VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. —
John Taylor is a hard man to pin down. At 57, it would seem that his physical prime is behind him. But Taylor, who has made a name for himself in amateur wrestling, set out to become the oldest Olympic wrestling champion.
The journey began with a devoted commitment to the sport he loves. Taylor has been wrestling since the fourth grade. As a youth, he competed alongside future three-time world champion Lee Kemp at Chardon High School outside Cleveland.
He made serious runs at Olympic berths in 1980 — the United States later wound up boycotting the Games — and in 1984. In 2008, after reconnecting with Kemp, Taylor, then 54, decided to leave his job at Liberty Tax Service to pursue the Olympics one more time.
He trained for six to eight hours a day at Ohio State University. For 3Ω years, he went without Internet access and checked his phone sparingly for texts. To stay focused, he slept on a mat on the floor of an apartment, favoring the Spartan setting. “I put everything aside and became a monk almost,” Taylor said. His wife, Margaret Taylor, supported his quest. Together they have four children, the youngest of whom just graduated from Kellam High School.
“I knew that, for years and years, in the deep dark depths of his soul, he missed it,” she said.
Margaret Taylor said the three years John spent training were in many ways like the 20 years he spent aboard submarines during his time in the Navy. “He would be out for a certain amount of time, and then he would come home,” she said. “It was one of those things where we had practiced it. It was just a different goal.”
Taylor, his crew cut speckled with gray, stays active nearly constantly to maintain his muscular physique.
“He’s the most motivated and focused person I’ve ever met in my entire life,” said Aaron Runzo, 20, Taylor’s local training partner. “If he sets his mind to something, you absolutely know he will accomplish his goal. I find motivation in myself in wrestling because of being around him and getting to know how he has trained in the past.” Last fall, Taylor took home a bronze medal in his age division and weight class at the 2011 Veterans Freestyle World Championships in Albania.
Then he set his sights on qualifying for the Olympic trials.
Taylor isn’t the first older athlete to attempt a difficult feat. In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, U.S. swimmer Dara Torres made waves as the oldest swimmer to compete in the Games. At age 41, she took home three silver medals. The oldest Olympian to ever compete was Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who entered the 1920 Summer Olympics at age 72.
Still, wrestling has typically been a sport reserved for younger athletes. In the past three Olympics, the oldest wrestler to represent the United States was 37 years old, according to The Washington Post.
In April, Taylor traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa, for the qualifying matches that would determine which athletes advance to the U.S. Olympic team trials in freestyle wrestling. For two days, hundreds of wrestlers filled the University of Northern Iowa’s indoor football stadium, which was covered with mats wall to wall. Taylor competed against more than 24 aspiring Olympians in the 60 kilogram, or approximately 132-pound, weight class. He advanced to the quarterfinals but ultimately did not qualify for the Olympic trials, and he won’t be headed to the Games in London this summer. “I was just the old guy out there,” Taylor said. “My training was as hard as I could train, the best I could do.”
After the Olympic trials, Taylor returned to work at Liberty Tax’s headquarters on Corporate Landing Parkway, where his co-workers recognize his same tenacity and dedication in his professional work.
“We pretty much knew that anything he wanted to do, he would probably accomplish,” said Martha O’Gorman, chief marketing officer at Liberty Tax. “He’s one of the very few people in this world who can set goals and actually achieve them.”
Taylor is a senior franchise developer at Liberty Tax. He holds the company record for selling the most number of franchises in a single sales season. His wife owns two franchises in Virginia Beach.
Taylor hasn’t given up wrestling. He still trains for several hours every day at Kellam High School. He rises at 4 a.m. and bikes 50 to 60 miles a day. And he plans to compete in the next Veterans World Championship in Hungary in September.
“At this point in time, I’ve decided I’m done with the young guys,” Taylor said. “I’m going to start picking on people my own age."