Kendra Taylor met her husband, David, on a mat in Reno. They were 10 years old, preparing to wrestle each other in a national tournament. She was scared. So was he.
“If you can,” Kendra says, laughing as she thinks back to that match, “just tell people that I pinned him.”
Ah, sorry, Kendra, I must tell the truth, and besides David still owns the bracket sheet that proves his victory. He won with a second-period pin, even though he walked on the mat terrified of losing to a feisty opponent, an opponent who would transform to his trusted and beloved partner.
Fast forward to October and a mat in Budapest. Kendra watches from the stands as David battles to rule the wrestling world. She thinks of past painful defeats to elite American wrestlers Jordan Burroughs and J’den Cox. She thinks of nights after losses spent in hotel rooms where she rubbed David’s neck and listened as he struggled to find the motivation required to keep wrestling.
She watches in Budapest as her husband defeats Turkey’s Fatih Erdin for the 86-kilogram (190-pound) world title and sees “a sense of relief, just a sense of happiness.” She watches the fierce wrestler who pinned her without mercy in Reno sprint straight for her arms.
They embrace, and she looks in his eyes, where tears freely flow.
“Thank you for everything you do for me,” David says to yesterday’s wrestling opponent/today’s bride. “I couldn’t do this without you.”
This month, a few feet away from another mat, this one on the edge of downtown in Colorado Springs, Taylor closes his eyes and thinks of his long-awaited victory.
“I’m getting chills,” Taylor says, thinking back to his Budapest win.
Taylor had been a wrestling prodigy, winning four Ohio state high school titles and two NCAA titles at Penn State before getting stuck behind Burroughs and Cox for American supremacy.
Being stuck was a devastating revelation.
And yet ...
He refused to lose faith. As an 8-year-old in Evanston, Wyo., Taylor wrote his life’s goals. At the end of the list was a promise to rule the planet as Olympic gold medalist. In his mid-20s, when he was failing to rule the United States, he returned constantly to the 8-year-old who believed in himself so fervently.
“When I was a young kid I always had big dreams, and I’ve always been a visionary,” Taylor says. “Whenever it got tough, it always came back to that. I wanted to be the best.”
Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist, has intently watched Taylor’s rise, sometimes from extremely close range. The two struggled for American supremacy, with Burroughs winning. Their matches were jammed with intensity and just as jammed with pain for Taylor, who eventually departed Burroughs’ weight class.
While Kendra watches in Budapest, Burroughs watches, too.
“He never got discouraged, never thought about quitting,” Burroughs says. “He just remained resilient and got it done. Watching him win was inspiring, to say the least. A lot of people would have quit.”
But Taylor, fixated at being the best, refused to surrender. Now, finally, he has arrived where he long wanted and expected to be. On Jan. 1, Taylor was named the top freestyle wrestler, regardless of weight, in the world. He resides on wrestling’s mountaintop.
Still, he understands the reality of his sport. The Olympics reign supreme. Winning an international title is immensely difficult and impressive, but the world watches the Olympics.
In 2016, Taylor chased an Olympic medal, but he couldn’t escape doubts. These were logical doubts. He was close to the best in the world, but only close.
In Budapest, he erased all of those doubts.
“I wholeheartedly, 100 percent believe I’m going to be the Olympic gold medalist in 2020,” he says. “Every day, I think about being the best in the world.”
The world title failed to change Taylor. Kendra occasionally catches her husband looking at the screen saver on his phone. Most of us have photos of a smiling family member or a scowling dog or a soothing scene of nature.
Taylor always wants more. That’s his fuel. That’s his secret. He has his goals written on his screen saver, waiting for him each time he picks up his phone.
The top goal?
To honor Kendra and the couple’s stubborn resilience with Tokyo Gold.