At the core of this is an iconic wrestler looking to come home.
Jordan Burroughs might have made this move from his wrestling base in Nebraska back nearer his hometown in South Jersey right after the 2020 Olympics. Since there are no 2020 Olympics, the Tokyo Games moved to 2021 (for now, if it happens at all), Burroughs announced his plan doesn’t have a firm date, just a firm intention.
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He’s coming home.
“We’d always planned to get back to the East Coast,” Burroughs said. “We didn’t know when.”
One of the most decorated wrestlers in history, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion and two-time NCAA champion from Sicklerville, just turned 32, married with three children, is not announcing his retirement. Burroughs is hoping for one more cycle, through the 2024 Olympics. He just plans to base that final hunt out of Philadelphia.
In this time when college wrestling programs are being cut -- some maybe using the cover of COVID-19 to make their cuts -- Burroughs represents a shot in the arm for the local wrestling community. He plans to be kind of a wrestler-coach out of the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center, which uses the gyms at Penn and Drexel, the two local NCAA Division I wrestling programs.
The executive director of the PRTC, Brandon Slay, himself a 2000 Olympic gold medalist and former Penn All-American, sees the move announced this past week as a win for the whole local infrastructure, which also reaches youth levels, he said, through the Beat the Streets wrestling program.
“I think that’s what’s so special about our ecosystem,” Slay said, noting that it took some years to build the PRTC to the point it could attract stars such as Penn State NCAA champion Mark Hall and former Ohio State All-American Joey McKenna, a New Jersey native.
“It helps that we’re not doing this alone,” Slay said. “The idea that one plus one plus one plus one -- we hope it equals eight.”
Penn wrestling coach Roger Reina believes Beat the Streets, a national program that began its work in Camden, is a huge element of all this. Its mission: mentoring, academic support, and wrestling programs throughout the Philadelphia region as vehicles to “Positively Alter Life’s Trajectory.”
“We believe there is a better future for these kids -- we’ve been working for more than a decade,” Reina said of the program that got its initial funding from Penn wrestling graduates. “But man, it’s more important than ever that these kids have hope. We’re in the hope business.”
Losing college programs is a massive hurdle, Reina said.
“The challenges right now are incredibly real, particularly for the schools who are so heavily reliant on sponsorships, TV contracts,” Reina said. “We’re not talking just about the impact on current kids. You’re talking about future generations. The simple, quick decision just to hatchet sports has ramifications for our nation’s youth for generations.”
Burroughs hopes he can “get to inspire the next generation.” He talked about wrestling being predominantly a white sport, so seeing him succeed at the highest levels, then walk into a local gym and discuss the journey, that’s a big part of his future. It’s also a personal win.
“The beauty of this, I grew up 23 miles from Philly,‘' Burroughs. “I really haven’t been around my family.”
He knows there are bigger issues in this society than where Jordan Burroughs plants his flag.
“Even announcing this in this climate has kind of worn on me,‘' Burroughs said over the phone.
The truth: It’s a perfect time. Burroughs is in the hope business, too. He said he’s a true believer that the greatest work he will ever do will not be on the wrestling mat. He wrote a little homecoming announcement himself:
“I didn’t grow up desiring to be an Olympic Gold Medalist. When I pulled up a singlet and strapped on my headgear for the first time as a kid in South Jersey, I was just hoping to win the tallest trophy at the local youth tournament. Long before I was standing on top of podiums across the world, I was a skinny youngster learning the basics of wrestling on mats laid across the cafeteria floor of my town’s high school. There was no history. No tradition. No lineage.”