Before landing in Belgrade, Serbia to lift himself alone atop a monumental apex of American wrestling, freestyle wrestler Jordan Burroughs had been tuning the final few details of his craft on the red mats of the Penn wrestling center.
On Sept. 16, on those same mats he had practiced on through the summer, members of Penn wrestling gathered in front of two screens showing simultaneous broadcasts of the 2022 World Wrestling Championships in Serbia — awaiting the moment when a page in American wrestling history would bear an incredible feat signed only in Burroughs’ name.
“This is a historic day for the sport of wrestling, and particularly for American wrestling,” sophomore wrestler Cole Spencer said, as he watched the competition advance through bronze-medal matches ahead of Burroughs’ attempt at gold.
A now seven-time gold medalist in Olympic or World championships competition, Burroughs has been a part of PRTC Wrestling — Pennsylvania Regional Training Center, which practices out of Penn’s wrestling facilities. Having been with PRTC so far for just over one year, this world title is the second he has claimed while training at Penn.
Roger Reina, who has been continuing his lifelong connection to Penn as the head coach of the wrestling program, has also been bridging the relationship between PRTC and Penn.
“We’re one community. The PRTC is a separate nonprofit, but we work symbiotically. As organizations, we support each other,” Reina said. “The Olympic-level guys support our college guys. They come and support our meets, and they provide mentorship and leadership to our undergraduates, and they’re also training partners.”
Burroughs has thus been sharing the mats with members of Penn wrestling — a team returning 11 of its NCAA Championships competitors for its upcoming season.
“We were super excited that he’s been here wrestling with us all summer, and his leadership has really had an impact on us as well,” Spencer said.
On Friday, as the sunny afternoon peered through the windows of the Penn wrestling center, attention was aimed toward two screens showing the live scenes of the Belgrade evening. World-class wrestlers each took the stage on the distinct orange circle of the mat through the preceding schedules, but the gold-medal match between Burroughs and Mohammad Nokhodi of Iran was the clear center attraction.
Also present in Philadelphia to watch along with Penn wrestling was Mark Hall, PRTC wrestler, former NCAA champion, and one of the most accomplished wrestlers to come out of Minnesota.
But another PRTC coach would witness Burroughs’ moment in history from just beside the mat in Belgrade.
Brandon Slay, a 1998 Wharton graduate, Olympic gold medalist in 2000, and executive director of PRTC, instead made his appearance through the TV screens. As the finals competitors faced off inside the orange circle, Slay was right behind the mat, wearing a visor of focus just as intense as Burroughs’.
“It was just a very, very passionate moment,” Slay said following the match, having stepped outside from the restaurant where Burroughs, his family, and the team had been celebrating. “Many people deeply cared. Jordan deeply cared about performing at his highest level. I deeply cared for him as his coach. I deeply cared for Team USA.”
To the infrequent watcher, wrestling matches feel deceptively brief. Burroughs’ swift movements on his feet were no less precise than ballet, but his signature blast double could catch even seasoned supporters off guard. Penn wrestling kept close watch at every move, even through the frequent pauses of a broadcast signaled from almost five thousand miles away.
“We foster an environment to aim big in the sport of wrestling with no limits. And so having Jordan represent that at the pinnacle of the World Championships is just tremendously inspiring,” Reina said. “And at the same time, he shares a locker in our locker room. It makes it attainable. He’s here with us every day.”
A moment in history doesn’t take very long to be written. The match concluded as Nokhodi trudged toward the center of the mat where Burroughs awaited in stance. Nokhodi was clearly exhausted as the clock showed only one second remaining. On the other hand, Burroughs seemed like he could battle another match and still have strength to spare.
"Making history is a big thing," Slay said. "The key to this was, though, is not talking about it all the time. We rarely ever brought it up. It was more of, [Burroughs] knew that the task was at hand. We knew that that's what he wanted to accomplish."
After the victory, Burroughs carried the American flag in celebration for having just lifted himself above the tie with John Smith and Adeline Gray for most world titles. Burroughs had become the most decorated wrestler in American history.
"That big thing is not going to happen unless you take care of all the small things right," Slay said. "The fundamentals on the wrestling mat; those are all the small things, and if he focused on taking care of all the small things, then the big things will take care of themselves. And they did."