CHAMPAIGN-- It has been a long road for Jordan Blanton. But this season is his most significant year to date. With four returning All-Americans, Illinois wrestling is expected to bring home major hardware from the NCAA Championship in March. Having a group of accomplished wrestlers to practice against pushes Blanton to new heights.
"I've known these guys my entire life," the senior said regarding his teammates. "Coming to school together being able to train together, we become a family. These are my brothers. To be able to work everyday with each and build off each others' success has been huge and i think that's a big reason why we're having so much success."
Blanton was simply awesome in high school. He was a three-time state champion at Richmond-Burton High School outside Chicago, with only one high school loss to his name. His accomplishments earned him interest from several Division 1 schools, and his recruitment ended up being a journey in itself.
"In May of my junior season, I committed to Iowa," Blanton recalls. "Then as the summer went on, and as I got closer to the signing day, things just did not feel right. I was fortunate enough to have one of my assistant coaches in high school was an alumni who wrestled here (at Illinois). I talked to him a little bit, decommited from Iowa and opened myself up back to the market. Then right away, the last coach, Coach (Mark) Johnson, came to my house and right then and there I knew this is where I wanted to be."
The Richmond, IL native found immediate success. In his freshman year, he qualified for the NCAA tournament after a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten tournament. He placed fifth in the NCAA tournament his sophomore year, earning his first All-American honor. Afterward, he had shoulder surgery and was determined to come back better than ever. That determination, however, set him back.
"I kind of overtrained myself and I fractured a vertabrae in my lower back," Blanton said. "For every good day of training I had to go home and put my feet up in the air and I was in a lot of pain. I finally went to some doctors and they said, 'you could walk away from the sport and get a medical hardship. You can get surgery or you an just take two months off and slowly work your way back. '"
He chose the last option, red-shirting his third season. After a fair amount of rest, Blanton returned to form. He earned another All-American award and finished 30-9 last season. And after falling short his last three years, the senior is focused on going out the right way.
"The story is not over," Blanton said. "I want it to end the right way with a national championship. But I could not ask for a better four and a half years so far and I love it. I'll be an Illini my whole life."
When he is done at Illinois, the 23-year old has a decision to make. Preparation for the 2016 summer olympics in Rio de Janeiro will start soon, and that is a serious consideration for Illinois' All-American.
"I've wanted to be an Olympic champion since I've known what the Olympics was. That is something I will spend a lot of time thinking about."
But there is also the MMA route. Former national champions (most recently Ben Askren from Missouri) have found success on the mixed martial arts circuit. Making this choice could bring Blanton fame in a rising sport.
"I think wrestling is pretty much considered the best base to have when going into mixed martial arts. That is our chance to be a pro athlete, but we will see how it goes."