Hometown: Sicklerville, NJ
When Burroughs reflects on his gold-medal-winning Olympic debut in London four years ago, he reaches a surprising conclusion. "In 2012, I wasn't as good of a wrestler," he recalls. "But I was extremely confident, borderline arrogant."
Leading up to those Summer Games, Burroughs adopted a five-word slogan: All I see is gold. It was bold, even for someone who had achieved so much success in such a short time.
Though Burroughs initially struggled at the University of Nebraska, he won two national championships (in 2009 and '11) and the Hodge Trophy as the nation's most outstanding wrestler as a senior. Three weeks after his final college match, he won the U.S. Open.
The then 23-year-old earned a spot on Team USA and dominated at the world championships in Istanbul, Turkey, that September, becoming the fourth wrestler to win an NCAA and world title in the same year. Though he had won 53 matches in a row, his record disguised that he had yet to master several aspects of wrestling.
"I didn't know all of the intricacies of the sport," he recalls. "I knew I could be successful, but I didn't know how. I was kind of hoping that what I had been doing was good enough."
Despite lacking variety in his offensive moves, Burroughs backed up his daring prediction at the 2012 Olympics. He defeated Iranian wrestler Sadegh Goudarzi in two consecutive periods, earning the United States one of its 46 gold medals of those Games.
Representing the U.S. alongside other talented athletes and realizing his goal of winning gold, however, inspired a shift in Burroughs' mentality.
"I had dreamed of winning an Olympic medal for such a long time," he remembers. "As soon as I hopped off the plane, I wanted to get back to the challenge and pursue something bigger and greater than myself."
Armed with his gold medal — and professing a newfound humility — he decided to reevaluate his wrestling abilities for the next Olympics. He also focused on his personal life: In 2013 he married his longtime girlfriend, Lauren Mariacher, who walked down the aisle in gold wrestling shoes. (Their son, Beacon, is now one.)
Over the next several years, Burroughs spent weeks at USA training camps, traveled to overseas tournaments, and trained with partners he didn't know well. He pushed himself outside his comfort zone. Teammates and coaches recognized an attitude adjustment and as a result wanted to spend more time around him, offering to help in any way they could.
"As an athlete you have to continually evolve to be successful," Burroughs says. "I feel very confident not because of my mind set but because of my preparation. Teammates and coaches have helped me tremendously. I've put myself in countless situations where I had to make sacrifices and be uncomfortable and commit to the sport. Now I'm capable. I've got everything I need."
Burroughs hopes to defend his Olympic title in Brazil, but he will be satisfied whatever the outcome, as long as he competes at his highest level. Perhaps more important, he's approaching this summer with a greater appreciation for the prestige of the Olympics.
"There's a long time between Rio and Tokyo," he says of the four years until the 2020 Olympics. "I don't want it to pass by so quickly that the only thing I get out of it is a gold medal. I want more lasting memories than just the memorabilia associated with wrestling well."
Burroughs hopes to revel in the spirit of the Olympics and experience the fanfare. He wants to watch other events and network with other Olympians.
"You have to look beyond the actual competition and beyond the thrill of victory to find value from the Olympics," Burroughs says. "If you can do those things and you can win, in addition to enjoying yourself, that's when you really have a tremendous experience."
Photos: Simon Bruty (portrait), Jason Szenes/EPA (action)