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of expectation for you to be in line with politics and social justice, and it’s not always a platform that we’re educated enough to be prepared to share wisdom on. But we also have a civic duty and a responsibility to speak for the individuals that we represent. And I’ve always tried to do my best as a representative of the people that I come from, the people that I look like, the ones that follow me, and to always operate with grace and diplomacy. 

It can be difficult at times. But I think our platform has provided us with, if willing, to really be helpful and encouraging for change that is happening throughout this country. If you look at this country, it isn’t necessarily about knowledge as much as it is about influence. And sometimes that can be a scary thing. But a lot of athletes that you see are much more than athletes, they’re eloquent, they’re well-spoken, they are very intelligent and they stand for things beyond just scoring basketballs and shooting double legs. 

I think it’s going to be our responsibility to be the proponents of change because we are the most influential members of society, the athletes and celebrities. I’ve been really proud to see people standing up and opposing the status quo. Because I think the general consensus from the public is, ‘Well what do you know, you’re just a wrestler?’ 

But I think that hush mentality has allowed for us to arrive at a place where things have bubbled over for such a long period of time and there’s been this underlying tension and resentment until you have a moment like what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis and now we’re arrived at riots, looting and protests in the streets that have been ongoing for weeks. 

People still are resistant to change. But I want to use my platform to be encouraging and to really be a proponent for helping people to live a life that they can be proud of without being discriminated against, and that’s a very difficult thing, but it’s a worthy cause and something I’m willing to help pursue as long as I have the ability to do so. 

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I'm angry. I’m frustrated. I’m sad. We've been marginalized. We’ve been oppressed. And even more than one hundred years after Jim Crow, it is evident that we're still regarded as less than human. This week's events have become way too common in American society. We're slowly being desensitized to death. As we watch COVID-19 cases rise worldwide, we've relegated human lives to meaningless numbers. We'd rather be outside, risking the lives of others, than staying home and keeping people safe. We'd rather force our knee into the back of someone's head, than diffuse a situation gracefully. I'm just tired. Anyone who needs to see more video evidence or a person's criminal history before passing judgment on the video of George Floyd being killed, shame on you. I'm an Olympic Gold Medalist. I make a solid living and I own a home in a safe neighborhood. My wife is white and Hispanic. My kids are about as mixed as you get. However out of touch you may think that I am, understand that no matter what circle I move in, my skin color remains the same. I am a black man. And most importantly, I am human. Let's grieve together, feel the range of emotions, and then decide to choose justice. Law enforcement needs to be held accountable. Police are supposed to protect and serve the people, not themselves. If your daily mission as an officer is to simply survive, you're probably in the wrong profession. A badge shouldn’t replace a heart. Salute to all the officers out there who protect and serve us with integrity. We all have a platform. We can all positively influence our communities so that the evil that we're facing in the world will not win. Each one of us has a corner of the world that we can unite. Let’s put our energy into work, not just words. RIP George Floyd

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SJSW: Yeah, when you have a voice for those who don’t have one and when you have that platform, you can use it for good. Even someone like Michael Jordan, someone I idolized in high school, he used to get criticized for not getting involved in social causes and now he’s changed. He just donated a lot, I forget how much…

Burroughs: I think it was $100 million.

SJSW: Right, $100 million toward Black Lives Matter initiatives. So we are seeing things changing. And the younger generation seems to have a better worldview.

Burroughs: Yeah, the people in the street (protesting), they’re young. They’re a new generation. They’re willing to put it all on the line. They’re willing to put it on the line, and that’s what we need. Our country is being run by, and I say this respectfully, old white guys. And they don’t view the world the way that we do. They’re insensitive because they’re out of touch.

SJSW: Yep. They grew up in a different time.

Burroughs: It’s a different vibe. So it’s special to see young people making change all over the place. Our Generation gets a bad rep, whether it’s the Millennials or Generation Z. So (you hear) ‘These kids have nothing better to do. Go away.’ But I think they have a really powerful voice, they’re willing to use it and they won’t be silenced. It’s something special to watch.

SJSW: Yeah, it has been and hopefully it will lead to more unity. It is the United States, after all. The word united is right in there in the country’s name.

Burroughs: I’m as patriotic as anyone, but it’s very difficult to be proud to be an American when things are so divided … I take pride in wearing those stars and stripes when I battle. (But it’s not the same right now). I’m hoping things will continue to change. I’m hopeful.

Burroughs on his career taking off after high school: “I think about my career and how I had more success later. I’ve won more World Championships than I did state championships. Which is a pretty wild thing to consider if you watched me as a high school athlete. There was never this epiphany or an ah-ha moment where I was like, ‘Damn, I’m really, really good at wrestling now.’ It was just consistent effort over a long period of time and I think my upside was really high.”
(Photo provided)