Jordan Burroughs grapples with balancing wrestling, fatherhood
In his athletic career, there's little that Jordan Burroughs has not been able to accomplish. He's the reigning Olympic gold medalist in 74kg (163 lbs) freestyle wrestling, a three-time world champion and the gold-medal favorite heading into this summer's Rio Games.
But four years removed from his gold medal run at the London Olympics, Jordan's biggest challenge is one being faced far, far away from the wrestling mat – the challenge of parenthood.
When he won gold in 2012, Jordan was single and did not have any kids. On Oct. 12, 2013, he married girlfriend Lauren Mariacher. Then on July 19, 2014, the couple had their first child. Ever since then, life has changed dramatically.
When asked which was harder, becoming an Olympic champion or being a new father, Jordan did not hesitate.
"There's nothing harder in the world than being a dad," he said. "You can't really prepare for it. For wrestling, I prepare, I train every day, I've got staff around me teaching me how to do this. There's not a 'dad coach' out there. Basically, after you have your baby, they send you home with the little one and they're like, 'Here, you got this guy for 18 years.'"
When their first child, a son, was born, Jordan and Lauren knew they had to give him a special name. Adamant about creating an alliteration, the couple researched baby names beginning with the letter "B" and found one particularly bright idea: Beacon.
Not only was the name unique – Jordan can't recall ever meeting someone named "Beacon" – but it was full of symbolism dating back to the early 19th century when beacons of light shined from atop lighthouses to guide lost ships back to shore.
"It's almost like a signal of, not only intelligence, but bravery, courage, spirituality," Jordan explained, "and I hope that he can bring those things to the world."
Like most first-time parents, Jordan soon found out just how life-altering Beacon's birth would be. He was quickly forced to eliminate afternoon naps from his daily routine, but that was just the start of it. While Jordan is far from selfish, he had become accustomed to all the amenities associated with being a world-class athlete – on-demand massages, prepared food, a staff catering to his every whim – and that sort of lifestyle can make it hard to rearrange priorities in one's personal life.
"It's very difficult because you really have to sacrifice – and not only sacrifice, but be selfless in the demands of your lifestyle," Jordan said of his transition into parenthood.
"My life is spent with people around me and surrounding my career, trying to help me reach my goals. To leave that position in the wrestling room and to transition immediately into a place where my wife and my son are most important is difficult at times, and they're conflicting. Because there's always a place where you want to still be number one, you still want to be catered to."
It's not just a shift in mindset that has tested Jordan – the demands of his wrestling career certainly present their own set of challenges. While the summer Olympics only happen once every four years, the annual calendar is still full of wrestling tournaments and training camps that require him to leave home for weeks at a time. Striking a balance between career and family responsibilities can be tough.
"I want my son and my wife to be in a certain position to be successful and happy. But I want to be the best wrestler in the world," Jordan said. "So sometimes our dreams collide and intercede with each other. And it's not always fun to have those conversations and those moments where you're spending time [elsewhere] and missing important developmental years and stages of a child's life.
"It's tough, but you embrace it. This is what's necessary for me to accomplish my goals and ultimately become who I am destined to be as a man. I've got to chase my dreams and pursue those goals if I don't want to live a life of regret."
For the Burroughs family, parenthood truly is a team effort. Jordan commends Lauren for being so understanding of the situation and doing everything possible to ease the burden.
There to watch her younger brother compete, Lauren first noticed Jordan at the 2011 NCAA Championships in Philadelphia – Jordan won the 165 lbs national title that year – and sent him a friend request on Facebook a few days later. He messaged her soon after, and the rest is history.
Lauren describes Jordan as entertaining and fun-loving, but above all else, she considers him a leader. According to Lauren, it's that trait which makes Jordan such an effective father, and being a father has in turn amplified that characteristic.
"I don't think being a father has changed him," Lauren said. "I think it's actually grown some of the qualities that he's always had. I think he's become a stronger leader, I think he has a lot more reason for doing the things that he does, for understanding that each match is just another opportunity to add to his legacy. And essentially his legacy is going to be left to his son and his children."
Jordan agrees that becoming a father has afforded him an entirely new perspective on his wrestling career.
"As a young man, I just wanted to win because I wanted recognition from all of the fans, and I thought that, if I could win enough, I could get rich and I could make the decisions that I wanted to," Jordan said, noting that there is now "greater significance" in achieving glory on the mat.
While the rigors of training can make balance difficult, Jordan has found a way to spend time with his family in spite of it all – wherever Jordan travels, Lauren and Beacon always seem to be there too.
"I really can't picture my life without my baby boy and my wife by my side," Jordan said.
At this year's Olympic Trials, Lauren and Beacon were in attendance at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City when Jordan won both of his final-round matches to officially clinch his spot in the Rio Games. After getting his hand raised by the referee, the first thing Jordan did was run into the crowd to embrace his family. He grabbed Beacon and carried him down the stairs to the floor of the arena, proceeding to give a live interview on television while cradling his son in his arms.
By the time Beacon reached his first birthday, Jordan and Lauren calculated he had already taken more than 50 flights.
"I didn't go out of the country until I was 18," Jordan remarked. "He has a passport already."
The ability to have his family travel with him is a luxury, one which exists because of the success Jordan has built for himself. As he notes, the affluence of a person's parents have a direct correlation with the opportunities they are presented with in life.
Jordan grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in New Jersey. His parents could barely make ends meet, despite working 40-hour weeks, but they did instill a profound work ethic in their son. Jordan's father, a construction worker who always woke up at 5 a.m., said one thing in particular that struck a nerve with Jordan: "Work hard now and live like a peasant, and you'll be able to live like a king for the rest of your life."
"I realized that the harder I work, the more sacrifices I made and [if I] stayed committed, that I could control my own destiny and create a legacy where I could do anything I wanted to," Jordan recalled.
Years of hard work have led Jordan to the pinnacle of his sport. Now he is able to share his success with his children and provide them with opportunities that were never afforded to him.
"He's got big shoes to fill with his dad being an Olympic champion, but I think that he can create a legacy of his own," Jordan said of Beacon. "But I don't accept mediocrity. I think with an Olympic gold medalist as a father, a great mom as well, and a great network of family, and the system that we've provided for him, he's got no choice but to be successful."
When it comes to Beacon carving out his own legacy, it should come as no surprise that Jordan (as well as Lauren) would love to see his son follow in his footsteps as a wrestler. Beacon frequently comes to the wrestling room at the University of Nebraska, where Jordan trains, and has even started to receive some coaching.
"He doesn't really know what he's doing or have a pair of shoes that can fit him," Jordan said. "But we take him out to the wrestling mat, we tell him to take guys down and so he's running after their legs, doing leg attacks and wrestling other little babies and sons of some of our teammates and coaching staff."
While Beacon is too young right now to fully grapple with the concept of the sport, Jordan feels growing up amid a wrestling culture will teach him character and provide positive role models for him to look up to.
"At some point he'll understand what he's watching, and he'll understand work ethic, and effort," Jordan said. "And I want him to know, and for me to be the living ideal of how it's done. You put the work in, you put the time in, you become great at something."
But even if Beacon doesn't follow his father's path, Jordan is confident that his son can be successful in whatever he does, "whether it's in wrestling, soccer, or in neuroscience."
Beacon is approaching his second birthday, and Jordan admits that there have been growing pains along the way.
"It's not as easy as it looks on Instagram, I'll put it that way," he said.
And now, with the Olympics two months away, his responsibilities are once again set to grow.
In June, Jordan withdrew from the Freestyle World Cup, a major international tournament, instead opting to support his wife – as she routinely does for him – while she was in labor. At 4:45 a.m. on June 11, 2016, the Burroughs welcomed a second child – a girl, Ora Reece Burroughs – to their team.
This summer in Rio de Janeiro, the entire family – Lauren, Beacon, Ora – will assume their customary place by Jordan's side as he attempts to win his second Olympic gold medal. An outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil has made many Olympians hesitant to bring their families to Rio, but now that Ora is born and Lauren is no longer pregnant, the Burroughs clan plans to be fully represented.
"The babies will be there," Jordan said. "They don't know what's going on, but they'll see dad on the mat. To them, I'm the best wrestler in the world."
Beacon and Ora may not be the only ones viewing their father in that light. Currently the world's No. 1 ranked wrestler in his weight class and with just two career losses on his international record, Burroughs is favored to defend his Olympic title.
And if he does, you can expect to see him smiling soon after, a child in each arm.