On Feb. 3, a ringing phone awakened Jordan Burroughs early in the morning.Half asleep, he answered.
A reporter from NBC Sports was on the other end, and wanted a quote from Burroughs, a world-class wrestler and former Husker, on the United States wrestling team being banned from Iran.
Burroughs had no idea what the reporter was talking about.
Less than two weeks before Burroughs and James Green, another former Husker and member of Team U.S.A, were set to compete in the Freestyle World Cup in Iran, political tensions put the trip for the former Nebraska wrestlers in jeopardy.
At the same moment Burroughs was awakened, Green’s phone buzzed from text messages reading:
“That sucks that you guys won’t be able to go to Iran.”
Uncertain and confused, Green and Burroughs scrolled through Twitter to look for answers.
They saw reports that the Iranian government had denied visas for the U.S. Freestyle World Cup delegation to enter the country.
Heartbroken, Burroughs and Green assumed the trip was over. With what they thought was hard work wasted, Burroughs said he planned on taking the next days off to spend time with his family and relax.
The World Cup would be the first competition for Burroughs, a four-time world champion, since he failed to medal in a disappointing finish at the 2016 Rio Games in August.
For Green, it would be his second time as a starter on the World Cup team and his first time competing in the wrestling-crazed country of Iran.
He recalled watching Burroughs compete at the 2013 World Cup in Tehran and seeing the support and love the Iranian fans had for the sport of wrestling.
“I knew it would be a great atmosphere to be in,” Green said. “I was excited to just get out there and compete in front of those fans and that crowd.”
The denial came one week after Iran threatened to take “reciprocal measures” against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iran, from entering the United States, signed on Jan. 27.
Later that day, after awaking to the reports, the coaches at U.S.A. Wrestling and competitors on the World Cup team had a conference call discussing what to do next.
The coaches told Burroughs, Green and the other 11 wrestlers to continue training.There was still a possibility the team could go.
Burroughs said coaches talked to the United Wrestling Confederation about the possibility of postponing or changing the location of the event.
Burroughs and Green continued to train and maintain their weight as if the trip was still on.
Two days later, on Feb. 5, Bahram Ghasemi, a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said the U.S. team would be granted visas in part because of the decision by U.S. federal judge James Robart to temporarily lift the ban against the Muslim nations.
“At that point we knew we could go,” Burroughs said. “We never stopped training so we were still focused, and we knew that we wanted to get it done. So it worked out.”
Eight days after the trip seemed impossible, Burroughs, Green and Kyle Snyder, another U.S. team member, flew out of Omaha toward Kermanshah, Iran.
This is not the first time political tensions have disrupted international competitions in sport, although, it has been a long time.
During the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, tensions caused boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
A combination of events across the world contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s intense pressure on the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games.
On March 21, 1980, Carter announced the U.S. would boycott the Olympics games after the Soviet Union failed to remove its troops from Afghanistan.
Four years later, the Soviet Union responded with a boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Unlike the denial of visas for the U.S. Wrestling World Cup team in February, the decision to boycott the Olympics was never reversed.
Years of dedication and preparation that hundreds of athletes sacrificed to their sport, all for a chance at competing on the world’s biggest stage, seemed wasted.
On May 27, 1980, ten weeks after Carter announced the boycott, three Husker gymnasts, Phil Cahoy Jr., Larry Gerard and Jim Hartung qualified for what would have been their first Olympics during the trials in Jacksonville, Florida.
“You do everything you are supposed to, and for reasons outside of your control that opportunity is taken away from you,” Hartung said in a recent interview.
The three gymnasts led Nebraska to its first of five straight NCAA titles in 1979.
Cahoy was a four-time individual champion for the Huskers from 1979-83, winning two on horizontal bar and two on parallel bar.
Gerard was a seven-time All-American from 1975-80.
Hartung holds the NCAA record with seven individual titles and 22 All-American honors.
Each of the gymnasts, who began participating in the sport before the age of 10, had a dream of competing in the Olympics.
Although Hartung won gold in the in the team all-around at the 1984 Olympics, scoring a 9.9 in parallel bars, Cahoy and Gerard never made another Olympic team.
Cahoy, who made the U.S World Team in 1981 and 1983, battled a dislocated ankle and torn cartilage in his shoulder during the 1984 trials. He finished 11th, four spots away from the qualifying mark of seventh.
The next year, in 1985, a healthy Cahoy again made the World Team.
Ten years prior, in 1975, Gerard made the traveling team following the U.S. Championships. Expecting to qualify for the Olympic team in 1976, Gerard finished 12th.
Gerard said he was determined to make the Olympic team in 1980.
“It’s a shame that people go through all that time and effort to be denied the opportunity to show their true talent,” Gerard said.
He retired shortly after he finished a world tour held for athletes who did not get to participate in the 1980 Olympics.
Age 25 at the time, Gerard took notice of the younger talent rising throughout the country and knew it was in his best interest to step down.
“There’s a time where you had to say when enough is enough,” Gerard said.
Gerard and Hartung are convinced the 1980 men’s gymnastics team would have won a medal at the Moscow games.
The 1979 U.S. men’s gymnastics team, which featured Gerard and Hartung, won the bronze medal at the World Championships prior to the Moscow games.
“I feel we had one, and it was taken away from us,” Hartung said. “That was disappointing.”
Gerard said it was immoral of President Carter to use the athletes as a political toy.
“We were going there to make peace,” Gerard said. “We weren’t going there to fight a war.”
At the time, Hartung said his disappointment was tempered by the fact that he was 20 years old and he didn’t pay much attention to politics. He figured if the president of the United States said the athletes had to boycott, then there must be a good reason.
Thirty-seven years later, Hartung’s opinion has changed.
“In my mind, without a doubt, Jimmy Carter made a huge mistake,” Hartung said.
One year after the Olympic boycott in 1980, Hartung competed in the 1981 World Championships held in Moscow, where the Olympics were held the previous year. Hartung said soviet citizens swarmed the gymnasts whenever they left the hotel.
“It seems to me, if the world is being torn apart, what better than to have athletes come together and show the world,” Hartung said. “They should have left athletes out of it.”
Burroughs, Green and the rest of the U.S. freestyle wrestling team were lucky enough to continue competing in the sport they have dedicated their lives to.
After flying from Omaha on Feb. 11, Burroughs, Green and Synder made a stop in Newark, New Jersey, before joining the rest of the delegation members in Frankfurt, Germany.
This was the final stop before the wrestlers received a warm welcoming in Tehran, the capital of Iran, the next day.
Burroughs said the team was presented roses and various traditional gifts native to Iran at the airports in Tehran and Kermanshah.
Hundreds of Iranian citizens swarmed the wrestlers, taking pictures and videos.
The Iranians have always treated U.S. wrestling teams with respect, especially Burroughs.
After Burroughs withdrew from last year’s Freestyle World Cup in Los Angeles for the birth of his daughter, Ora, the Iranian Wrestling Federation sent his family a Termeh, a traditional hand-woven cloth typically given to little girls.
“I’ve been to Iran twice and dealt with a number of Iranian people,” Burroughs said. “I can tell you that what I see is completely different than on T.V.”
Eight of the world’s top wrestling countries competed in a two-day dual-meet competition. The U.S. was positioned in Group A while Iran, the five-time defending champion, was in Group B.
After defeating Georgia 7-1 in the first dual on Feb. 16, the U.S. wrestled Russia, who placed second the previous year.
With the U.S. down 2-1 and five matches remaining, Green tied the dual after he defeated Magomedkhabib Kadimagomedov 8-6 at 70 kg (154 pounds).
As Burroughs’ name was announced for the 74 kg (163 pound) match, the Iranian crowd erupted in cheers.
“Jor-dan! Jor-dan! Jor-dan!”
Burroughs won, and the U.S. won the next three matches to win the dual 6-2. On day two, they narrowly defeated Azerbaijan for a spot in the finals.
The opponent for the U.S. in the gold medal dual: Iran, who had defeated the U.S. in five straight Freestyle World Cups.
As the spotlight shined on the center mat, the U.S. and Iran wrestlers walked through the tunnel into the arena behind their respective flags.
After the teams shook hands, the matches began.
The Iranians jumped to a commanding 4-0 lead, needing just one more win to earn gold for the sixth straight year.
Just as he did against his Russian opponent, Burroughs battled back after giving up the first points.
The crowd still chanted Burroughs—even as he wrestled an Iranian opponent—and he scored three consecutive points to defeat Peyman Yarahmadi 3-2, putting the U.S. on the board.
In the next match at 86 kg (189 pounds), David Taylor III, a former two-time NCAA champion at Penn State, pinned 2016 Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani to continue the comeback.
Needing to win the final two matches, 2016 Olympic champion Snyder shutout Amir Mohammadi 6-0 at 97 kg (213 pounds), but the Iranians put a stop to the dramatic comeback in the final match.
Komeil Ghasemi, ranked No. 2 in the world at 125 kg (275 pounds), defeated two-time NCAA champion Nick Gwizadowski 5-0.
Iran defeated the U.S. 5-3 to win their sixth consecutive World Cup.
Despite finishing second and nearly not competing at all, Burroughs and Green have nothing but appreciation for the country of Iran and the Iranian people.
Even as the country’s most recognizable wrestler Burroughs, who has been to Iran twice and defeated every Iranian wrestler he has faced in his career, said the reception he received in Iran is better than any he’s received in the U.S.
“The graciousness and love that they show is unparalleled, second to none,” Burroughs said. “And realistically, people who have never been there have absolutely no idea what it’s like there and what the people are like.”
Green said the Iranian fans want to see good action. He described them as Iowa Hawkeye wrestling fans on steroids.
“They just enjoy the sport so much,” Green said. “It’s amazing.”